FORCED VOLUNTARY RETURN

 ‘They threatened to take us back to the forest if we refused to go back to Iraq’

The interviewees admitted in the Daugavpils centre on ‘humanitarian grounds’ claim that their asylum applications were not registered and they were forced to accept the IOM voluntary return procedure after the Latvian authorities threatened to return them to the forest if they did not agree to do so. The author was not allowed to visit asylum seekers at the Daugavpils centre and documented the return procedure of Interviewee N7 at the airport instead. 

On 20 August Latvian border guards transferred me, my wife and my children to the Daugavpils centre. We told the centre officials that we wanted to claim asylum but they did not register our applications. We spent three months and four days in the camp. During all that time, our inspector kept telling us we needed to go back to Iraq or they would take us back to the forest, or we would stay in the camp forever.

I told the border guards at the camp that I was beaten up in the forest. They told me the Latvians did not hit anyone and most probably I was hit by the Belarusians. We did not want to go back but we had been staying there for three months already, so eventually we forced to sign the [voluntary] return form. At the Daugavpils centre, we were only allowed to use a phone one hour a day. We paid 10,000 dollars to the intermediaries who organised our trip from Iraq to the Latvian border via Belarus. That was all the money I had. I sold my house to be able to get to Europe and now live in my father’s house. Previously we had never heard of a country named Latvia, we just wanted to get to Europe.’

Interviewee N3, male, spent 10 days in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in late November after having spent three months at the Daugavpils centre

My family and I were transferred to the Daugavpils centre on 20 August. We asked for asylum many times but officials were indifferent to that. We spent there four months and were very tired, so we ultimately agreed to the voluntary return. It is dangerous for us to stay in Iraq because my wife’s family did not agree to our marriage and have threatened to kill me. We were forced to relocate because of that but I am still being threatened and feel unsafe. I paid intermediaries 10,000 dollars to bring our family to Belarus and then to Europe. I have spent all the money I had and borrowed 3,000 dollars extra. I have been left with nothing now.’

Interviewee N7, male, spent ten days in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December after having spent four months at the Daugavpils centre



Interviewee N7 returning to Iraq with his family via the IOM assisted voluntary return programme after having spent four months at the Daugavpils centre, 16 December 2021

'In November 2021, after I had spent three months in the forest, the border guards approached us and told we had a chance to return to our country. They told they would transfer us to the Daugavpils camp and threatened to take us back to the forest if we refused to go back to Iraq at a later stage. Later we told the officials at the Daugavpils centre that we got beaten in the forest but an inspector told me via an interpreter to shut up, or they would return me to the forest. I told them I wanted to apply for asylum but they told I had to sign the voluntary return form – if I did not do so, I would have to stay at the Daugavpils centre for months or even years. I was not offered any legal assistance. 

I wanted to ask for asylum for political reasons. I am now hiding, and the state authorities do not know I have come back. I have not even told my parents. I spent 15,000 dollars to bring my family to Europe. I sold my house and spent all the money I had. If the Latvian authorities say they did not know how refugees were treated, this will be lies. Everyone in the Daugavpils camp knows we were beaten up. I do not even want to say the name ‘Latvia’ ever again. I feel very offended.’

Interviewee N6, male, spent over three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- mid-November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in late November
‘On 27 October they brought me to the Daugavpils camp. On the preceding day I told one of the Latvian soldiers I could give them money or do anything to go back home – and that I was ready to pay for my plane ticket. He told me he would ask his chief. The following day Latvian soldiers in military uniforms put me in the van, closed the door and started to speak. They said if I tell any journalists or organisations about what happened in the forest they would catch me anywhere. They told me, ‘If you go back to Iraq, don’t think you will disappear’. They told me not to tell anyone the names of their guns or how they were dressed. They said that if I make any move, yell or try to get out of the airport they would bring me back to the forest and keep me there until I die. They said it would be easy for them as they would not shoot me but I would die from the cold or from a bear or wolf attack. 

