It took me over one month before I could arrange an interview with Ahmad (name changed). As I approached him in December 2021 asking if he would agree to tell his story, he had recently returned to Iraq after having spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border. This experience left him so traumatised and intimidated that he first refused to speak with me despite my reassurances that I would protect his identity. “I cannot sleep many nights. I often see nightmares about what happened to me in Latvia and wake up in fear. I will keep trying to move to Europe. If those from Latvia learn I moved there one day, they will kill me,” he texted me on WhatsApp.
Ahmad is one of the non-EU nationals who tried to enter Latvia from Belarus after Latvia declared a state of emergency at its border on 10 August 2021 – in response to the perceived ‘hybrid attack’ orchestrated by the Belarusian regime. Since then, the state of emergency has been extended twice – on 10 November 2021 and 10 February 2022, respectively. At the time of writing this contribution, it is still in force and is expected to remain so until 10 May.
The state of emergency
Latvia, a country with a population of less than two million, has traditionally been among EU Member States with the lowest number of asylum-seekers – both in absolute numbers and per capita. In the time period from 2018 to 2020, there were less than 200 people seeking asylum in Latvia per year, with less than one third of applications being approved. In summer 2021, the relevant figures started to increase – largely due to the rise in irregular border crossings from Belarus. In August, there were 386 asylum applications registered by the Latvian authorities, compared to 147 registered during the entire year of 2020.
Although these numbers were still insignificant, on 10 August Latvia declared a state of emergency in all administrative territories along the country’s approximately 173 km long border with Belarus. Under the Cabinet of Ministers Order No 518, the Latvian State Border Guard, the National Armed Forces and the State Police have been given broad 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, irrespective of their wish to claim asylum. Up until 6 April 2020 the Order also expressly provided that the structural units of the Latvian 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 asylum claims – with no exceptions.
In other words, Latvia suspended the right to seek asylum and legalised pushbacks – contrary to the country’s obligations under EU and international human rights law. The right to asylum is laid down in Article 18 of the EUCFR. The Asylum Procedures Directive (2013/32/EU) further specifies that every person has a right to apply for international protection in the territory of a Member State concerned, including at the border, and obliges Member States to register and process such applications, regardless of the mode in which the applicant has entered the country. Further, the Latvian legislation undermines the principle of non-refoulement which prohibits returning someone to a state where they may face persecution and/or inhuman or degrading treatment (enshrined in Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, Article 3 of the ECHR and Article 19(2) of the EUCFR). The blanket rule, introduced by the Latvian government, did not offer a genuine and effective possibility to submit a claim for international protection and to receive an individualised assessment of this claim, thus violating these principles (see cases of N.D. and N.T. v. Spain, M.K. and Others v. Poland and Shahzad v. Hungary; for an analysis see, for example, here and here).
Unlike in Poland and Lithuania, the pushbacks carried out by the Latvian authorities targeted a very small group of largely the same people who were forced to remain in the forest for up to seven months. Latvian border guards report having turned back over 6,600 people attempting to irregularly cross the border from Belarus since the introduction of the state of emergency in August 2021. The preliminary findings of my study on the situation at the border (available here and here), however, suggest that that what lies behind these figures are largely the same people who were subjected to daily pushbacks. This has been officially confirmed by a border guard representative. According to my estimates, based on the analysis of daily border guard statistics and interviews with the non-EU nationals involved, the total number of those who have attempted to cross the Latvian border since August 2021 is as low as ~250 people who arrived at the border at different times.
Approximately 150 – the majority of these persons – were ultimately transferred by the Latvian authorities to the closed detention centre for foreigners in the city of Daugavpils on so-called ‘humanitarian grounds’. From there, they were typically returned to their countries of origin via the IOM assisted voluntary return programme without their asylum applications being registered.
As part of my research, I have conducted in-depth interviews with ~30 such individuals who were admitted in the Daugavpils centre at different times over the period from mid-August 2021 to March 2022. The majority of my interviewees involve Iraqi nationals of Kurdish or Yazidi origin. Five of my interviewees were female and the rest male. With a few exceptions, the interviews have been conducted online after the individuals in question returned to their home countries. Their testimonies have been supported by various types of documents issued to them at the Daugavpils centre, as well as other evidence, such as photos and Belarus visas. Prior to their admission, they claim having spent significant time in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (typically 2.5-3.5 months), with several of them having remained there seven months. The last persons stranded in the forest were brought to the Daugavpils centre in March 2022.
