BRUSSELS - The European Commission has defended policies enacted by Latvia and Lithuania to stem migration at their shared borders with Belarus — despite widespread criticism that they are trampling on asylum rights.
"Those two countries are doing their best to protect the EU border," Monique Pariat, a senior EU commission official told MEPs in the civil liberties committee on Monday, adding that Latvia and Lithuania are facing unprecedented illegal border crossings since 2021.
His comments followed widespread civil rights criticism, accusing Latvian and Lithuanian lawmakers of forcing would-be asylum seekers to return to Belarus.
Lithuania also recently declared some 1,000 Russian and Belarusian nationals residing in the country to be dangerous to the security, including Olga Karach, an exiled Belarusian activist nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Pariat insisted that “serious evidence” must be brought to light that the right to asylum has been violated before launching possible violations against Latvia or Lithuania. She said that this is also the NATO border, therefore Latvia and Lithuania have adopted the respective laws.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International and Dunja Mijatovic, the European Commissioner for Human Rights, both challenged Latvian legal reforms over the summer. Similar criticism was voiced in the direction of Lithuania.
This comes as the number of attempts to cross from the Belarusian border has increased by 62 percent compared to last year. Poland alone has seen some 17,000 attempts.
“Poland recorded a sevenfold increase compared to the same period last year,” Pariat said.
Most of those trying to do so come from war-torn countries like Afghanistan and Syria. Others come from repressive states like Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka and Belarus itself.
And some arrive via Belarus from Russia, often with Russian visas or entry stamps, Pariat explained. “It’s something new compared to the situation in 2020 that we have to highlight,” she said.
The EU presents these attempts as a political ploy, initiated in Minsk and Moscow, aimed at destabilizing member states in a hybrid attack known in European parlance as the instrumentalization of migrants.
But unlike 2021, when Belarus was accused of pushing migrants across the border, the latest maneuver comes against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
And with that, the remnants of Wagner’s Russian mercenaries in Belarus.
Their presence at the border has been used as a pretext to further tighten security, raising questions about the fate of ordinary migrants trying to cross.
Edgars Olsevskis, a lawyer for the Latvian Centre for Human Rights, said in an e-mail to EUobserver that Latvia's concerns about security of the border are grounded, but they are no proportionate. The center believes that pushbacks of illegal migrants on the border cannot be justified.
Meanwhile, Latvian Interior Ministry's parliamentary secretary Igors Rajevskis underscored that Latvia has to meet all international obligations. He said that 94 illegal migrants were allowed to enter Latvia in 2021, more than 2,000 in 2022, and about 300 already this year. At the same time, almost 7,000 attempts to illegally cross the border have been prevented this year.
In 2021, Latvia provided international protection to 105 out of 582 persons who asked for asylum. Last year this number increased to 243, and this year 80 out of 800 applications have been satisfied.
Arnoldas Abramavicius, the Lithuanian deputy interior minister, said that people may seek for asylum in Lithuania's consulates or on border crossing points. However, most of illegal migrants, attempting to get into Lithuania from Belarus, wish to further go to Germany. "Our registration center is almost empty, nobody wants to stay in Lithuania," he said.