Following that, they forced me to record a video saying that I wanted to go back home and that Iraq is fine for me as I can live in a village and it is not so dangerous for me right now. I recorded everything for them just to be able to come back home. They told me I would never get a chance to stay in Latvia anyway. Then they took me and [Interviewee N18] to the border guard office and asked me to write a statement by hand that I wanted to go back home. Following that they drove us to the Daugavpils camp. In the car they ordered me to look down. In the Daugavpils centre they told me I had signed the paper where I agreed to go back to Iraq and had no chance to stay in Latvia. On the next day I saw two big officers with three stars. I had spent 78 days in the forest but they told me that I only came to Latvia the night before. I was not provided any lawyer in Daugavpils and went back to Iraq eight days later. I had good shoes but when I came back my toes were sticking out of them. They did not even let me cut my hair or change my clothes before the flight. I was so dirty, and at the airport 40 everyone was staring at me. 

I had lost 27 kilograms of weight in the forest. When I came back everyone told me I looked slimmer but they don’t know what happened to my mind. When I came back I could not believe it for one week. Every day I was thinking if it was real that I was there and was sleeping in a bed. It felt so… I don’t know how to explain. Iraq is very dangerous for me but they made me feel that it is heaven comparing to where I was and what they did to me. I could not sleep many nights; I often had nightmares about what has happened to me in the forest and woke up in fear. I had never thought I would come back alive. I was sure I was going to die there. But God did not want us to die. I feel better now, and now I only think about my friends who are still there [the interview took place on 18 January 2022]. 

I wanted to become a refugee in Europe because I have been threatened by some groups in Iraq. They want to kill me. I wanted to get anywhere in Europe where I could be safe. In 2018 I tried to go to Europe via Turkey but Turkish border guards hit me, put me in jail for ten days and deported me back to Iraq. In 2020 I went to Greece but Greek commandos caught me near Saloniki, took me in the car and brought back to the border. They did not beat me, just took away my phone and some other belongings and returned to Turkey. And Turkey again sent me back to Iraq. Now I tried to go to Latvia – I paid 1,800 dollars to get to Minsk. I wonder how the EU allowed Latvia to join. It’s all mafia. Once I had a chance to ask a NATO soldier when this was going to finish. He said they had an order from the government to do all that. But if you don’t want refugees, tell them to go home and not come here again, but don’t leave them in the forest. Now I am back but I will keep trying to move to Europe – anywhere safe.'
Interviewee N1, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 Augustlate October 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in early November

‘My life before 2021 was very good. My father and my mother both worked in the army, and I studied pharmacy at a university. We had a big house and good cars. But then everything changed. My father worked at the department, which dealt with crimes related to narcotics. Once he discovered a drug dealer and reported him to his superior. The drug dealer was sent to jail. It turned out that he was a son of a high-ranking official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, an influential political party. After a year in jail the former drug dealer was released and started to take revenge on those who had put him in jail. On two occasions in November and December 2021 my family’s house was shot and once my father was shot at when he was near the army station, where he had worked. The police said it could not protect my family.

My father understood we did not have any other choice but to flee the country. We sold our house and went to Turkey in January 2021. We were hoping to reach Europe from there and apply for asylum. My father and I went to Izmir and tried to reach Europe in a ship container. My mother, my sister and my brother did not try to go this way as it was too dangerous. There is not enough oxygen in the container and one can die there. But before we departed the Turkish gendarmes caught us and deported us back to Iraq. My sister is the only member of my family who was able to reach Europe. We paid 16,000 dollars to smugglers who provided her with a fake French passport. She was eventually able to board a plane and arrive in France. My mum and my brother tried to go this way too but the police caught them and deported them to Iraq. 

We paid 10,000 dollars for four people to reach Europe via Belarus – 2,500 dollars per person. While I was in the forest I asked officers to deport us and told we were ready to pay money for that. I told we could not stay because my father’s leg was previously broken and was getting worse and my brother was sick. 