The treatment of the persons apprehended at the border, described in the testimonies below, may amount to inhuman or degrading treatment within the meaning of Article 3 of the ECHR and Article 4 of the EUCFR. All my male interviewees testify that in the forest they were regularly subjected to violence, exercised by Latvian police or security forces who they refer to as ‘commandos’ and describe as masked men in dark uniforms. The use of violence towards men was also confirmed by all the women interviewed.
Ahmed, who ultimately agreed to share his testimony, told me that in August he travelled from Iraq to Minsk, from where intermediaries drove him to the Latvian border. He wanted to ask for asylum but ended up being constantly pushed back and forth for the subsequent 78 days.
He recalls one occasion in August 2021 when he was beaten particularly hard:
“They used electroshock on my entire body. They hit me in my tongue and blood started to come out of my mouth. They also hit me in the back of my neck and my private parts. I lost conscience and fell on the ground. A few seconds later I regained conscience and three commandos started beating me. I was lying on the ground, one was sitting on me and the other ones were beating me with feet and hands. I was yelling, I did not know what to do, that was crazy. One of the soldiers came again, held me and dunked my head into a bucket of water three times. I thought he was going to kill me. After that they took us to the border and ordered to go to Belarus.”
My interviewees told that over the subsequent weeks and months they continued to experience daily pushbacks. Every day the persons apprehended at the border used to be driven to a tent set up by the Latvian authorities several kilometres inside the Latvian territory, allowed to sleep there and then pushed back into Belarus early in the morning. During the day, they were transported back to Latvia by the Belarusian border guards who did not allow them to return to Minsk. My interviewees reveal that they became well known to Latvian security forces operating the tent who demanded absolute obedience, ordered people to provide information about Belarus border guards or act as interpreters if they could speak English or Russian.
The people stranded in the forest also reported they suffered from severe malnutrition (they were only given biscuits and a bottle of water per day on the Latvian side and some food on the Belarus side), skin conditions and lack of access to basic hygiene facilities. ‘. I could not shower for around three months,’ another interviewee told me.
My interviewees testify that starting from mid-December 2021 the Latvian authoritiesstopped bringing people to the tent, forcing them to live under an open sky in freezing temperatures up to -20C and continuing to subject them to systematic pushbacks – sometimes several times a day. The people stranded in the forest suffered from burns and frostbite. “We only survived because we could make fire – otherwise we would have died. We were sleeping in shifts for two-three hours, and two or three people had to keep the fire burning”, one of my interviewees explained.
A silent crisis
Unlike in Poland or Lithuania, the treatment of asylum-seekers in Latvia has received very limited attention both at local and international level. The government policy enjoys broad support across the country’s political spectrum. It is remarkable that the Latvian minister of interior Marija Golubeva, who advocated for such measures, is a member of ‘Attīstībai/Par!’, a political alliance that positions itself as liberal and pro-European.
During the current crisis, none of the Latvian NGOs have publicly objected to the government’s decision to extend the state of emergency and, therefore, to continue carrying out pushbacks. In addition, Latvian media have followed the government line of reasoning by exclusively portraying the issue as a security threat and a ‘hybrid attack’. This has left people trapped in the forest dehumanised and voiceless.
Like in Poland, the access of journalists and independent observers to the border zone and the Daugavpils centre has been severely restricted. Despite multiple requests, I have not been allowed to visit the Daugavpils centre. The Latvian Border Guard and the Ministry of Defence have not responded to my written questions on if and how force was used against people intercepted at the border. A representative of the Latvian State Police has meanwhile claimed not to be aware of any such incidents.
All in all, it is difficult to imagine how several dozens of asylum-seekers crossing the Latvian border from Belarus could pose a security threat to the Latvian state or exhaust its reception capacities.
The treatment of asylum-seekers – predominantly from the Middle East – crossing the Latvian border from Belarus is in sharp contrast with the recent decision of the Latvian government to support at least 40,000 people who have arrived in the country from war-torn Ukraine. Such discrepancy raises concerns about racial bias being the principal rationale for the introduction of the state of emergency. Irrespective of the very low number of irregular border crossings from Belarus, Latvia continues to reinforce the security threat narrative and intends to spend over 50 million euros on the militarisation of its border with Belarus, which includes the erection of a permanent fence.
Those who have paid the highest price for this policy, however, are people who have been forced to remain in the forest for months under inhuman conditions just to be ultimately returned to their country of origin, an experience that has left most of them severely traumatised. “I had never thought I would come back alive. If you don’t want refugees, tell them to go home and not come here again, but don’t leave them in the forest,” Ahmad told me.
(A previous version of this article contained an error with respect to the number of Ukrainian refugees in Latvia which has been corrected, the ed.)