More than 4,100 migrants from the Middle East or central Africa have arrived in Lithuania illegally since the beginning of the year. The FRANCE 24 Observers team was contacted by a Cameroonian man who crossed the border from Belarus before being arrested and put in a camp opened by Lithuanian authorities. He says that the Baltic country is trying to force migrants to return to their countries of origin.
"They’ve put bars everywhere, like we’re prisoners." This is how Marc (not his real name), a Cameroonian man, describes the centre where he is now staying – a former stadium in the town of Linkmenys, about 100 km from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
In videos sent to the FRANCE 24 Observers team on September 15, Marc shows his camp bed in a room where the windows are covered with metal bars. Other men sleep in the same room, some in bunk-beds.
"We dry our clothes inside," he says, filming wet clothes drying. In the bathroom, there are puddles of stagnant water on the tiles, which are black with dirt. The toilets are blocked and a bin full to overflowing has been waiting to be emptied "for two days".
"Of course, we arrived in the country illegally – but do we deserve to live in these conditions?" Marc asked in a voice message.
‘My goal was to get into any country in the Schengen Area’
Marc’s migration journey was long and complex. The 28-year-old Cameroonian left his country in 2016 because of security concerns. He then lived in various African countries. Once in Morocco, he tried to cross the Mediterranean.
Marc, who hopes to eventually apply for asylum in France, decided to try a different route. He says he first bought a visa for Russia and then travelled to Belarus. It was from this country, often called Europe’s last dictatorship, that he illegally crossed the border to Lithuania in July – his entrance to the European Union.
In Belarus, I took a taxi which dropped me off 200 metres from the border. I took my phone and I walked alone through the forest for five days. My goal was to get into any country in the Schengen Area. When I crossed the border, the police caught me. I was first taken to a military camp where doctors examined us and vaccinated us against Covid-19. Then I was sent to this centre. I’m the only Cameroonian here; the other migrants come from the Middle East or Afghanistan. I know that there are Africans in other camps. But they didn’t have the same journey as me; most of them came here after being students in Belarus.
>> Read more on InfoMigrants: 'I don't know what to do now': African students in Lithuania stuck after crossing from Belarus
In total, 4,124 people have entered Lithuania illegally since the beginning of the year. Almost half of them came from Iraq, travelling from Baghdad to Minsk by plane and then crossing the border on foot. On August 6, after pressure from Europe, the Iraqi authorities announced the temporary suspension of flights to Belarus.
According to figures from the Lithuanian Interior Ministry in August, 200 migrants were from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and 131 from Cameroon, the two other most common nationalities after Iraqis.
This wave of migration is a new phenomenon in Lithuania, a small country of 2.7 million inhabitants bordering Poland, Latvia and Belarus. In 2020, there were only 74 irregular arrivals, and just 37 the year before.
The government, starting to worry about an "alarming" migratory influx, has announced that it will build a wall along the border and has accused the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, of letting migrants pour across the border as payback for EU sanctions after his government diverted a flight to arrest a political dissident.
The migrants who had already arrived in the country were sent to camps housed in former schools or military bases during the summer.
As they await responses to asylum requests, migrants have been sent to camps at old schools and military bases that were hurriedly established over the summer.
>> Read more on InfoMigrants: 'No one will answer our questions': Migrants in Lithuanian camps wait in uncertainty
'They come ask us, "Are you ready to go back to your country?"'
Marc says that the conditions in the centre where he is staying are like "a prison".
There are currently 33 of us in the centre. It’s a prison. I didn’t think we would be treated like that. We never get to go outside to see daylight. I asked for asylum as soon as I arrived but I haven’t heard anything. There have already been tensions with the police because of all of this.
In mid-August, 200 migrants received a response to their asylum request – all of them negative. The deputy interior minister, Arnoldas Abramavicius, told InfoMigrants that "all people in need of protection can apply for asylum" in Lithuania and that "each application [will be] examined individually".
He also said that asylum requests would be treated more quickly, because of the recent recruitment of experts and interpreters. The government is also expecting some voluntary departures, for which migrants will receive "a free plane ticket and €300 in cash".
But for many migrants, including Marc, this proposition is unimaginable.
They’re pushing people to go back voluntarily: when agents come into the centre, it’s not to ask about our living conditions but to ask us, “Have you decided to go back to your country?” After this whole journey … It’s utterly frustrating.