On 10 August 2021, in response to the rising number of asylum-seekers trying to irregularly cross into Latvia from Belarus, Latvia declared a state of emergency in four administrative territories along the country’s border with Belarus (the municipalities of Ludza, Krāslava, Augšdaugava and Daugavpils).
Under the Cabinet of Ministers Order No 518, the State Border Guard, the National Armed Forced and the State Police have been given powers to order persons, who have irregularly crossed the Latvian border from Belarus or attempted to do so, to immediately return to Belarus without formal return procedures, and use physical force and special means to ensure compliance.
The Order also provides that the structural units of the State Border Guard and other authorities located in the territory where the state of emergency has been declared (including official border crossing points) shall not register applications for a refugee or alternative status. The state of emergency has since been extended two times – on 10 November 2021 and 10 February 2022, respectively.
According to the statistics by the Latvian State Border Guard, over 6,500 people have been deterred from crossing the Latvia-Belarus border irregularly since 10 August 2021. Out of these, 143 individuals have been reportedly allowed entry into Latvia from Belarus on ‘humanitarian grounds’ (as of 7 March 2022).
As part of this study, the author has conducted in-depth interviews with over 25 third-country nationals who had crossed the Latvian border from Belarus at different times after 10 August 2021, spent several weeks or months in the forest at the border and were ultimately allowed entry into Latvia on ‘humanitarian grounds’.
The individuals in question were then transferred to the closed centre for detention of foreigners ‘Daugavpils’ (Daugavpils centre) and returned to their countries of origin via the IOM assisted voluntary return programme. With several of those interviewed travelling with their family, the testimonies collected account for around 50 people; this, in turn, represents around one third of the individuals admitted in the Daugavpils centre from the Belarus border since 10 August 2021.
The interviewees claim that their asylum applications were not registered and they were forced to accept the voluntary return after the Latvian authorities threatened to take them back to the forest if they did not agree to do so. The majority of the author’s interviewees involve Kurdish-ethnic Iraqi nationals. The persons interviewed have been admitted in the Daugavpils centre at different times over the period from mid-August 2021 to late February 2022. Prior to their admission, they claim having spent significant time in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (typically 2.5-3.5 months).
Their testimonies have been confirmed by different types of documents issued to them at the Daugavpils centre (including detention and return orders issued by the Latvian authorities, Covid-19 test results, plane tickets and IOM documents), as well as other documents, such as photographic evidence and Belarus visas. In addition, several of the persons interviewed involve applicants in the case H.M.M. and Others v. Latvia (application no. 42165/21) whose arrival at the border in August 2021 has been legally documented. Since the interviewees arrived at the border and were admitted in the Daugavpils centre at different times, they did not always know one another.
The interviews took place from late November 2021 to early March 2022. With a few exceptions, the interviews have been conducted via online means of communication after the individuals in question returned to their countries of origin. The interviews typically lasted between one and three hours, whereby several persons have been interviewed twice. The interviews were conducted on an anonymous basis as the persons feared retaliation by the Latvian authorities in case they would attempt to reach Europe again. The majority of the interviewees have shown signs of severe emotional trauma caused by the events at the border; several of them, irrespective of their gender, cried during the interview.
The testimonies collected reveal that the border area is controlled by the Latvian military and special police (or security service) groups, referred to by the interviewees as ‘commandos’ or ‘police SWAT’. The latter reportedly subject(ed) people apprehended at the border to brutal violence (including exposure to electroshock) and other abuses.
According to the interviewees, previously every night the persons apprehended at the border used to be transported to a tent set up by the Latvian authorities on the Latvian side of the border and then pushed back into Belarus the following morning – despite the extremely low temperatures. During the day, they were transported back to Latvia by the Belarusian border guards. Starting from mid-December 2021, however, the Latvian authorities reportedly stopped bringing people to the tent, forcing them to live under an open sky and continuing to subject them to regular pushbacks – sometimes several times a day. The people stranded in the forest were also reportedly deprived of food, water, and access to basic hygiene facilities – for instance, they had no possibility to take shower for months. The persons interviewed also claim they were suffering from severe malnutrition, skin conditions, burns, and frostbite. The Latvian State Border Guard and the Latvian Ministry of Defense have not responded to the author’s questions on if and how force was used against people apprehended at the border. A representative of the Latvian State Police has meanwhile claimed not to be aware of any such incidents.
As noted above, Latvian border guards report having turned back over 6,500 people attempting to cross the border from Belarus since the introduction of the state of emergency in August 2021. The findings of this study, however, suggest that what lies behind these figures are largely the same people who were/are subjected to daily pushbacks. This has been officially confirmed by a representative of the State Border Guard who stated in an interview that those apprehended at the border every day are largely the same persons.
According to the author’s estimates, the total number of individuals who have attempted to cross the Latvian border since August 2021 is low (200- 300 people).
Both the Latvian emergency legislation and practices of the Latvian authorities can be regarded as a serious breach of EU and international law, including: Article 18 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights; Article 33, para.1 of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the right to seek international protection, the non-refoulement principle); Article 19, para.1 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights; Article 4 of the Protocol No.4 of the European Convention of Human Rights (prohibition of collective expulsions), and Directive 2008/115/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2008 on common standards and procedures in Member States for returning illegally staying third-country nationals. Moreover, the treatment of persons apprehended at the border, described in the testimonies below, might also constitute inhuman or degrading treatment within the meaning of Article 3 of the ECHR and Article 4 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The treatment of the insignificant number of asylum seekers crossing the Latvian border from Belarus is in sharp contrast with the recent decision of the Latvian government to accept up to 10,000 nationals of Ukraine fleeing war in their country. This raises concerns about racial bias being the principal rationale for the introduction of the state of emergency and the suspension of the right to seek asylum at the EU external border.