VILNIUS – Lithuania's pushback policy, in place for more than a year, is causing mental and physical suffering for migrants trying to cross the border illegally, Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders, MSF) said on Friday.
According to the international humanitarian medical aid organization, people who have already experienced traumas such as sexual violence and torture in their countries of origin are now faced with a "new trauma of violent pushbacks".
"They feel as though they are being hunted and chased across the border again and again," Heidi Berg, MSF psychologist in Lithuania, said in a statement. "This leaves them feeling dehumanized and with an even higher level of stress and anxiety."
Some migrants have told MSF teams that "they have been repeatedly pushed back and forth across the border over days, or even weeks", according to the statement.
"Fear of being detected and pushed back is also leading people on the move in Lithuania to try and cross isolated areas with no access to basic needs and medical aid," it said.
The organization is worried about potentially even more serious health consequences for these people during the cold season.
"As winter approaches and temperatures in the forests on the border fall, Lithuanian authorities must urgently cease these cruel practices and respond to the needs of those trying to enter the country with humanity," it said.
According to MSF, migrants have "little to no access to basic needs or fair asylum procedures".
"It is unacceptable that the Lithuanian government is trying to normalize this mistreatment and denial of rights in response to the movement of people who have fled their countries out of desperation, in search of safety and a better life," said Georgina Brown, MSF country manager in Lithuania.
This is not the first time that MSF has criticized Lithuania's treatment of migrants. In August, the organization condemned the country's "systemic discrimination" practices.
Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite said earlier that the government would not abandon the policy of pushbacks in the near future, but would formalize it in law.
Currently, border guards are allowed to deny entry to irregular migrants based on a decree signed by the minister in August 2021.
Critics say that these actions effectively amount to expulsions, a practice that violates international law. The authorities maintain, however, that they are not allowing migrants into Lithuanian territory, not pushing them back.
The Fundamental Rights Office of Frontex, the EU’s border agency, has also criticized Lithuania for "collective expulsions"
According to the office, the practice runs counter to international law and the European Convention on Human Rights.
It says that the current system where migrants caught attempting to cross the border at non-designated places are advised to claim asylum at an official border checkpoint does not work in practice.
Bilotaite says, however, that international law needs to be changed because it does not provide for a situation where migrants are used to carry out a hybrid attack against a state.
Lithuanian border guards have sent more than 14,800 people back to Belarus since August 3, 2021, when they were given the right to deny entry to irregular migrants. The number includes repeated attempts by the same people to cross the border.
Almost 4,200 irregular migrants crossed into Lithuania from Belarus illegally last year.