After we had spent 87 days in the forest, they told us there was now a possibility for us to return. First they took us to the border guards office in Robežnieki where I needed to sign a paper confirming I was ready to go back to Iraq. Then we were taken to the detention centre in Daugavpils. In the centre we were asked to sign some other papers saying we agree to return to Iraq. It was also written there that if we did not want to return no one could return us against our will. But one officer at the centre (he had three stars on shoulder straps, he was bald and wore glasses) told me that if we did not agree to return they would send us back to the forest. I asked if there was any other way we could stay in Latvia but they said there was no opportunity to ask for asylum. We did not want to go back to Iraq but had no other choice, so we agreed to return.

I think Latvia does not have any laws. I don’t know why Latvian border guards told all the time that they knew we wanted to go to Germany. I just want to live in a safe place. And money is not a problem for my family. We do have money but there is no legal way to come to Europe and ask for asylum. Money does not mean anything if we cannot live normally. Those on the Latvian side were talking about money all the time. They said that Iraqi people were coming to Europe for money. I told them I did not want their country to give me money – on the contrary, I was ready to pay money just to be able to stay there. Now we are back in Iraq and our lives are not safe. We are now looking for other ways to get to Europe. If there is no other way I am ready to go to Turkey again and try to go to Europe by boat. It is very dangerous and I can die, but I don’t have any other option.’

Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November
'After having spent more than three months in the forest, I could not live like that anymore and wanted to kill myself. After they saw I wanted to cut my wrist, one of the soldiers in military uniform gave me a knife and told me, ‘If you want to kill yourself so much, here is a knife, but only do that on the Belarus side.’ After this incident the border guards offered to take me to Daugavpils and return to Iraq. I had told them I wanted to return home before – but the border guards said it was not possible at that time. At the Daugavpils centre I wanted to ask for asylum but I was told I had no chance and had to return back home. I was placed in quarantine for ten days and on 11 December went to Iraq via Istanbul.’

Interviewee N5, female, spent nearly four months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- late November 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in December

  

The accommodation centre for detained foreigners in Daugavpils

‘In total, I spent 102 days in the forest. I asked Latvian border guards for asylum many times, but they told us that the only option for us was to return to Iraq. Two times I was taken to the border guard station where I needed to sign a paper confirming I agree to return to my country and tell that on a video. But after that nothing happened and I remained in the forest. I was so tired that I wanted to kill myself. Then they took me to the border guard station for the third time and I signed the papers again – the station was located around 20 minutes driving from the tent. Several days later they took me and [Interviewee N5] to Daugavpils. 

During out last week in the tent they made fun of us. They brought several dogs inside the tent and told they would miss us as we were going away soon, so their dogs would now play with us a bit. They kept their dogs on a loose leash as these attempted to bite us. We were screaming and crying. Then they took me outside the tent and wanted to hit me, but then threw me inside again and I fell on the ground. I spent nine days in the Daugavpils centre before returning back to Iraq. I still cannot believe I am at home. I will never forget all that has happened.’

Interviewee N4, female, spent nearly four months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11 August- late November 2021), returned to her country of nationality in December, on the ECtHR list

‘We had been living in the forest for nearly four months. I did not want to live anymore and wanted to kill myself. Ultimately they offered me to return to Iraq and I agreed. I begged the Latvian border guards not to force me go back as I am threatened in Iraq as a Yazidi woman, but they told me I needed to sign the return papers anyway. I was not offered any lawyer at the Daugavpils centre. 

I now live in a Yazidi displacement camp in the town of Zakho close to the border with Turkey. I previously lived in the city of Shingal and was forced to flee after it was taken over by Daesh. During that time I was captured by a Daesh militant who raped me and forced to live with him for three months before I managed to escape. I was a virgin and am now considered spoiled [crying]. I now live in a tent and do not feel safe. I am afraid someone will come and abduct me again. I just want to say that I will never forget what Latvia did to us. Latvian commandos treated us worse than Daesh. They humiliated us so much. It is so painful to remember that.’

Interviewee N13 , female, spent nearly four months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August- late November 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in December.

‘I and my family are threatened in Iraq as some people have been trying to kill me for personal reasons. My family’s house was shot at. First of all, I wanted my wife and children to be safe, so I sent them to Europe via Belarus and was planning to join them later. They tried to cross the border into Poland and ended up in a closed Polish camp. They were taken in the camp in early August and are still there [the interview took place on 30.01.22].

