On the border between Belarus and Latvia, migrants face hunger, freezing temperatures, beatings and death

The Latvian authorities are systematically deporting Middle Eastern migrants, who have been encouraged – or forced – by the government in Minsk to leave Belarus and try to enter an EU nation

Carlos Torralba

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Policías cerca de localidad de Borzova en Letonia
Unos policías letones detenían a unos migrantes que acababan de cruzar la frontera con Bielorrusia, en agosto de 2021 cerca de la localidad de Borzova (Letonia).INTS KALNINS (Reuters/ContactoPhoto)

The drama started almost two years ago. Dozens of migrants arrived at the border between Belarus and Latvia, with the intention of crossing into the European Union. The Latvian authorities quickly decreed a state of emergency, denying access to the press and activists, suspending the EU’s Asylum Procedures Directive and giving the green light to immediate deporations and the use of force by border authorities. Some people were trapped in no-man’s-land for up to seven months, starving and freezing. Living in desperate conditions, they were forced by Belarusian guards to remain in a forest, where violence reigns and human rights are systematically violated with impunity. Following a period where the flow of migrants was reduced to a trickle, in recent weeks, it has started up again. “The treatment of people who desperately need help is inhumane,” says Ieva Raubisko, a Latvian activist who faces a possible sentence of up to five years in jail for helping a group of exhausted Syrians upon their arrival to EU territory.

At the same time that the first summary expulsions took place at the Latvian border, thousands of migrants also gathered at the gates of Lithuania and, above all, Poland. They were subsequently thrust into the spotlight of international media. The strip of land separating Latvia and Belarus quickly turned into a black hole, where beatings and electric shocks were commonly deployed against migrants. In this wooded and underpopulated area, several people have lost fingers or limbs due to frostbite, while others have disappeared amidst an information blackout.

After being expelled from Latvian territory, five Syrians – assisted by Belarusian lawyers exiled in Lithuania – managed to get the European Court of Human Rights to issue precautionary measures, requiring Latvia to accept and offer medical assistance to those who have irregularly immigrated, at least temporarily.

One night this past January, aware of the day that this little group of migrants would attempt to cross the border again, Raubisko and a companion traveled from Riga – the Latvian capital – to the border. “When I got out of the car to wait for them to arrive, the cold was so terrifying and the place so desolate that I could only think, ‘How do they survive?’” The activist recounted this episode to EL PAÍS a few weeks ago, in a bar in Riga. Raubisko is a social anthropologist by training, with more than 20 years of experience specializing in immigration matters. “Finally, they arrived. They collapsed in the snow when they saw us; one of them was having a seizure,” Raubisko continues, while trying to keep her four-year-old son entertained.

The anthropologist knew that she was likely to return to Riga with an administrative penalty for going to the border, but she still called the border guards, with an order from the European Court of Human Rights in hand. That same night, a judicial odyssey began for the two activists. Before returning home, they were already being investigated for the crime of “human trafficking.” Meanwhile, two of the Syrians – in critical condition – were taken to hospital. The rest were sent to a migrant detention center in Daugavpils, Latvia’s second-largest city, about six miles from the border. “It was worth it. Those five people have now received refugee status,” Raubisko affirms.

“Unlike in Poland and Lithuania, solidarity with migrants has been virtually non-existent here,” says Nils Muznieks, Amnesty International’s regional director for Europe and a resident of Riga. “The ban on access to the border area has allowed the Latvian authorities to constantly deny what is happening,” adds Muznieks, who served as the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights between 2012 and 2018. Since the beginning of the crisis, the Latvian government has maintained that the state of emergency is the only possible response to “the weaponization of migration” by the Aleksandr Lukashenko regime. The Belarusian dictator – the Kremlin’s principal ally – encourages the arrival of migrants from the Middle East, with the intention of transferring them to the borders with EU nations. Sometimes, he forces them to remain there, in limbo.

Aleksandra Jolkina – a researcher specializing in EU immigration and asylum legislation – was the first to break the silence. She compiled 40 testimonies from migrants – most of them Iraqis – who had been trapped at the border between December of 2021 and April of 2022. Their documents and mobile phones were confiscated – for a time, they couldn’t return to Minsk or give up their goal of reaching the EU. “Sometimes, the Belarusian guards gave them some food – some porridge or some bread – just enough to survive. Then, they told them that they had to cross over into Latvia,” explains Jolkina over the phone. Her research suggests that the migrants who were at the border in the first nine months of the refugee crisis – who were subjected to almost-daily expulsions – probably numbered no more than three hundred. However, official figures indicate that more than 7,500 deportations took place in that period.

