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Trapped in a Lawless Zone: Humanitarian Crisis at the Latvia-Belarus Border

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Abstract

On 10 August 2021, in response to the rising numbers of asylum-seekers trying to irregularly cross into Latvia from Belarus, Latvia declared a state of emergency on its border with Belarus. In the country’s media and political discourse, the issue has been widely framed as a security threat and a ‘hybrid attack’ orchestrated by the Belarusian regime. The study aims, first, to critically examine the compatibility of emergency measures adopted by the Latvian government with EU and international law and, second, to explore the practical implications of such measures for the individuals concerned. As part of this research, the author has conducted in-depth interviews with individuals who have crossed the Latvian border with Belarus after the introduction of the state of emergency, spent several weeks or months at the border and ultimately returned from Latvia to their countries of origin. The present report represents preliminary findings of an ongoing investigation into the issue and is largely based on their testimonies.
TRAPPED IN A
LAWLESS ZONE:
HUMANITARIAN CRISIS
AT THE LATVIA-BELARUS
BORDER
[Preliminary findings]
Author: Dr Aleksandra Jolkina
2
ABOUT THE STUDY
On 10 August 2021, in response to the rising numbers of asylum-seekers trying to irregularly cross
into Latvia from Belarus, Latvia declared a state of emergency on its border with Belarus. In the
country’s media and political discourse, the issue has been widely framed as a security threat and a
‘hybrid attack’ orchestrated by the Belarusian regime.
In contrast to Poland or Lithuania, there have been no local NGOs, media or academics documenting
the events at the Latvia’s border with Belarus or providing a comprehensive analysis of the issue
from the perspective of Latvia’s compliance with EU or international law. So far, the current situation
in Latvia in the field of asylum and migration has been largely neglected by EU institutions and
international organisations despite the evidence of serious violations of EU and international law by
the Latvian authorities.
The present study aims to contribute to filling this gap. By adopting an interdisciplinary approach, it
aims, first, to critically examine the compatibility of emergency measures adopted by the Latvian
government with EU and international law and, second, to explore the practical implications of such
measures for the individuals concerned. As part of this research, the author has conducted in-depth
interviews with 24 individuals
1
who have crossed the Latvian border with Belarus after the
introduction of the state of emergency, spent several weeks or months at the border and ultimately
returned from Latvia to their countries of origin. The present report represents preliminary findings
of an ongoing investigation into the issue and is largely based on their testimonies.
2
Given the urgency of the matter and the absence of other reports systematically documenting the
events at the Latvia-Belarus border, the present research is being conducted on an entirely
voluntary basis. The author has received no funding for the research, authorship and publication of
this report. The author would like to offer her warmest thanks to her interviewees who agreed to
share their stories. This research would not have been possible without the help of Germany-based
journalist Toms Ancītis who has contributed to it on an unpaid basis.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Aleksandra Jolkina is a researcher in EU free movement, migration and asylum law currently
working in an independent capacity. She holds a PhD in law from Queen Mary University of London
(2021) and has taught EU law at London School of Economics (LSE). Apart from her academic work,
Aleksandra has extensive experience in journalism, including interviewing vulnerable individuals and
covering trauma. Alongside her doctoral research in London, she was part-based in Bonn, Germany,
where she worked for Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
E-mail: aleksandra.jolkina@hotmail.com
1
As of 28.02.2022.
2
Not all of the testimonies and evidence collected have been included in the present report.
3
PRELIMINARY FINDINGS: BRIEF SUMMARY
On 10 August 2021, in response to the rising number of asylum-seekers trying to irregularly cross into
Latvia from Belarus, Latvia declared a state of emergency in four administrative territories along the
country’s border with Belarus (the municipalities of Ludza, Krāslava, Augšdaugava and Daugavpils).
Under the Cabinet of Ministers Order No 518,
3
the State Border Guard, the National Armed Forced
and the State Police have been given powers to order persons, who have irregularly crossed the
Latvian border from Belarus or attempted to do so, to immediately return to Belarus without formal
return procedures, and use physical force and special means to ensure compliance. The Order also
provides that the structural units of the State Border Guard and other authorities located in the
territory where the state of emergency has been declared (including official border crossing points)
shall not register applications for a refugee or alternative status. The state of emergency has since
been extended two times on 10 November 2021 and 10 February 2022, respectively.
According to the statistics by the Latvian State Border Guard, a total of 6,313 people have been
deterred from crossing the Latvia-Belarus border irregularly since 10 August 2021.
4
Out of these, 143
individuals have been reportedly allowed entry into Latvia from Belarus on ‘humanitarian grounds’.
