Freedom News

“You forced me to claim asylum”: Baltic pushbacks, a personal story

A personal account of a journey to the EU told with the help of Sienos Grupe. This article first appeared in Are You Syrious?

In November 2021, there was a significant rise in people entering the EU via Belarus and Russia. In what was described as a ‘hybrid threat’ to the EU, President of Belarus Aleksandr Lukashenko encouraged arrivals from countries including Iraq and Syria, promising an easy route to Western Europe. At its peak, thousands of people were attempting to enter the EU from Belarus via Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.

In the intervening time, the governments of these countries have built fences and legalised pushbacks, but people are still attempting to seek asylum in the EU via these routes.

In August of this year, Latvia increased border defences with more border patrols and a newly completed border fence along the 172 km Belarusian border, which has led to a decrease in people arriving via this route. As many as 13,000 people were reported to have been prevented from entering Latvia via Belarus, compared with 5,300 the year before.

Searching the Are You Syrious? (AYS) archive for this article, it became clear that not much has been reported from Latvia. There is just one official group helping asylum seekers there, Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem, which has faced criminalisation and pressure. So, to be able to share a personal story from there is valuable. Thanks to Qaiom* for sharing his story and to Stephanie Schwenke, who volunteered with Sienos Grupe in Lithuania, for compiling this article.

“You forced me to claim asylum. I did not want to do this.”

This is the account of my friend Qaiom (*name changed for his security), based on messages I saved. Qaiom’s WhatsApp is set to delete messages after 24 hours. Like many people on the move, Qaiom uses this setting to help protect himself while on the move and after. However, he gave me permission to save a series of messages in which he tells his story. A story that stretches from Afghanistan to Russia via the Baltic States to Germany.

On September 18, Qaiom arrived in Liepna, Latvia. Again. He apologised for not messaging me sooner, but he had been in “prison” in Lithuania. Lithuanian “police” (possibly border guards) had handed him over to Latvia. The rest of his family — the group he had been travelling with — had successfully fled to Berlin, Germany.

Liepna, Latvia. Image from Google Maps 2023

I met Qaiom through volunteering with Sienos Grupe (SiG) in Lithuania in August and September 2023. The work of SiG is broad, from helping people find jobs once their work permits to providing life-saving aid in border areas.

This Vice piece from November 2022 shows a snapshot of their work.

Five years ago, Qaiom worked for the parliament in Afghanistan after finishing school. He moved to Russia to study and graduated from the University of Voronezh with a degree in International Relations in 2023.

He wanted to continue his studies, but Russia declined to extend his visa, and he could not safely return to Afghanistan, which by that time had fallen to the Taliban. As a former government employee and educated young man, his life would be in danger if he returned to his home country. With friends from Afghanistan, he fled Russia, eventually passing into the Baltic States.

He and his group eventually made it into Poland, where they were caught by Polish officers (force unknown) about one kilometre from the Lithuanian border.

He requested asylum in Poland, but the officers refused to acknowledge his request.

He did not know how the officers found his group but believed they had somehow heard him, possibly referring to technology in border areas.

The Polish officers took all phones from the group and required each person to unlock their phone. Qaiom and the others followed their instructions, and the officers walked away with the unlocked phones, which were later returned to them. The whole group was then deported to Lithuania. Polish officers handed him over to Lithuanian officers, and he was brought to Pabrade Detention Center, where he was held for six days without access to a phone.

Pabrade is a small town about 50 kilometres from Vilnius. The detention centre holds people with varying amounts of freedom and different legal positions. Some are denied access to the outside, while others can leave the centre under certain conditions. Many people staying there tell of a level in one of the buildings where new arrivals are held without access to phones or significant contact with others who live in the camp.

During the six days he spent in Pabrade, Qaiom was never given an opportunity to speak with a lawyer. After six days, he was handed over to Latvian officers (it is unclear if this was a chain pushback or some kind of official, legal procedure via the Dublin agreement) and taken to Liepna.

He described being “violently forced” by Latvia to claim asylum against his will.

Like so many others, he saw no future for himself in the small Baltic state that has been less than welcoming to refugees from countries like Afghanistan and Syria. Upon arrival in Latvia, people on the move are often forcibly expelled back over the border. Like Lithuania and Poland, Latvia has legalised pushbacks in violation of EU law. There have been no real repercussions.

Nor have there been consequences for the cruel “ping-pong” Latvia and Belarus often engage in one country expelling people on the move into the border area of the other.

Liepna is especially unattractive as it is a small town and very near the border with Russia, the country Qaiom and many asylum seekers in the Balitcs were actively fleeing.

A short time ago, Qaiom reached Germany, where he requested asylum. His passport remains in Latvia. His hope is to continue his studies and receive a master’s degree. For now, the danger of deportation via the Dublin Agreement to a country that mistreated him and offers few opportunities looms large despite Germany’s need for smart young people who are willing and wanting to work.

Sources and further reading

Vice ‘Brother, Help Me’: People Are Losing Limbs in Europe’s Forgotten Migrant Crisis November 2022

Are You Syrious Legalisation of Pushbacks in Lithuania April 2023

Sienos Grupe on Facebook

Volunteer blog post, Sienos Grupe September 2023

Info Migrants Migrants are being used as diplomatic weapons to ‘weaken’ Europe November 2021

Info Migrants Latvia increases defences against ‘hybrid threat’ from Belarus August 2023

Info Migrants Latvia-Belarus border fence nears completion December 2023

Info Migrants Dublin Agreement Explained July 2020

Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem European Commissioner for Human Rights criticises the extension of the state of emergency at the Latvian-Belarusian border February 2023

Image: Lāsma Artmane on Unsplash

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