The drive from the center of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius to the refugee reception center in Rudninkai takes about 40 minutes. It’s not that easy to get there. We have to stop several times and ask for directions. But at some point we park our car at the edge of the forest and then follow a well-trodden path through the undergrowth towards the camp.
A security guard approaches us almost immediately. “What do you want here?” he asks. After all, we – two journalists from the Middle East – look more like the people in the refugee camp. But not our European companion.
We declare that we are journalists and that we want to report on the camp. Another man comes to check our papers, but tells us that it is not possible to enter the camp without permission from the Lithuanian Ministry of Interior. We wait three hours for permission from Vilnius, and then we are finally allowed through the steel fence that surrounds the camp.
Dirty clothes, tired faces
There are caravans and tents inside, but we are apparently not allowed to see them for health and safety reasons. Another fence separates us from the migrants here. Most of them appear to be from the Middle East, although some are from Africa as well. Their clothes look dirty, their faces tired. Almost all of them are male and most appear to be between 20 and 30 years old.
They hoped for a better future, but are stuck in the Rudninkai refugee camp
There, in the middle of the Lithuanian forest, people talk about corruption in Iraq. There are many Iraqis in the camp, and some of them complain about the injustices at home and the authoritarian behavior of certain politicians and militias in Iraq. One of the men berates a certain politician; another defends his actions.
Most of the young men here took part in the 2019 popular protests in Iraq calling for an independent Iraq and an end to political corruption. Some of these demonstrations were violently broken up and activists have been threatened and harassed since then; some of the most prominent activists have been killed or kidnapped.
Patience and suffering
Ahmed, a young man from the southern Iraqi city of Karbala, has scars all over his body and only one good eye. He sadly explains that six years ago he was in Baghdad and near a car bomb explosion.
Abdullah, 21, has other problems. His body is covered with irritated skin. He has had severe eczema since childhood. One of the other men here has a strange muscle weakness. His brother has the same problems and is immobilized in his tent.
After hearing these horrific stories, we wonder what will happen to these people.
Most of the people in this camp only want one thing, and that is to be able to live in the European Union. But the EU is reluctant to let them in, and Lithuania, a small country that does its duty as the European Union’s border guard, has been overwhelmed by so many asylum applications.
Lithuania’s Deputy Interior Minister Arnoldas Abromavicius told DW that he was well aware of the plight of the camp residents. At the same time, however, he accuses travel agencies in neighboring Belarus of deliberately luring the Iraqis there so that the authorities in the Belarusian capital Minsk can then let them across the border into Lithuania.
Belarus is spreading “fake news” suggesting Minsk as a suitable path for EU accession, and thereby exerting pressure on the European states.
Lithuania is working hard to improve the situation for the people affected by this campaign, said Abromavicius. After talking to the authorities in Baghdad, Lithuania has agreed to take care of the would-be Iraqi migrants – as soon as the flights between Baghdad and Minsk are canceled. Iraqi Airways has announced that it will suspend flights to Belarus for the remainder of August.
The young men captured in the Lithuanian camps have become political instruments, say observers. Ever since the European Union sanctioned President Alexander Lukashenko for his brutal treatment of opposition members in Belarus, among other things, the authoritarian has tried to instrumentalize irregular migration for his own purposes.
Most of the people in the Rudninkai refugee camp are young men
In the past few weeks alone, hundreds of would-be migrants have illegally crossed the border from Belarus. More than 3,500 people were arrested at the border this year, and Lithuanian officials fear that up to 15,000 more people from the Middle East and Africa would arrive there by the end of the year. In 2020 there were only 81. Belarus has also announced that it will close the borders with its territory and lock migrants there in a kind of no man’s land.
How popular Europe is for some Iraqis is shown by a Facebook page devoted to migration via Belarus to the EU. Within a few days, tens of thousands had joined the site.
The page has since disappeared from the social media platform, but previously contained almost all the information that asylum seekers and migrants would have needed for the trip: the price of a plane ticket from Baghdad to Minsk, routes to the border, whether travelers needed the help of people smugglers or got by on their own.
Belarus is consciously helping Iraqis and others to enter the EU, said Lithuanian political scientist Vytis Jurkonis, a professor at Vilnius University and an expert on Belarusian affairs and head of the local Freedom House office. And for political reasons, he argued.
Stranded in the border area: Most of the migrants here are from the Middle East
“But Lithuania has neither the necessary infrastructure nor the necessary experience with asylum issues to cope with this situation,” Jurkonis told DW.
At the same time, there are more and more Belarusian asylum seekers in Lithuania who have left their country because of Lukashenko. “The Belarusian government prevents its own citizens from crossing the Lithuanian border, but allows people from the Middle East,” Jurkonis said.
Masked men with batons
Baghdad has since flown home some stranded citizens. Those who return to Iraq are either destitute or in debt. As a rule, you have spent all your savings on the ticket to Minsk, but are also supposed to pay for the return flight.
An Iraqi who is still in Minsk told us on the phone that he had already tried four times to enter the EU via Poland. He had been unsuccessful so far, so this time he had decided to try Minsk. He didn’t make it, he said.
When he was crossing the border, he and his traveling companions were attacked by masked men. “They beat us with electric batons,” he said. “They dragged us into their vehicles and beat us there for a few minutes.”
Although he cannot prove it, he believes the masked men were members of the Lithuanian border police. However, the Lithuanian authorities completely deny the claim. Rokas Pukinskas, spokesman for the Lithuanian State Border Guard, said: “Lithuanian border guards have not used lethal weapons or special equipment against irregular migrants. We have no electric batons in our equipment at all. “
Another Iraqi waiting at the Rudninkai camp told us that it was clear that he and the other would-be migrants were being exploited there and that they had become political footballs to be pushed around by different European countries. However, that did not stop him from wanting to live in the EU, he said. He was still keen to emigrate there – although he was now considering legal ways, he said.
This article was updated on August 20 and contains the fact that the Lithuanian State Border Guard denies the allegations made by a DW interlocutor.