5
As part of this study, the author has conducted in-depth interviews with 24 third-country nationals
who had crossed the Latvian border from Belarus at different times after 10 August 2021, spent
several weeks or months in the forest at the border and were ultimately admitted in Latvia on
‘humanitarian grounds’. The individuals in question were then transferred to the closed centre for
detention of foreigners ‘Daugavpils’ (Daugavpils centre) and returned to their countries of origin via
the IOM assisted voluntary return programme. With several of those interviewed travelling with their
family, the testimonies collected account for 45 people; this, in turn, represents around one third of
the individuals admitted in the Daugavpils centre from the Belarus border since 10 August 2021.
The interviewees claim that their asylum applications were not registered and they were forced to
accept the voluntary return after the Latvian authorities threatened to take them back to the forest
if they did not agree to do so.
The majority of the author’s interviewees involve Kurdish-ethnic Iraqi nationals. The persons
interviewed have been admitted in the Daugavpils centre at different times over the period from
mid-August 2021 to mid-February 2022. Prior to their admission, they claim having spent significant
time in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (typically 2.5-3.5 months). Their testimonies have been
confirmed by different types of documents issued to them at the Daugavpils centre (including
detention and return orders issued by the Latvian authorities, Covid-19 test results, plane tickets and
IOM documents), as well as other documents, such as photographic evidence and Belarus visas.
6
In
addition, several of the persons interviewed involve applicants in the case H.M.M. and Others v.
Latvia (application no. 42165/21) whose arrival at the border in August 2021 has been legally
3
https://likumi.lv/ta/en/en/id/325266
4
See https://www.rs.gov.lv/lv/jaunums/26-februari-nav-konstatets-neviens-meginajums-nelikumigi-skersot-
latvijas-baltkrievijas-valsts-robezu
5
Ibid.
6
On file with the author. The author has also been supplied with the copies of the relevant individuals’
passports confirming their identity.
4
documented. Since the interviewees arrived at the border and were admitted in the Daugavpils
centre at different times, they did not always know one another.
The interviews took place from late November 2021 to late February 2022. With a few exceptions,
the interviews have been conducted via online means of communication after the individuals in
question returned to their countries of origin. The interviews typically lasted between one and three
hours, whereby several persons have been interviewed twice. The interviews were conducted on an
anonymous basis as the persons feared retaliation by the Latvian authorities in case they would
attempt to reach Europe again. The majority of the interviewees have shown signs of severe
emotional trauma caused by the events at the border; several of them, irrespective of their gender,
cried during the interview.
The testimonies collected reveal that the border area is controlled by the Latvian military and special
police (or security service) groups, referred to by the interviewees as ‘commandos’ or ‘police SWAT.
The latter reportedly subject(ed) people apprehended at the border to brutal violence (including
exposure to electroshock) and other abuses. According to the interviewees, previously every night
the persons apprehended at the border used to be transported to a tent set up by the Latvian
authorities on the Latvian side of the border
7
and then pushed back into Belarus the following
morning despite the extremely low temperatures. During the day, they were transported back to
Latvia by the Belarusian border guards. Starting from mid-December 2021, however, the Latvian
authorities reportedly stopped bringing people to the tent, forcing them to live under an open sky
and continuing to subject them to regular pushbacks sometimes several times a day. The people
stranded in the forest were also reportedly deprived of food, water, and access to basic hygiene
facilities for instance, they had no possibility to take shower for months. The persons interviewed
also claim they were suffering from severe malnutrition, skin conditions, burns, and frostbite. The
Latvian State Border Guard and the Latvian Ministry of Defense have not responded to the author’s
questions on if and how force was used against people apprehended at the border. A representative
of the Latvian State Police has meanwhile claimed not to be aware of any such incidents.
8
As noted above, Latvian border guards report having turned back over 6,000 people attempting to
cross the border from Belarus since the introduction of the state of emergency in August 2021. The
findings of this study, however, suggest that what lies behind these figures are largely the same
people who were/are subjected to daily pushbacks. This has been officially confirmed by a
representative of the State Border Guard who stated in an interview that those apprehended at the
border every day are largely the same persons.
9
According to the author’s estimates, the total
number of individuals who have attempted to cross the Latvian border since August 2021 is low (200-
300 people).
7
A representative of the State Border Guard recently confirmed in an interview there was a tent on the Latvian
side of the border. See https://www.arte.tv/de/videos/107765-000-A/lettland-das-schweigen-um-die-
fluechtlingskrise/?fbclid=IwAR1GIAB36MfU-atSSTbV7f0SpS5iujZfPaHHdbJT0UiSoiN09T2WoLqtouc
8
Email correspondence with the author.
