Lithuania passes legislation allowing border guards to turn back migrants

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By Andrius Sytas

VILNIUS  (Reuters) – Lithuania’s parliament passed legislation allowing border guards to turn back migrants who cross its frontier illegally, brushing away concerns from human rights organizations.

Lithuania, Poland and Latvia have reported a sharp increase since 2021 in migrants from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan trying to cross their borders from Belarus, in what they and Brussels have said was a form of hybrid warfare designed to put pressure on the European Union over sanctions it imposed on Minsk.

Lithuanian border guards have already been pushing back migrants, based on a government regulation from August 2021, which has now been voted into a law.

“In this geopolitical context we don’t have an alternative: we must protect ourselves, and we need tools for that,” interior minister Agne Bilotaite told the parliament.

The legislation includes provisions whereby migrants caught entering illegally can be turned back on the decision of the local border guard chief, without the possibility of an appeal.

Under international law, migrants have a right to claim asylum and it is forbidden to send potential asylum-seekers back to where their lives or well-being might be in danger.

Critics such as Amnesty International say the law risks denying asylum to people in need of protection.

“I have received consistent worrying reports of patterns of violence and other human rights violations committed against migrants, including in the context of pushbacks at Lithuania’s border with Belarus,” Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic said in a statement.

The pushbacks are encouraging criminal networks that ferry the migrants clandestinely, local migrant rights group Siena argued.

Lithuania has erected a 4-metre (13-foot) fence along 550 kilometres (340 miles) of its 690-km border with Belarus, topped with razor wire. Almost 900 migrants entered and were turned away this year, many after cutting the fence, a border guard spokesperson said.

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