In October of 2022, Amnesty International published a 67-page report containing two dozen interviews. When added to the previous testimonies documented by Jolkina, they outline a pattern of abuses by Latvian security forces against migrants. Those affected often describe the “comandos” as being members of the Latvian security forces, who carry weapons, wear balaclavas and don’t have any visible identification. They attack migrants with batons and stun guns, with full consent of the authorities. One of the most controversial things reported in testimony is the existence of secret prisons in the middle of the forest, where migrants – including children – are held before being expelled to Belarus. They are sometimes tortured at these sites.

Dehumanizing language

Some people are admitted at the border for “humanitarian reasons” and transferred to Daugavpils. In the detention center – according to testimonies compiled by Jolkina and Amnesty International – many are pressured to sign declarations of voluntary return and fail to register asylum applications. In December, Doctors Without Borders left Latvia, due to “the impossibility of providing medical support and humanitarian aid to migrants and asylum seekers.”

“Unlike in Poland and Lithuania, the Latvian media hasn’t covered this issue from a human rights perspective. Victims haven’t been given a voice… dehumanizing language has been used against them. [They are called] illegal and criminal,” says Jolkina, who, in April, began working at the Free University of Amsterdam’s Center for Migration and Refugee Law, where she is conducting a comparative study of the actions of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland along their respective borders.

The situation of the migrants who wander lost in the forest – where bears and wolves roam freely and winter temperatures plummet to 25 degrees below zero – is in stark contrast with the support that Latvian society and the political class have shown for the the almost 50,000 Ukrainians who have resettled in the Baltic country since the start of the Russian invasion, in February 2022. The majority of the population supports the border guards, the police and the military deployed in the conflict zone. “Very few people live near the border… but if someone sees a group of migrants that has just crossed over, it’s very likely that they will immediately alert the authorities,” Jolkina says.

Raubisko, Jolkina and Amnesty researchers have been in the crosshairs of some prominent Latvian politicians, who have accused them of “working for the Kremlin.” They have also received all kinds of insults on social media, where the deep hatred of Middle Eastern migrants that has penetrated part of Latvian society is clearly visible. “There have been many comments on Twitter that exude pure racism. There are users who urge border guards to abandon migrants so that they die,” Jolkina notes.

Migrants arrive in Belarus seduced by advertisements from informal travel agencies, in which they are guaranteed access to EU community territory for around $5,000. The option of migrating on foot and avoiding the horrors of the Mediterranean is tempting for many. To this day, Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians or Afghans – who book packages to travel to Latvia – begin their journey with a flight to Russia, where they make a stopover before reaching Minsk. From there, they’re transferred by bus to the border. This past April, a regular route between Tehran and the Belarusian capital was inaugurated. According to the Latvian authorities, this will further increase the number of migrants on its borders.

Last Thursday, the Parliament of Latvia took the first step to approve some legislative amendments that will allow immediate deportations, without the need to extend the state of emergency every three months. Border guards may continue to resort to the use of force to prevent irregular crossings and expel those who manage to cross the border without any formal procedure. Latvia’s legislative reform is in line with the one approved in April by Lithuania. The Latvian government argues that, among the people “weaponized” by the Russian vassal state of Belarus, there may be some with terrorist elements or infiltrators belonging to enemy secret services. And, since August of 2022, Latvia has been building a robust metal fence along the 107-mile-long border that separates the EU country from Belarus. The US government, meanwhile, will be making a multi-million dollar investment to increase detection capabilities at the Latvia-Belarus border.

As Jolkina proceeded to interview people who had spent months in that hellish forest, she began receiving messages from desperate relatives. They sent her copies of the passports of some of their loved ones, who they haven’t heard from. The researcher alerted various European and international institutions, including the European Commission and Frontex – the European Border and Coast Guard Agency – about the disappearances. Dunja Mijatovic – the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights – was the only one to respond and publicly express her concern. The Latvian authorities have acknowledged the death of an Afghan from hypothermia last winter, while the Belarusians admit to having found a couple of corpses. Muznieks and Raubisko fear that many more anonymous migrants have perished somewhere between Belarus and Latvia.

The Latvian Ministry of Interior refused to respond to questions from EL PAÍS.

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