9
https://www.arte.tv/de/videos/107765-000-A/lettland-das-schweigen-um-die-
fluechtlingskrise/?fbclid=IwAR1GIAB36MfU-atSSTbV7f0SpS5iujZfPaHHdbJT0UiSoiN09T2WoLqtouc
5
Both the Latvian emergency legislation and practices of the Latvian authorities can be regarded as a
serious breach of EU and international law, including: Article 18 of the EU Charter of Fundamental
Rights; Article 33, para.1 of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the right to seek
international protection, the non-refoulement principle); Article 19, para.1 of the EU Charter of
Fundamental Rights; Article 4 of the Protocol No.4 of the European Convention of Human Rights
(prohibition of collective expulsions), and Directive 2008/115/EC of the European Parliament and of
the Council of 16 December 2008 on common standards and procedures in Member States for
returning illegally staying third-country nationals. Moreover, the treatment of persons apprehended
at the border, described in the testimonies below, might also constitute inhuman or degrading
treatment within the meaning of Article 3 of the ECHR and Article 4 of the EU Charter of
Fundamental Rights.
The treatment of the insignificant number of asylum seekers crossing the Latvian border from
Belarus is in sharp contrast with the recent decision of the Latvian government to accept up to
10,000 nationals of Ukraine fleeing war in their country. This raises concerns about racial bias being
the principal rationale for the introduction of the state of emergency and the suspension of the right
to seek asylum at the EU external border.
6
VIOLENT PUSHBACKS
August 2021
I
‘I had to translate for everyone they were going to kill us’
The testimonies collected reveal that the interviewees typically stayed in a hotel in Minsk for a few
days before being transferred to the Latvian border by taxi or private cars in small groups. Several of
the interviewees had previously unsuccessfully attempted to cross the Lithuanian or Polish border
where some of them were separated from their families. Some individuals reported they crossed the
Latvian border at a place where there were no Belarusian border guards; whereas some reported
Belarusian border guards helped them cross the border.
On 10 August 2021, after the introduction of the state of emergency, the Latvian authorities started
to turn back third-country nationals who had irregularly crossed the Latvian border from Belarus or
attempted to do so irrespective of their wish to claim asylum. Over the subsequent days, people
were pushed back and forth between Latvia and Belarus, as Belarusian border guards did not allow
them to return to Minsk and the Latvian authorities did not allow their entry.
I came to Belarus on 7 August 2021 and stayed in Minsk for three days. On 10 August I
travelled to the Latvia-Belarus border by taxi. I wanted to claim asylum. Altogether we were
five people: me, three men and one woman. After we arrived at the border, we walked
around nine kilometres inside the Latvian territory and reached a small village with several
houses. Someone from the village saw us and called the border guards. When they arrived
we thought they were going to take us to a refugee camp but instead they put us in their car
and drove us back to the Belarus border. They hit us by police sticks and told us, ‘Don’t come
again. If you come again, we will hurt you more.’
After we were returned to the Belarusian side, we wanted to go back to Minsk. But the
Belarus border guards told us it was impossible as we had crossed the border illegally and our
names were now on the black list. We begged them to let us go back to Minsk and offered
them money in exchange but they told we could only go to Latvia. They put us in a car, took
us to the border and sent us back to Latvia.
Then the Latvian border guards caught us with the help of patrol dogs, beat us up again and
sent us back to Belarus. We asked them why they did not let us in. They told us we did not
have any chance to enter Latvia. [We were pushed back and forth] for three days. After three
days Latvian border guards beat us and told their dogs to attack us. They said, ‘If you don’t
return to the other side, you will have to run or they will catch you.’
Interviewee N1, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August-
late October 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in early November, on the ECtHR
list
10
10
H.M.M. and Others v. Latvia (application no. 42165/21).
7
On 4 August 2021 my father, my mother, my then ten-year-old brother and I travelled by
plane from Erbil via Istanbul to Belarus. We wanted to ask for asylum. We stayed in Minsk for
several days and went to the Latvian border on 10 August by private cars. Altogether we
were 26 people in our group and 11 of us were children. When we arrived at the border, we
got off the cars and walked to the border. Belarusian border guards did not see us. We
crossed the border into Latvia and were walking for about 30-60 minutes before the Latvian
border guards caught us. It was already 11 August at 2 or 3 am in the morning. There were
journalists with cameras there as well. The border guards took us into cars and drove us back
to the Belarus border. We told them we did not want to go back but they said Latvia was
closed for refugees and ordered us to go. They hit one of us by a stick and told their dogs to
attack us, so we were forced to go back to Belarus.
