Press statement from UNHCR’s Representation for the Nordic and Baltic Countries on situation in Lithuania.
STOCKHOLM: UNHCR’s Representative to the Nordic and Baltic Countries, Henrik M. Nordentoft, recently concluded a two-day visit to Lithuania. He met with government representatives, members of Parliament, and other interlocutors to discuss Lithuania’s response to the current situation at the border with Belarus as well as accommodation arrangements for asylum-seekers and the processing of asylum applications.
Since the beginning of the year, more than 4,100 people have arrived in Lithuania, and 90 percent of them have requested asylum, according to Lithuanian authorities. The group of arrivals is extremely diverse, counting over 40 different nationalities with the majority originating from Iraq. The group includes a large number of families with children, as well as unaccompanied minors, elderly people and people with disabilities and serious health issues.
UNHCR has been closely following the situation and developments in Lithuania, and we have continuously shared our concerns and views with the authorities and the government in a constructive dialogue. We have also shared our observations and recommendations to two recent law amendments put forth by the Lithuanian government (links below).
UNHCR acknowledges the challenges, faced by Lithuania in this unprecedented situation, which the government also assesses in the perspective of national security. Moreover, UNHCR condemns any instrumentalization of refugees and migrants by states to achieve political ends.
However, UNHCR remains concerned that Lithuania’s response in the current situation risks eroding the integrity of the asylum system in the country, including by prolonged detention of asylum-seekers and by limiting access to asylum, in violation of Lithuania’s obligations under international and European law.
“It is a fundamental human right for people to seek asylum, and this also applies in extraordinary situations or in times of emergency. We call on Lithuania to live up to its international obligations by providing access for asylum-seekers and by ensuring proper reception conditions and fair and efficient asylum procedures,” says Henrik M. Nordentoft.
The reports of pushbacks at Lithuania’s border with Belarus as well as reports of groups of people being stranded in border areas in dire and cold conditions, with no access to asylum, raise serious concerns. While States have the sovereign right to protect their borders, this must be done in accordance with human rights, including respecting the right to seek asylum.
UNHCR has reiterated that pushbacks not only risk endangering lives but are also illegal under international law. The responsibility to protect vulnerable people should be shared among states in a spirit of solidarity, and any action that put at risk the lives of refugees and migrants should be avoided.
UNHCR is aware that Lithuania has been working to improve and address gaps in reception conditions of the asylum-seekers. However, the majority, including vulnerable groups, continue to be accommodated in closed and severely overcrowded facilities with inadequate access to basic services. For some of them, this has been the case for more than three months, with severe impact on their well-being as a consequence. With winter conditions approaching, the situation is only exacerbated.
UNHCR has therefore urged Lithuania to guarantee that detention of asylum-seekers only be used as a last resort and never applied to children, and to step up its efforts to provide adequate reception conditions to protect the lives and health of asylum-seekers.
“Lithuania’s government and authorities have faced an unprecedented situation with a sudden and high number of arrivals in a short amount of time. However, with the support from the EU, the situation should be manageable, and it is imperative that Lithuania strengthens the efforts to address the current gaps and to ensure reception conditions in line with human rights standards,” says Henrik M. Nordentoft.
UNHCR has indicated its readiness to further support the authorities in their response, in coordination with other relevant partner organizations.