We live in times where democratic values are heavily tested. According to Freedom House, democracy has been in decline globally since 2005, and the pandemic of Covid-19 only exacerbated this trend. Even previous bastions of democracy, such as France and the United States, could be seen to heavily infringe constitutional rights of movement and freedom of expression to prevent spread of contagion, as well as the spread of falsified information about the vaccine. However, how understandable and well-meaning these measures may have been (although one could argue that they heavily merit a debate about their proportionality in certain instances), they illustrate how easily rights and freedoms we have taken for granted might be transgressed in the name of security, no matter if the measures are in our interests or not.
As a shining beacon in contrast to this bleak picture, the Western democratic world has shown an astoundingly unified reaction in response to the most glaring threat to democracy right now: Russia’s war in Ukraine; by unanimously condemning the war and welcoming the refugees fleeing the atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine. However, this response is also highlighting a discrepancy in the adherence to democracy, human rights, and international law by some of the loudest proponents of harsh measures against Russia. Measures which should be taken in response to Russia’s transgression of said values and laws. Namely Latvia’s, Lithuania’s, and Poland’s handling of the ‘hybrid warfare’ on their borders to Belarus.
In July-August, in 2021, several thousands of refugees, mainly from the Middle East and North Africa, tried to cross the border from Belarus to Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Interviews with refugees have shown that they were lured to Belarus with the promise of easy passage into the European Union. In Belarus they were then forced to cross the border, often by physical and psychological violence from border authorities. This massive influx of refugees from Belarus was perceived as waging ‘hybrid warfare’, and an attempt to destabilise the neighbouring countries since the instrumentalization of the refugees was perceived to be both deliberate and systematic. All three affected countries responded by declaring a state of emergency (SoE) along their borders with Belarus. Latvia on the 10thof August, Poland on the 2nd of September and Lithuania on the 9thof November. The SoE allowed the countries to circumvent international laws on migration and empowered the Border Guards to prevent border crossings, as well as to return those who had already crossed. The SoE along the border, which was originally declared for a delineated time-period, has since been prolonged several times. Poland lifted its SoE in July this year, while it is still in effect to at least December 2022 in Lithuania, and February 2023 in Latvia.
In the time of this declared SoE, the human rights NGO (Non-Governmental Agency) Amnesty International has issued several reports on the situation along the border. The reports, which were based on interviews with refugees (in Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, Belarus denied access to the
border), legal documents, and discussions with local NGOs, laid bare apparent violations of human rights. Mishandling of the refugees, arbitrary adherence to laws on migration (even under the expanded authority under SoE), and perpetrated acts of violence and torture on the refugees.
Firstly, all involved parties are, according to the reports, guilty of performing so called ‘push backs’ on the refugees, i.e., not letting the refugees enter the countries but sending them back to the countries that they came from, generally with violent methods. Often Belarus authorities also pushed them back across the border the same day where, once again, a retaliating pushback was performed, forcing people to walk back and forth in the ‘no man’s land’ between the two borders up to as many as eight times per day. This also took place during winter in clothes not suited for the weather and temperature, and sometimes over fast flowing rivers, with the result that some refugees perished and were later found dead on Polish soil.
Secondly, there is much evidence that points to that the involved countries lie to the refugees and coerce them to make them sign documents stating their wish to return to their host countries, even if they have explicitly told the border authorities several times that they wish to enter Europe to apply for asylum. During this process the refugees oftentimes reported that they were held in tents in undisclosed locations in the border area, sometimes for months. When the refugees tried to look up to locate themselves and inspect which authorities were holding them there, they were met with violence.
What is also problematic is how the countries have responded to criticism and concern for their practices in the border areas. In the Latvian case Amnesty, “Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem” (“I want to help refugees”), and other NGOs were effectively hindered from investigating the situation. The countermeasures against the covid-19 pandemic have already infringed heavily on constitutional rights all over the world. Here they were used several times as pretext to prevent NGOs from monitoring the border area, even though the exact same measures at times already had ended officially when the requests from the NGOs were received. Amnesty’s concerns, although received seriously, were also dismissed and at times ridiculed, e.g., by questioning if the critique aims to support Russian narratives.
This shows once again an ominous behaviour where democratic countries make use of ongoing crises to obfuscate their own misbehaviour or to fuel opportunistic goals in the name of security. This is certainly not something new, one just need to look at USA’s action during the ‘war on terror’ in relation to alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or the prison in Guantanamo Bay. However, the behaviour of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland is extra troubling in the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine were they have all heavily condemned (rightly so) the transgressions of international law and human rights that Russia has performed, when they at the same time also perform transgressions (although, as must be noted, nowhere on the same scale).
On the backdrop of their handling of the Ukrainian refugees this becomes even more troubling, since they were welcomed with open arms to Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. This inevitably leads to the conclusion that some refugees are seen as welcome, while others are not. How, otherwise, could Latvia accept more than 35 000 Ukrainian refugees with generous societal benefits while a few thousand refugees from the Middle East and Africa get stamped as a threat to national security and then are left stranded and mistreated in the border area. Certainly, the reluctance to create a precedent where “hybrid warfare” waged with people is allowed to succeed is understandable, but the discrepancy in handling is so wide that it cannot be explained with only a wish for national security in mind, but rather by racism. This is further strengthened by direct verbal ‘othering’ of the mistreated refugees by border authorities, creating a clear distinction between the people in Europe and the refugees. For example: “For you all, there is nothing in Latvia, no rights”.
No matter the underlying reason, with such behaviour, words of pursuing and standing up for democracy and human rights ring hollow. One can therefore only hope that Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland return to principles and practices supporting human rights fitting democratic countries when it comes to their treatments of refugees. Hopefully, they will also serve as contemporary examples on the need to constantly safeguard democratic values in countries and instances where we may take them for granted; especially when “bigger” crises are ongoing that may redirect our attention from “smaller” transgressions.
By Fabian Modin
Image source: Lorie Shaull