Reuters article documenting the arrival of this group
11
In Belarus we were caught by the Belarusian border guards. We told them we wanted to go
back to Minsk because the Latvians attacked us and prohibited us to come there. One of the
officers took my passport and asked us to wait. When he returned he said that we could not
go to Minsk and had to go back to Latvia. We refused to go but they took one child [from our
group] and said that if we did not come they would send her to the border alone. We did not
11
https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/latvia-starts-pushing-back-migrants-tense-belarus-border-2021-08-
11/.
8
have any other choice, so they returned us to the Latvian border. The Belarus border guards
told us that if we walked near towns or villages people would help us.
We crossed the border and were walking away from it. Near a Latvian village named
Robežnieki the police caught us at night. After that the border guards arrived. They were
followed by two black minibuses with men in dark blue uniforms. We understood they were
Latvian police SWAT. They ordered women and children to get into one of the cars and beat
the men up with hands and feet. Then they sent us to the car and hit the men with
electroshock sticks. At this time they only beat me up but did not use electroshock on me
because I could speak English and translated for them, but they did use electroshock on my
dad and other men. Following that, they took us back to the border. They told me to
translate that if we come back again we will die and they will kill us. I had to translate that
for women and children too. It is so hard when they say they will kill your family and you
have to translate for them.
Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11
August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November, on the
ECtHR list
‘I was in the same group of 26 people as [Interviewee N2]. I travelled from Iraq to Minsk and
then to the Latvian border with my wife and two children aged three and four. After we
crossed the border, we were constantly pushed back and forth between Latvia and Belarus.
The Belarusians did not let us go back to Minsk but did not hit us. The Latvians beat us a lot.
They beat the men with sticks, hands and feet, hit us with electroshock and drove us back
Belarus. I personally was also taken inside the car and beaten up. They even hit me in the
eyes my eyes were blue. They took us back to the Belarus border and said that if we return
to the Latvian side they would kill us. The men who beat us wore masks and black uniforms.
They treated us worse than Daesh in Iraq.
While we were pushed back and forth, sometimes they drove us to the border by car and
sometimes forced us to cross it by foot. We were left in the forest with no food. Sometimes
they separated families men were taken to one border pillar and women and children to
another pillar. My family was also separated, and we did not see each other for two days.
Interviewee N3, male, spent 10 days in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August 2021),
returned to the country of his nationality in late November after having spent three months in
the Daugavpils centre, on the ECtHR list
‘I was in the same group of 26 people as [Interviewee N2]. We crossed the Latvian border on
11 August when it had already been closed. Latvian border guards caught us and sent us back
to Belarus, and Belarusian border guards sent us back to Latvia. We were constantly pushed
back and forth every day, they were playing football with us. If they caught us far from the
border, the Belarusian border guards took us back by car, but if we were close to the border
they sent us by foot. The Latvians did the same.
9
The Belarusians did not hit us, just sent us to the Latvian side. The Latvians treated us very
badly. They hit the men in their back and legs, everyone was very scared. They beat the men
with sticks, electroshock, feet and hands. The people who beat our group were Latvian
commandos in black uniforms; they arrived in cars with black windows. They forced the men
into cars and beat them for 10-15 minutes.
During this time neither Belarusian, nor Latvian border guards gave us any food. We were
sharing the food we brought with us when we first arrived at the border. When it was
raining, we put a plastic bag under the rain and drank the rainwater. Then we found an apple
tree and were eating apples, just not to die.’
Interviewee N4, female, spent nearly four months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border
(11 August- late November 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in December, on
the ECtHR list
On 30 July 2021, I came to Belarus with my family (my wife, one daughter and three sons)
and my brother’s family. We went to the Belarusian-Lithuanian border first. After we crossed
the border, the Lithuanian border guards caught us. They accepted my wife and kids and my
brother’s family but did not allow me and my brother to go with them and pushed us back to
the Belarusian side of the border. We attempted to cross the border for the second time but
were pushed back again.
After that, my brother and I came back to Minsk. The smugglers who organised the trip told
me I would be able to see my family if I went via Latvia and that is why I went there on 11
August 2021.
When we crossed the Latvian border we were caught by Latvian border guards who shouted
at us ‘Go, go, go!and pushed us back into Belarus. The Belarusian border guards then took
us back to the Latvian border. When the Latvians caught us for the first time they did not hit
us but when they caught us again they beat us up. The Belarusians did not hit us but the
Latvians hit us a lot.
The Latvians operated as follows: there were groups consisting of a few men in military
uniforms who passed us on to masked men in black uniforms and gave them orders. The men
in black uniforms then forced us into cars and beat us up severely. I thought they were going
to kill us. They even hit me with electroshock in the head. I thought I was going crazy, I lost
conscience. Once they wanted to hit me in the head with a stick but I covered it with hands
and they hit my finger and broke it. My finger is now crooked.
