Situation at Temporary Refugee/Asylum Seekers’ Camp- Lipliūnai (Lithuania)
09 September 2021
On 2021-09-01 journalist Ewa Wołkanowska-Kołodziej and me jointly visited the temporary refugee /asylum seekers camp in Lipliūnai (Druskininkai, Alytus district). The camp is fenced by two lines of iron enclosure and guarded by the armed staff in uniforms. Outsiders may enter the camp just with permission of the headquarters of the guarding unit. Camp consisted of about 20 tents mounted in the border check area on the bank of Nemunas river, bordering to Belarus. Reportedly refugees/asylum seekers in this camp represent Cameroon, Nigeria, Congo, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Palestine and Chechnya ((Russia). Number of refugees/asylum seekers at this camp reportedly varies from 118 (according to Public Security Service (PSS) staff guarding the camp) to 200-210 (according to people living there). People are not informed about the exact number of refugees/asylum seekers. We were not allowed to enter the second iron fence, where tents are mounted, in order to directly monitor the real living conditions at the camp. So, this report is based on my external observations as well as information received from refugees/asylum seekers as well as the PSS staff, who guided us.
In the day of monitoring refugees/asylum seekers were divided into two groups:
1) About 30 including men, women and children (families), who were waiting for the bus in the outer yard to be taken to Medininkai temporary camp with relatively better living conditions. As we were explained by the guarding PSS staff this group already had negative COVID-19 test results;
2) The rest of the refugees/asylum seekers, who were kept in strict isolation behind the inner/second iron enclosure and nobody was allowed to contact them directly. According to PSS staff certain part of refugees/asylum seekers behind the second iron fences were already infected with COVID-19 and are waiting for their negative test results in order to be sent to the other camp(s). Reportedly all refugees/asylum seekers will leave Lipliūnai camp in approximately two coming weeks.
Conversation with the Refugees/Asylum seekers
With the permission from the guarding staff me and my fellow traveller Ewa (journalist) contacted refugees/asylum seekers from the second group through iron fences. Refugees/asylum seekers gathered closer to the iron fence, intently looking at us, trying to define who we are and find answers to all of their accumulated questions. First, they were very distrustful not letting us to take pictures and even asked to show them our documents.
In each of the tents there live from 11 to 15 refugees/asylum seekers, 11 single males are placed in a separate tent. A 17 years old Musa from Nigeria said he and his friend from Cameroon share a tent with another family. Every refugee/asylum seeker we were talking with complained about the bad living conditions: 50% of them did not have beds, sleeping on the floors wrapped in their sleeping bags, cold inside the tents, wet, mud and bad quality food. Reportedly refugees/asylum seekers did not receive warm food in the first month of their detention at Lipliūnai, being content with canned food, biscuits, cold water etc. In the last two-three weeks they received warm food and are equipped with water boiler.
They also complained on the bad treatment of guards and other responsible staff, who do not normally answer their questions and do not pay attention to their severe needs. They say ,when male refugees/asylum seekers ask for additional mattress, they usually refuse in a rude way, giving more privileges to women and children. When refugees ask why we are detained like at a prison, they answer: “You are criminals, you crossed the border illegally”. When touching their living conditions at this temporary camp, PSS staff ironically said: “They were probably expecting to live in five-star hotels”.
During our presence at the camp we witnessed unacceptable attitude of the guard distributing lunch towards an underage male refugee/asylum seeker. Musa (mentioned above) came later than the other refugees/asylum seekers to receive his portion. Guard refused to give him his lunch saying “You are late. Go and take food from garbage”. Then Musa loudly expressed his disagreement shouting “Why do you treat human being like an animal?” attracting attention of the people about an improper treatment. After that guard tried to calm him down offering Musa his portion of warm food. Musa refused to take that, walking away. The other refugees/asylum seekers took his portion and persuaded him to have his dinner. Later, after the incident the guard tried to explain the situation to me, saying: “I did not mean the real garbage. We have a box, where we keep the remains of the fresh food returned back by some refugees”. The PSS staff tried to justify the guard’s action: “They (refugees/asylum seekers) do that intentionally to attract attention of journalists”.
