Latvia has become the latest Baltic state to start pushing back migrants hoping to cross its border from Belarus. Dozens were turned back on Tuesday night under a new state of emergency declared by the government in Riga.
On Tuesday night, the news agency Reuters reported that Latvian border guards began pushing migrants back who were hoping to cross over the border from Belarus. The two countries share a 170 kilometer long border.
Latvia is the latest Baltic country to begin this practice after more and more migrants began traveling from Belarus in the hope of making it into the EU bloc. Last week, Lithuania also said it would start pushing back migrants who attempted to cross into its jurisdiction.
Reuters reporters witnessed the pushbacks, which occurred "just hours after Latvia declared an emergency to prevent migrants" crossing the border without the correct papers. The state of emergency came into force on August 10, around the same time that Lithuanian lawmakers approved the construction of a fence along their border with Belarus, reports , reports the news agency Agence France Presse (AFP).
'Border..practically closed to everybody'
According to AFP, the new law means that "the border between Latvia and Belarus will be practically closed to everybody," stated Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins. Most of the migrants reportedly come from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Latvia has a population of about 1.9 million people and is a member state of the EU as well as NATO.
Lithuania is now reporting that over 4,000 migrants have crossed into its territory since the beginning of the year, and Poland, which also shares a border with Belarus said 349 migrants had arrived in their country since Friday, August 6. On Tuesday, the EU announced that the numbers of crossings had "significantly decreased," according to AFP, since Iraq had suspended its flights to Belarus and is also starting to fly some of its citizens back to Baghdad.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, about 30 of those on the other side of the border "including women and toddlers, started a camp fire to warm up after a night walking through fields in northern Belarus to the frontier."
'It is so cold and the children are sick'
One migrant, calling himself Rawa, said that his group were Kurds from Iraq. They had flown into Minsk via Iraq and Istanbul with the intention of crossing into the EU.
"We wanted to stay in here and live in Latvia. Please just help us because [it is] so cold and the children are sick," he wrote in a text from the Belarusian side of the border, to Reuters. He asked for help in the text and also for the number of the UN children’s agency UNICEF. He claimed the Latvian guards had "shouted at the migrants to turn back to Belarus and had scared them with a patrol dog." However, Reuters saw "no evidence of violence against the migrants."
The commander of the local border guards, Lieutenant-Colonel Ilmars Aispurs, confirmed to Reuters that the group had in fact been turned away at that border and told if they wanted asylum they should travel about 30 kilometers further to claim it.
According to Reuters, the group was pushed back at Robeznieki at around 3 in the morning. The group were on foot and carrying just small bags and backpacks. A kind of "stand-off" ensued, reported Reuters, as the "migrants refused to retreat." One of them reportedly shouted out in English: "Please help! Baby is so cold!"
'Visibly tired and scared'
A 31-year-old woman calling herself Lilouz said she had come from Dohuk in Iraq with her five children. She said she had walked for six hours during the night to arrive at the border. Reuters said she was sitting on the "damp grass with the other migrants, visibly tired and scared."
At around lunchtime on Wednesday, Rawa texted to say that the group had decided to "pull back" to a Belarusian village "to rest and eat."
A spokesperson for the UN refugee agency UNHCR in the Baltics told Reuters that they were "deeply concerned about the reports on pushbacks." UNHCR said they were sending a mission to Latvia to discuss with the government and make sure its response was "in line with international obligations and European law."
The Latvian government, along with its neighbors and the EU have accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of "weaponizing" migrants in order to put pressure on the EU to reverse its sanctions regime.
'Driven towards the Latvian frontier'
Latvian border guards said that the migrants they had spoken to had explained that they had spent a few nights in a hotel in Minsk "before being driven towards the Latvian frontier, and then told to walk in a certain direction." The guards claimed that some were told they "would end up in Germany," and had paid "several thousand US dollars for the voyage."
The guards patrolling this stretch of border reported having stopped about 200 people over the last four nights, all of whom were sent to the Mucenieki migration center near the Latvian capital Riga.
The Latvian interior ministry told Reuters that since the enactment of the emergency legislation allowing for the possibility of turning migrants back at the border, 59 migrants had been turned back but "a larger number had been allowed in and taken to migrant centers."
'We will be acting very resolutely'
An EU spokesperson added that guards were allowed to redirect migrants to an official border crossing point saying that, "such measures are acceptable, as long as...the fundamental right of the persons concerned to be protected against refoulement [pushback] and access to the asylum procedure are respected at all times."
The Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins urged the whole of the EU to take a tough stance on the issue, making sure that they demonstrate to Belarus that trying to send migrants across the border into the bloc was "pointless."
"We will be acting very resolutely," Karins told a Latvian TV station according to the Baltic News Service BNS.
With Reuters and AFP