It was impossible to talk or discuss anything with them, we could not do anything; we were
all very scared. They demanded us not to look them in the eyes and hit us every time they
saw us doing so. During the first few days they beat us constantly. Once after they returned
us to the Belarus side me and three other persons found a ravine in the forest and hid there
for three-four days. We were scared Belarusian border guards would find us and return us
back to Latvia where we would be beaten again.’
10
Interviewee N6, male, spent over three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11
August- mid-November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in late November, on
the ECtHR list.
On 4 August 2021 me, my wife and our then 10-months old daughter flew from Baghdad to
Minsk. We spent a few days in Minsk before going to the Latvian border. Two more people
went to the border with us [Interviewee N6] and his brother.
After we crossed the border, Latvian border guards caught us and returned to the Belarus
side. Belarusian border guards did not hit us the people who hit us were Latvian
commandos in dark uniforms. People in military uniforms passed us on to them, and they
beat us up in black cars. They kept pushing us back and forth. Both the Belarusians and
Latvians took us to different border pillars sometimes they brought us there by cars and
sometimes ordered to go by foot. Once they separated me from my family.’
Interviewee N7, male, spent ten days in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August 2021),
returned to his country of nationality in mid-December after having spent four months in the
Daugavpils centre, on the ECtHR list.
The wounds of Interviewee N7 from when the Latvian forces allegedly beat him
11
On 7 August 2021, I, together with my husband and his cousin, took a plane to Belarus. We
spent three days in a hotel in Minsk before going by taxi to the Belarusian-Latvian border on
10 August 2021. The taxi driver spoke Russian. We went to the border in a group of five
people.
The driver took us close to the border and said we had to go on foot after that point. After
the taxi stopped, we walked for around seven hours first on the Belarusian and then on
Latvian territory. Then Latvian soldiers
12
caught us and took us back to the Belarus border.
They hit the men with electroshock and told their dogs to attack us.
After that the Belarusian border guards caught us. We told them we wanted to go back to
Minsk but they did not let us do so, although we still had valid Belarus visas in our passports.
They took us back to the border and ordered us to return to Latvia. Over the subsequent
week we continued to be pushed back and forth. The men were beaten up by Latvian
commandos. The Belarusian border guards never hit us.
Interviewee N8, female, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August- late
October 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in early November, on the ECtHR list
II
‘They beat me up, hit me with electroshock over 20 times and dunked my head in dirty water’
Over the subsequent days, the third-country nationals who had attempted to enter Latvia from
Belarus since 10 August were gathered into larger groups who ended up stranded on the border line
with Belarusian border guards on one side and Latvian border guards on another side. Both sides
were not letting people to cross the border, forcing them to stay on the borderline under an open
sky without any protection from cold or rain.
Altogether there were four groups of people stranded at the Latvia-Belarus border at that time. The
largest one involved 41 Kurdish-ethnic Iraqi nationals who subsequently became applicants in the
case H.M.M. and Others v. Latvia (ECtHR group).
13
Another group was composed of 18 Iraqi nationals
of Yazidi background. The remaining two groups were smaller and equally included Iraqi nationals
(although not exclusively).
12
The interviewees use the general term ‘soldiers’ to refer to border guards, the military and police forces.
13
Interviewees N1,2,3,4,5,6,7 and 8 were part of this group.
12
A group of Iraqi nationals of Yazidi background stranded on the Latvia-Belarus border, August 2021
13
‘When the Latvians took us back to the Belarus side, Belarusian border guards caught us and
brought us to the border line. Other people, including [Interviewee N2], where already sitting
there. The Belarusian border guards brought there more people from other places and made
one group. On one side, there were Belarusian soldiers, and on the other Latvian soldiers.
We were trapped between them and could not move anywhere. It was only after several
days that Latvian border guards brought us biscuits and water.’
Interviewee N7, male, spent ten days in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August 2021),
returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December after having spent four months in
the Daugavpils centre, on the ECtHR list.
‘After we were pushed back to the Belarus side again and Belarusian border guards caught
us, we told them that the Latvians beat us and told their dogs to attack us. The Belarusians
put us in soldier cars and drove to a place where other refugees where sitting as well. They
told us that if we sit there together the Latvians will not be able to beat us. Altogether we
were 41 persons. At first we did not have any food but several days later Latvian border
guards brought us some biscuits and water. While we were staying at this place, Latvian
border guards suggested that we make videos and send them to journalists, maybe the
European Union would so something for us and send some people to help us.’