Refugees/asylum seekers do not agree with their state and complain that they are treated like prisoners. No lawyers visited them until the 1st of September. They are not able to contact their relatives and family members since their telephones were taken by the guarding staff at the very first day, they entered the camp. They were also forced to write down their telephone password for the guards.
There is still a lack of warm clothes and the seasonal footwear for both adults and children.
Reportedly there was a burst out of COVID-19 at the Lipliūnai camp. According to PSS staff refugees/asylum seekers will be strictly kept inside the second iron fence until they have negative COVID test results. Visarg, 27 from Chechnya, said his wife and a 1-year old son were taken to some hospital with COVID symptoms and he does not have any contact with them during the week. When being asked about health conditions at the camp, PSS staff informed that there were several cases of miscarriages among young female refugees/asylum seekers and now it is common at other refugee camps too. A married male refugee/asylum seeker from Iraq said his wife had recently miscarriage during the second month of her pregnancy. Another married male told his five months pregnant wife started to bleed yesterday and ambulance took her to the hospital. The women received the first free aid, but she was not able to pay for the injection, which costs about 55 Euro since she had just dollars. Refugees /asylum seekers were not happy about Red Cross reaction to their situation. They say two Red Cross staff members, who visited them before, were not interested in their situation and were trying to make them to return back to their home countries and a representative from Red Cross Switzerland said to them “Europe says all migrants are terrorists”.
According to refugees/asylum seekers on August 25th an armed military group with black masks entered the refugee camp at Lipliūnai, ordered all refugees/asylum seekers to leave their tents and searched every single tent. When they left, refugees found their belongings dispersed all over the tent. Moreover, five families/single refugees reported on loss of their money:
One family – 1500 euros;
Another family – 400 USD + 20 Euros;
A single person – 50 Euros;
The second single – 700 Euros;
The third underage boy – 150 Euros.
And they even did not dare to complain since nobody believes them.
Hussein, 26, from Baghdad Iraq illegally crossed the Belarus-Lithuanian border together with his mother, brother and two sisters, one of whom (6 years old) is with Down syndrome. He left his 58-years old blind father in Baghdad asking her aunt (sister of the father) to take care of him so far. In 2013 his father lost his sight after a bomb explosion in front of his shop. Later two brothers started to replace their father doing every job to earn the living of the family. Hussein gradually participated in peaceful protests against the government’s policies. And government started to persecute him threatening him with long-term imprisonment. So, he began to hide. To find Hussein’s address on 17 of January 2020 police kidnapped his 17 years old brother Zain and tortured him severely: broke his arm and leg afterwards throwing the unconscious young man to the garbage area in the suburb of Baghdad. Relatives found Zain just after 8 days on 25 January 2020 and took him to the hospital, where he had two serious surgical operations. Feeling the forthcoming danger, Hussein decided to leave Baghdad on 11 February 2020 and spent 1,5 year in Kurdistan area, where Arabs are not allowed to stay for more than 1 month. All this time he was planning to get out of Iraq. To prove Hussein’s story Zain, who is now 18, showed us his injured arm and leg. Beginning from summer 2021 police started to disturb Hussein’s 23 years old sister, who worked in the hospital as a nurse. In order to put an end to this horrible story, Hussein applied to several foreign embassies to get visa, but always received negative answers. Then he thoroughly learned two routes to take his family out of Iraq: Iraq-Turkey-Greece and Baghdad-Minsk-Lithuania and chose the second one finding that less dangerous. Hussein’s family found out that in summer of 2021 the number of flights Baghdad-Minsk increased twice reaching four flights a week. In two hours after reaching Minsk they ordered taxi and directly moved to the Belarus-Lithuanian border to reach at the very end “a peaceful life”. They illegally crossed the border, because they knew in advance, that they will not be allowed to come closer to Lithuanian border checkpoint. Also, they knew, that in the case of necessity refugees have a right to cross the border illegally and ask for asylum. Now he is surprised, why the safe Europe treats him and his family so unfriendly.
Director, Refugee Council of Lithuania