In Lithuania, some migrants have been locked up for more than a month in camps hastily opened by the Vilnius authorities. In addition to their extremely precarious conditions, they suffer from isolation and lack of information. The Lithuanian authorities say they lack the means to examine everyone’s requests for protection.
At the end of a bumpy dirt road, the Rudninkai camp seems to have struggled to find its place in the forest, as the trees are everywhere, around and in the camp. The place – originally a training center for the Ministry of the Interior – is surrounded by fences and placed under the surveillance of several police vans as well as a drone with an unpleasant buzzing.
Although located only 30 km from Vilnius, the camp seems far from it all. In the midst of all this greenery, migrants feel they have been hidden, even forgotten.
“What’s the news? What’s going to happen to us?” Asked Safaa, a 33-year-old Iraqi, through the wire fence. Rudninkai is surrounded by a double enclosure. Journalists are only allowed to cross the first fence. They do not have access to the living quarters of the exiles, behind the 2nd fence.
“Everyone asks us questions but nobody answers ours!”, Gets angry Safaa, locked in Rudninkai for more than a week. In Lithuania, all migrants are held in camps for six months after their arrival in the country, under a law passed on July 13.
Baghdad-Minsk flights explosion
Like the 2,800 other Iraqis who arrived in Lithuania in 2021, this young mechanical engineer, originally from Baghdad, knew nothing about Belarus or Lithuania before leaving Iraq. When the news of the opening of the border circulated in the Iraqi capital, he bought a plane ticket to Minsk. From there he took a taxi to the border and finished the journey on foot. Lithuanian border guards arrested him and took him to Rudninkai.
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Iraqi arrivals exploded after flights from Baghdad to Minsk surged in early summer to reach four flights per week. Upon arrival in Minsk, Iraqis are issued with a tourist visa and can continue their journey to the border.
On August 6, following European pressure, the Iraqi authorities announced the temporary suspension of flights to Belarus. The repatriation of Iraqis has also started. According to Ahmed al-Sahaf, spokesman for Iraqi diplomacy interviewed by AFP, a plane arrived on August 10 in Baghdad from Minsk “with 240 Iraqi citizens on board, while 130 Iraqis [avaient] been brought back on a first flight “the day before.
“We are only looking to be safe”
Alongside Safaa, the frail Kadhim, 22, recounts the same journey as his compatriot. “We were just looking to be safe,” he explains. “In Baghdad I was studying architecture but nothing was going well there and I had no money to continue paying for my studies.”
The young man arrived in Lithuania on August 1 after leaving Baghdad two days earlier. Like the 350 or so other men locked up in Rudninkai, he complains about the living conditions in the camp. The exiles sleep at 15 or 20 in tents which, on rainy days, collapse under the weight of the water. Promiscuity makes them fear contagion from skin and respiratory diseases.
Safaa says some people have Covid-19 although all exiles are tested and quarantined upon arrival in the country. Kadhim assures them that only one meal a day is served to them.
For these exiles who thought they could reach Western Europe in a few days, their main concern remains the uncertainty about their fate.
In Rudninkai, anxiety is increased tenfold by very limited access to electricity. Exiles find it extremely difficult to recharge their phones regularly, making their isolation even more difficult.
Fear of being deported
In the center of Vydenai, about 80 km from Vilnius, access to electricity is easier. This former school accommodates 146 people, all from African countries. The rooms on the ground floor are reserved for women, men are upstairs. Each person has a camp bed and a sleeping bag.
If the living conditions are better than in Rudninkai, the exiles share the same questions – “What do they say about us outside?” – and the same fears – those of being returned to their country of origin, namely Congo Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cameroon, Guinea or Eritrea.
Arrivals by planes of hundreds of Iraqis in Lithuania occupied the media space and the arrivals of young Africans went more unnoticed. However, according to figures sent to InfoMigrants by the office of the Deputy Minister of the Interior, the Congolese of Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroonians are the 2nd and 3rd most represented nationalities among migrants in Lithuania, after the Iraqis. The two countries represented respectively 200 and 131 arrivals in 2021.
“Tell you my story? No, that’s too much”
Unlike the Iraqis, Africans did not leave their country overnight for Lithuania. Most had been living in Belarus for several weeks, or even months, on a student or tourist visa. Many, like Christian and Laurenne, had settled in Belarus to leave the DRC as soon as possible where they were threatened, they say.
>> To read: “Now I don’t know what to do”: in Lithuania, African students blackmailed by Belarus
Member of the LGBT community, Christian says he was arrested last March. “I was sentenced to four years in prison for inciting depravity and undermining morality.” Thanks to a friend of his brother living in Belarus, he obtained an invitation to Minsk. At the beginning of April, he obtained a tourist visa on his arrival at the airport.
Laurenne suddenly seems terrified when asked why she left the DRC. “Tell you my story? No, I can’t, that’s too much”, she apologizes before slipping that she was “threatened with death by the police”. Disappointed by Belarus where she claims to have been a victim of racism, Laurenne explains that she wanted to go to Lithuania “to be safe”.
Lack of translators
Like most exiles who have arrived in the Baltic country, she will ask for international protection. But the chances of her getting it are slim. “Hardly any of you will get asylum, nor be recognized as a refugee,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister said, Gabrielius Landsbergis, on July 19, in a message posted on Facebook, in English and Arabic, and directly addressed to the exiles.
Questioned in writing by InfoMigrants, the Deputy Minister of the Interior, Arnoldas Abramavičius, affirms, him, that “all the people in need of protection can apply for asylum” in Lithuania and that “each request [sera] examined individually “.
But in this small country of barely 3 million inhabitants which had only had to deal with 37 irregular arrivals in 2019 and 74 in 2020, “mainly from Russia and Belarus”, the arrival of more than 4,100 applicants asylum created a logistical problem.
“We have translation problems because the migrants speak different languages and we lack translators who could work face to face with the migrants, so the processes are quite slow”, emphasizes Arnoldas Abramavičius.
The pace is expected to gradually pick up over the next few weeks. The deputy minister assures us that the authorities are “constantly looking for translators”. The migration department “is also recruiting more experts who could work on asylum applications so that the process is faster,” he said.
The Lithuanian government is also counting on possible voluntary returns to countries of origin to reduce the number of asylum requests. Migrants willing to take this step “will receive a free plane ticket and € 300 in cash,” explains Arnoldas Abramavičius.
Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite said on Friday that some 1,500 asylum applications were being examined but few had applied for voluntary return.
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