Interviewee N1, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August- late
October 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in early November, on the ECtHR list
First we were sitting at the border pillar 235 for around two or three days and then at the
border pillar 98 for around seven to nine days. While we were at the border 235 Latvian
border guards deceived us. They asked us to go with them and told there was an ambulance
or that they would take us to a refugee camp. But instead the commandos came, divided us
into three groups and drove us to different border pillars. They sent me and my father to the
border pillar 98 and sent women with children, including my mother and my brother, to the
border pillar 70. They ordered me to cross the border into Belarus and told that my family
was coming soon. I crossed the border and was waiting for my family but they did not come,
so I went back to the border and asked about them. The Latvian officer who was staying
there hit me and ordered me to go. One day later one of the Latvian officers promised me to
bring back my family if I make a video and tell that Belarusian border guards were bad. I was
ready to do everything and was crying a lot, so I and [Interviewee N1] filmed the video where
I told bad things about the Belarusians for example, that they did not let us go back to
Minsk although we had a visa. After that I was reunited with my family.
While we were staying at the border pillar 98, a Latvian officer told me to make a video and
send it to journalists. He told maybe this would help us. We were trapped between Latvian
and Belarusian soldiers but still had our phones and internet connection. The Latvians also
charged a power bank for us. So I began taking photos and shooting videos. I contacted a
journalist of Kurdish origin living in Germany and he put me in touch with a journalist from
the Deutsche Welle. Some of these videos were published by the Deutsche Welle on 18
14
August 2021.
14
Through my cousin I contacted Mr Edgars Oļševskis, a Latvian lawyer, whom
we asked for help. I wrote an authorisation for him and collected signatures of all refugees
who were with me at that time. I transferred the photo of the signed authorisation to Mr
Oļševskis through my cousin.
15
I also got in touch with ‘Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem’, a Latvian
NGO providing assistance to refugees, and sent them the videos I had shot.
16
Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11
August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November, on the
ECtHR list
The videos shot by Interviewee N2, published by Deutsche Welle
The Rule 39 requests were received by the ECtHR on 20 August 2021. In the subsequent days, the
NGO ‘Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem’ started delivering hot meals to the persons stranded at the border.
The NGO representatives were not allowed to approach the groups directly and gave the food to the
border guards who, in turn, passed it to people. The NGO representatives also contacted the
UNHCR's Representation for the Nordic and Baltic Countries who announced its intention to visit the
stranded group on 24 August. The group was informed about their planned visit.
14
See https://twitter.com/dwnews/status/1427884214687391744. Other videos shot by Interviewee N2 are on
file with the author.
15
On file with the author.
16
On file with the author.
15
On 20 August, the Latvian border guards transferred three families with young children (11 persons
in total) to the Daugavpils camp. This has been documented on a video filmed by Interviewee N2.
The video features a representative of the Latvian border guard informing the families they would be
transferred to the camp ‘according to our law and international law’.
17
Interviewees N3 and 7, who
represent two of the three families in question, accuse the Latvian authorities of attempting to
deceive them.
‘When they came on August 20 they said they were taking families with young children and
that that we would be able to ask for protection. We knew they were lying but we were
scared that they would beat us again. We were worried about our children and this is why we
followed them.’
Interviewee N3, male, spent ten days in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August 2021),
returned to the country of his nationality in late November after having spent three months in
the Daugavpils centre, on the ECtHR list
‘When we were taken to Daugavpils, they simply deceived us. We understood that we would
be able to claim asylum.’
Interviewee N7, male, spent ten days in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August 2021),
returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December after having spent four months in
the Daugavpils centre, on the ECtHR list.
Interviewee N9 and his family found themselves in another group stranded at the border during that
time. The group involved 11 individuals. Interviewee N9 and his family were transferred to the
Daugavpils camp on 17 August.
On August 11 me, my wife and our four children (aged 3, 8, 11 and 12) travelled to Minsk
from Erbil via Turkey. We spent two days in a hotel in Minsk and then went to the Latvian
border by taxi. Taxi drivers spoke Arabic. Altogether there were 11 persons in our group; the
others were travelling alone without families.
We arrived at the Latvian border on 14 August. After we crossed the border Latvian border
guards caught us and returned us to Belarus. Belarusian border guards brought us to a place
where we found ourselves trapped between both sides. We remained there for nearly three
days. We were located in the direct proximity of the [ECtHR] group and could see them.
On one occasion the Latvians deceived us. They told they would take us to the camp but took
us to the forest instead. We were walking long distances without food, got very tired and
ultimately were returned to the same place again. Belarusian border guards never hit us but
the Latvians treated us as if we were not human beings. The men from our group were
beaten up and hit with electroshock in the forest on the Latvian territory. Latvian
commandos threatened to kill us if we come back from Belarus again.
