© REUTERS / Ints Kalnins

Latvia: Refugees and migrants arbitrarily detained, tortured and forced to ‘voluntarily’ return to their countries

Latvian authorities have violently pushed back refugees and migrants at the country’s borders with Belarus, subjecting many to grave human rights violations, including secret detention and even torture, according to new findings published in a report by Amnesty International.

Latvia: Return home or never leave the woods reveals the brutal treatment of migrants and refugees – including children – who have been held arbitrarily in undisclosed sites in the Latvian forest, and unlawfully and violently returned to Belarus. Many faced beatings and electric shocks with tasers, including on their genitals. Some were unlawfully forced to return ‘voluntarily’ to their home countries.

“Latvia has given refugees and migrants a cruel ultimatum: accept to return ‘voluntarily’ to their country, or remain stranded at the border facing detention, unlawful returns and torture. In some cases, their arbitrary detention at the border may amount to enforced disappearance,” said Eve Geddie, Director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office.

Latvia has given refugees and migrants a cruel ultimatum: accept to return ‘voluntarily’ to their country, or remain stranded at the border facing detention, unlawful returns and torture.

Eve Geddie, Director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office

“The Latvian authorities have left men, women and children to fend for themselves in freezing temperatures, often stranded in forests or held in tents. They have violently pushed them back to Belarus, where they have no chance of seeking protection. These actions have nothing to do with border protection and are brazen violations of international and EU law.”

On 10 August 2021, Latvia introduced a state of emergency following an increase in numbers of people encouraged to come to the border by Belarus. In contrast with EU and international law and the principle of non-refoulement, the emergency rules suspended the right to seek asylum in four border areas and allowed Latvian authorities to forcibly and summarily return people to Belarus. 

Latvian authorities have repeatedly extended the state of emergency, currently until November 2022, despite the decrease of movements over time, and their own admission that the number of attempted entries were the result of multiple crossings by the same people.

Dozens of refugees and migrants have been arbitrarily held in tents at the border in unsanitary conditions, A small percentage of people were allowed into Latvia, the vast majority of whom were placed in detention centres and offered limited or no access to asylum processes, legal assistance or independent oversight.

Amnesty’s report on Latvia follows and supplements similar reports focussing on abuses against refugees and migrants by Belarus, Poland and Lithuania.

Violent pushbacks, arbitrary detention and possible enforced disappearances

Under the state of emergency, Latvian border guards, in cooperation with unidentified “commandos”, the army and the police, repeatedly subjected people to summary, unlawful and violent forced returns. In response, Belarusian authorities would then systematically push people back to Latvia.

Zaki, a man from Iraq who was stranded at the border for around three months, told Amnesty International that he had been pushed back more than 150 times, sometimes eight times in a single day.

Hassan, another man from Iraq who spent five months at the border, said: “They forced us to be completely naked, sometimes they beat us when naked and then they forced us to cross back to Belarus, sometimes having to cross a river which was very cold. They said they would shoot us if we didn’t cross.”

In between pushbacks, people were forced to spend prolonged periods stranded at the border or in tents set up by the authorities in isolated areas of the forest. Latvian authorities have so far denied using tents for anything other than providing “humanitarian assistance”, but Amnesty International’s findings show that tents were heavily guarded sites used to arbitrarily hold refugees and migrants and as outposts for illegal returns.

Those not held in tents sometimes ended up stranded in the open at the border, as winter temperatures at times fell to -20C. Adil, a man from Iraq, who spent several months in the forest since August 2021, told Amnesty International: “We used to sleep in the forest on the snow. We used to light fire to get warm, there were wolves, bears.”

At the border and in the tents, authorities confiscated people’s mobile phones to prevent any communication with the outside world. Some families searched for people who were last known to be in Latvia but could not be reached by phone. A Latvian NGO reported that between August and November 2021, they were contacted by the relatives of more than 30 refugees and migrants feared to have gone missing.

Holding migrants and refugees in tents in undisclosed locations or leaving them stranded at the border without access to communication or safe alternatives to being continuously shuttled back and forth between Latvia and Belarus constitutes ‘secret detention’ and could amount to enforced disappearance.

Forced returns, abuse and torture

With no effective access to asylum under the state of emergency, Latvian officers coerced some people held at the border into agreeing to return ‘voluntarily’ to their countries of origin as the only way to be taken out of the forest.

Others were coerced or misled into accepting voluntary returns in detention centres or police stations.

Hassan, from Iraq, told Amnesty International that he tried to explain that his life would be in danger if he was returned: “The commando responded: ‘You can die here too’”.

Another Iraqi, Omar, described how an officer hit him from behind and forced him to sign a return paper: “He held my hand and said you should do the signature, and then with force, he made me do the signature.”

In some cases, the IOM representative for Latvia ignored evidence that people transferred as part of “voluntary” return procedures had not provided their genuine consent to returning.

“Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, continue to commit grave abuses, under the pretext of being under a ‘hybrid attack’ from Belarus. As winter approaches and movements at the border have resumed, the state of emergency continues to allow Latvian authorities to unlawfully return people to Belarus. Many more could be exposed to violence, arbitrary detention and other abuses, with limited or no independent oversight,” said Eve Geddie.

“Latvia’s shameful treatment of people arriving at its borders presents a vital test for European institutions, which must take urgent measures to ensure that Latvia ends the state of emergency and restores the right to asylum across the country for everyone seeking safety, irrespective of their origin or how they crossed the border.”

Background

As pushbacks at the Belarus border with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland re-intensify, the EU Council is prioritizing the adoption of a Regulation on the “instrumentalization” of migrants and asylum seekers. This would allow member states facing situations of “instrumentalization” – as experienced by Latvia – to derogate from their obligations under EU asylum and migration law. The proposal disproportionately impacts the rights of refugees and migrants and risks undermining the uniform application of EU asylum law.

In June, the Court of Justice of the EU ruled that the Lithuanian law on asylum and migration, which limited people’s ability to make asylum applications under the state of emergency and provided for the automatic detention of asylum seekers, was incompatible with EU law.

The Court’s analysis and conclusions should apply directly to the situation in Latvia, where, since August 2021, the state of emergency effectively prevents most people entering or attempting to enter “irregularly” from Belarus from accessing asylum.

See Amnesty International reports on Belarus, Poland and Lithuania.