I came to Minsk on 18 October and then tried to cross first the Polish and then the Lithuanian border but every time was pushed back by their respective border guards. I lived in the forest for about a month and a half. I then returned to Minsk and tried to join my family via Latvia. I arrived at the Latvian border in early December. Latvian commandos caught me, took away my phone and drove me to a tent. [..] I stayed at the Latvian border for the following month and a half.

On one occasion the Latvians asked us and some people I was with if we would agree to return to Iraq. I did not agree because I have serious problems in my country and my family was in Poland. After I refused to return I was beaten severely by the Latvian commandos. Three men hit me with electroshock and beat me in the ribs. I lost conscience.

Several days after they beat me up I tried to kill myself. I went aside and tried to hang myself with a scarf in the forest on the Latvian side but my friends eventually noticed that and did not let me do that. I thought there was no way out of there and I would never be able to see my family again.

Later they offered me to return home again. They took me to a border guards office and then to the Daugavpils centre where they forced me to sign the voluntary return form. The inspector said that I if signed it, I would fly back to Iraq, and if I did not sign it they would take me back to the forest. I begged them not to send me back to Iraq and asked for asylum many times but they did not react. I told them I would even be ready to spend a year in Daugavpils, just to be able to reunite with my family. But the inspector told me that was impossible. After I tried to cut my wrist to avoid being sent back they put me in a special room for 24 hours and told they would put me in prison if I do that again. There was no lawyer at the centre. I would have never signed the voluntary return form if I were not forced to do so. On 20 January, I was returned to Iraq via Turkey.’

Interviewee N18, male, spent 1.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (early December 2021 - mid-January 2022), returned to the country of his nationality in January.

I belong to the Yazidi group. In 2014, in Sinjar region of northern Iraq the radical Islamist group Daesh carried out large-scale massacres against Yazidis. Since then I have been living in a tent camp for displaced Yazidis.

For the following six months every day they pushed us to the border of Belarus, and the Belarusians pushed us back again.

Why Latvia could not take us from the forest and deport and why its government needed us to live there for so long, I do not understand. I did not come to Latvia to make any problems for this country. But if Latvia didn't want me, then OK, I understand. Latvia could have sent me back to my country. Several dozens of people in the forest is not such a big number to not be able to deport them. During the winter, when the majority of the people were not taken to the tent anymore, many soldiers and commandos were still guarding this tent. Even if there was just one refugee in the tent, all these armed men were all sitting and watching this single person.  

It was only in the second half of February that I was transferred to the Daugavpils camp. Before I was returned to Iraq the Latvian border guards told me to be silent. They told me, 'If you try to tell anyone what happened in the forest, we will find you even outside Latvia and make a problem for you.' They also told me that they could take me back from the Daugavpils camp to the forest.

I was not allowed to ask for asylum in Latvia. I did not return to Iraq voluntarily. The officials of the Latvian border guard made me sign the voluntary return agreement.’

Interviewee N19, male, spent 6 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August 2021 -February 2022), returned to the country of his nationality in March.

‘I am Yazidi. Our group in the Sinjar region still cannot feel safe. The attacks by Daesh still occur.

On 13 August 2021 in the night I travelled to the Belarus-Latvia border. I travelled in a group with 17 other Iraqi nationals of Yazidi background. I stayed in the forest for the subsequent seven months.

On 23 March 2022 I was transferred by the Latvian border guards from the forest to the border station Robežnieki. On the same day I was further transported to the centre for detained foreigners in Daugavpils.

In the detention centre I talked to some other detained foreigners who had crossed the border from Belarus. They told me they were stranded in this detention centre for about six months and were not allowed to ask for international protection. The officials of the centre also used to threaten the detained foreigners that in case they refuse to return to Iraq they might be taken back to the forest and the officials would let them die there. I was also very tired mentally and physically after living in the forest for so long. I agreed to be returned to Iraq by the IOM on 13 April 2022.’

Interviewee N20, male, spent 7 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August 2021 - March 2022), returned to the country of his nationality in April 2022.

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