17
On file with the author.
16
On 17 August they transferred me and my family to the Daugavpils camp.’
Interviewee N9, male, spent three days in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August
2021), returned to the country of his nationality in late September after having spent one
month at the Daugavpils centre.
The interviewees testify that on 23-24 August, shortly before the planned UNHCR visit to the border,
the Latvian authorities removed the stranded groups from the border line. According to the
interviewees from the ECtHR group, the Latvian authorities first attempted to persuade people to
follow them under false pretences and then removed them from the border line by force. Persons
from the groups stranded at the border were then reportedly brought to two tents in the Latvian
territory and later divided into smaller groups, driven to different border pillars and ordered to cross
the border into Belarus. According to the interviewees, this was accompanied by brutal violence by
Latvian forces.
According to the interviewees from the ECtHR group, on 23 August they were approached by a
representative of the Latvian State Border Guard who asked them in the English language to follow
him.
‘One day a man from the Latvian border guard approached us. He talked a lot. He said they
were going to bring us food, hot water, everything else. I called someone from the human
rights organisation and he told me this man was telling lies and we should not follow him. But
half of our group followed him because it was cold at the border and we did not have much
food.’
Interviewee N1, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August-
late October 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in early November, on the ECtHR
list
‘On 23 August a man in border guard uniform came to us. He had white hair and wore a
mask. He said he worked at immigration. Some of our group followed him but others,
including my family, stayed. I recorded his voice.’
Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11
August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November, on the
ECtHR list
Below is the transcription of the voice record
18
referred to above:
‘Voice N1: We are immigration service officials. [..] Our main task is to carry out some
procedures with foreigners according to our laws. [..] I am an official at the unit which carries
out some procedures with foreigners. Our main task is to communicate with foreigners. Our
18
On file with the author.
17
main task is to take an interview with you. Our main task is to identify your personality to
check your passports or other kind of documents. [..] We have to take our procedure but we
cannot do this on this border line [..] because you disturb our border guards from performing
their duties. [..] That’s why we kindly ask you to cooperate with us and leave this border line
and go with us to special roads where we can do our procedures. And also on that roads we
can carry out some humanitarian activities, we can easier provide you hot foot, water,
medical care, healthcare, medical check and so on. On this line we cannot do it, we can do it
only on that road. It is very difficult to provide here food, water, medical doctors, because
the road is not so good. My dear friends, besides, it is not legal to carry out our work, our
procedure here. It is not so easy to do it here. That is why we kindly ask you to leave this
zone. We will deliver you with quadracycles and other means of transport. Outside this line
we can also solve any humanitarian moments. Next, it is not legal to stay here and disturb
our personnel from carrying out their duties. That is why I ask you to think something. You
can discuss my offers and after that you can give me your answer. But don’t forget that we
provide, we offer [..] and we wait from you also to cooperate with us. Is that clear? Super,
thank you. I will give you 5-10 minutes that you can discuss in your group [..] and after that
we wait your answer.
[..]
Voice N2 [one of the persons from the group]: My question is that: after the road where we
go?
Voice N1: We will go to the road, it is a special road. It is a road where we can communicate
with you, maybe I will try to identify you. Because some of you have documents. […] After
that I have to communicate with you and to know your reasons, I have to know some details,
but the main task to go from this [place] is a humanitarian aspect. [..] as quickly as possible to
provide food, water, medical care if necessary. [..]
Voice N2 [one of the persons from the group]: Sometimes they say we want [us] to go to the
road and we want to have humanity, but after the humanity came the commandos and hit
us.
Voice N1: Ok, you are afraid of commandos, yes?
Voice N2: I don’t’ want to come…
Voice N1: But don’t forget. You are filming and taking photos, and don’t forget – we will say
to international organisations that we provide you help and you don’t want to cooperate
with us. With the state border guard. It is not so good for you, you know.
Voice N2: Sir…
Voice N1: What are you afraid of, I don’t understand?!
Voice N3 [one of the persons from the group]: Before we came with the government, the
police like you. [..] And they hit us. Commandos came…
Voice N1: As I understand, you don’t trust me. You don’t trust the immigration office.
18
Voice N2: Sir, but the international…
Voice N1: Ok, stop. Ok, what do you want? I can’t understand.
Voice N2: We want to go to the camp. We don’t want to go to the road and interviews on the
road.
Voice N1: How can we provide this moment if you don’t want to leave this border line?
