Advocacy for the Rights of Migrants and Asylum Seekers in Lithuania and the EU: Persistent Issues and New Electoral Winds

February 29, 2024

Authors: L. Vosyliūtė and M. Jockus

On Monday, a team from the Human Rights Monitoring Institute, together with Heartwarmingly and representatives from ten non-governmental organisations, international organisations and state institutions working in the fields of refugees, migration, human rights and the promotion of diversity, met for a meeting on strategic cooperation in the field of guaranteeing the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, ensuring their inclusion in the socio-economic life of Lithuania and advocacy on these issues during the forthcoming European Parliament elections. During the meeting, my colleagues and I decided to form an informal network to support each other’s work and to strengthen our advocacy for migrants’ and refugees’ rights in Lithuania and the European Union.

During the meeting, Lina Vosyliūtė, the founder of Heartwarmingly – research-based social innovation – analysed the political trends in the European Union in the field of migration, and the ways to put the issue of relevance to Lithuania on the agenda of EU decision-makers. She also looked at the powers of the European Parliament and the gloomy election forecasts. It is predicted that the European Parliament, with the rise of the far-right and the decline of the Green parties, may change from a progressive legislative force that safeguards human rights to one that restricts them.

Migration policy in Lithuania remains problematic: migrants are not guaranteed the possibility to apply for asylum, exclusion in violation of international law continues, and those who do arrive in Lithuania are accommodated in conditions that do not ensure human dignity. Last year, HRMI and partners Mental Health Perspectives produced an analytical study which, among the various human rights violations, mentioned not only poor material accommodation conditions, lack of health and legal and other services, but also manifestations of violence, racism and homophobia. Access to the internet and telephones is limited, which prevents migrants from accessing legal services, makes it difficult to communicate with relatives, and worsens mental health and suicidal ideation.

Asylum applications take many months to process, with a large number of asylum seekers not being informed about the process and kept in the dark. The Migration Department systematically delays the analysis of these requests – HRMI, together with its partner law firm ReLex, has won a number of strategic cases against the Migration Department, where the court ruled that the Migration Department had breached its duty to process cases in a timely manner. Integration into the labour market is an additional challenge for migrants – it takes only 6 months for migrants to be granted the right to work in Lithuania, but excessive bureaucratic barriers remain, making it difficult to open bank accounts and thus to access employment. All of this adds to the negative impact on their mental health.

The flow of asylum seekers and other migrants to Lithuania through the irregular crossing of the Belarusian border intensified in 2021, with the beginning of Belarusian political blackmail. Lithuanian politicians have gone to great lengths to counter this provocation, reneging on Lithuania’s commitments under the Geneva Convention and the EU Asylum Directives. As a result, asylum seekers arriving or attempting to arrive via Belarus have become hostages to a political game.

Organisations, volunteers and artists working in the field of human rights and diversity, like their counterparts across Europe, have rapidly become involved in advocacy for the rights of refugees and migrants, providing humanitarian, legal and psychological support. Unfortunately, the Lithuanian Parliament in 2021. 13 July adopted new amendments to laws and legalised practices that contravene Lithuania’s obligations under international law and EU directives(Amnesty International / PRAB Report). Despite widespread opposition from the NGO sector, civil society and academics from Lithuania and abroad, in 2023. 20 April The “migrant turn-over” was legalised, and the Institute of the State Border Guard Service (SBS) “assistant”(ECRE) was established. As the rhetoric of the Lithuanian-Belarusian “hybrid war” continues, so too do the displacements and the deaths that they have been made to believe. And this is not only happening on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border – the case of Samrin, who died after being pushed back to Belarus after reaching Vilnius(the Siena Group), is a testimony to the practices of systemic racism based on racial profiling, and to the further violations of even the most diminished human rights safeguards.

The upcoming European Parliament elections are important for democratic accountability on the impact of EU migration policy in Lithuania. The European Parliament has the power to shape the budget and restrict EU funding for agencies and practices that violate human rights and lead to the deaths of asylum seekers at borders, suicides in immigration registration centres, or poverty and exploitation after falling into social exclusion. The role of the EP is also crucial in proposing policy options – moving towards safe and legal pathways for migrants, inclusiveness, and contributing to Lithuania’s socio-economic sustainability – such as compensating for an ageing population with the arrival of working-age migrants, and fostering an international environment that is friendly to innovation and entrepreneurship, and that promotes a diverse and welcoming international environment.

In the run-up to these critical upcoming European elections, European NGO networks have already launched electoral public information campaigns to encourage the election of more diversity-friendly MEPs, thereby increasing the resilience of EU democracy and counterbalancing the rise of increasingly radical parties to power. For example, ECRE launched the #EUisU campaign, ENAR announced A Europe for All campaign, and EurHope , another campaign Citizen-driven solutions are planned to be presented to EU political parties, the European Youth Parliament launches the YOUthVOTE4Europe campaign, the European Women’s Lobby Group launches a campaign of commitment to women’s rights and gender equality, children’s rights organisations call for a ‘Vote for Children’ campaign, civic organisations launch a campaign to improve civic space and civil dialogue, etc.

In Lithuania, NGOs are also preparing to face this year’s upcoming presidential, European Parliament and Lithuanian Parliament elections by helping voters analyse the candidates and their positions on complex public issues.

The meeting was organised in the framework of the project “Crossing the Border – Monitoring and Advocating for the Rights of Migrants and Asylum Seekers”, supported by the Active Citizens Fund, funded by the EEA Financial Mechanism.

Photo: Christian Lue I Unsplash