[shouting] How can I help you? Try to think! Switch on your brain! [..] You will sit a long time
here because you don’t want to cooperate with us! And I don’t understand what I must do to
help you.
Voice N2: We just want international humanity … to come here and after they come here…’
The group of 41 persons subsequently split into two parts, with some of the people following the
man and some refusing to do so. Interviewees N1 and 2 were among those who decided to remain
on the borderline waiting for the UNHCR to arrive. According to their testimonies, in the early
morning of 24 August they were forcefully removed from that place by the Latvian authorities.
‘Early in the morning that man [mentioned above] came again. He said that if we did not
follow him now they were going to take us away by force. After a couple of minutes 20-30
soldiers came and took us by force. They took us to a nearby road where we saw several cars
with commandos. They forced us into their cars and ordered us to hold our heads down and
not to look at them or anywhere else. They dropped us off at a place in the forest with two
orange tents. There were around 100 people in the tents. There were many soldiers with
guns around us.
They started investigating us one by one. They asked where we came from and why we came
here, and we had to answer all their questions. They checked all our clothes, pockets, bags,
and shoes. They checked my phone by a computer programme and checked my contacts. We
asked why they were doing all this but they told us not to speak. They removed my SIM card
from the slot and put my phone into water before my eyes. After that they put us again in
the tent.
The following day they started to take people to the border. But before that they brought me
outside the tent and started to hit me with electroshock. I was yelling loudly. They used
electroshock on my entire body, they hit me in my tongue and blood started to come out of
my mouth. They also hit me in the back of my neck and my private parts. I lost conscience
and fell on the ground. A few seconds later I regained conscience and three commandos
started beating me. I was lying on the ground, one was sitting on me and the other ones
were beating me with feet and hands. I was yelling, I did not know what to do, that was
crazy. One of the soldiers came again, held me and dunked my head into a bucket of water
three times. I thought he was going to kill me. They told me, ‘Don’t speak, don’t yell, and
don’t say anything.’ They put me in the car and started to do the same to [Interviewee N2].
They were beating everyone who was with us.
19
After that they took us to the border. They split us into smaller groups and put into separate
cars. Sometimes they separated families for example, put mothers with children into one
car and fathers into another car. We did not know where they were taking us. When we
asked they told us we had no right to speak. They dropped me off and ordered to go to
Belarus. They told me, ‘If I see you again, maybe I am going to kill you. I don’t want to see
your face again.
Interviewee N1, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August-
late October 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in early November, on the ECtHR
list
‘My group split into two. Some people followed the man [mentioned above]. I told them not
to go with him as maybe that was not good for us. I told them we should stay there and wait
for the UNHCR to come but they did not listen to me and went away. I also heard other
groups shouting one of them was maybe only two or three border pillars away from us.
There were now 17 people left in my group. At 5-6 am in the morning Latvian soldiers came
and forced us to come with them. My family and I not want to go. But we could not stay
alone at the border and did not have any other options, so we followed them.
They took us to a place with two tents. This place was hidden in the forest in the Latvian
territory close to the village of Robežnieki. They brought people from other border pillars
there as well, so altogether we were around 90-100 people at this place. I saw only a few
border guards there; most of the people guarding the tents were police swat. We stayed
there for the following night.
Later they broke all my phones. I had four mobile phones they put all of them into water.
They ordered us to come one by one from the tent and beat us very hard. I was beaten up by
five or six men one of them was a border guard and all the others police SWAT. Then one
person hit me with electroshock 20-22 times. He hit me 16 times in the back, one time in
the head and one more time in the back of my neck. He also tried to use electroshock on
my private parts three times but he succeeded only once as I did not let him and he
charged my hand twice instead.
I was like dead and closed my eyes. Then they dunked my head into dirty water three times
and I woke up. All my face was in blood, and all my body was in dirty water. They treated
me as if were not a human being, as if I had killed someone or were a terrorist. My mum
and my brother were crying, and they ordered me to tell my brother to stop crying or they
would kill him. But he was only ten years old.
After that they loaded us into cars, took us again to the border, split us into small groups and
ordered to return to Belarus. At that time I was together with my family and Interviewees N4
and 5.
I have a question to the Latvian state why did they hit me? We say fine, if you do not want
us to come to your country, we don’t come. But you know that Belarus does not accept me,
so I will need to stay at the border. We were sitting at the border and waiting. We did not do
20
anything bad. But then the border guards came and forced us to cross the border into Latvia.
We did not want to cross the border they wanted us to do so. And it was the Latvian border
guards who told me to take videos and translate for my group. And later they hit me because
I took videos and spoke English.’
Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11
August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November, on the
ECtHR list
‘They brought us to a tent where we joined people from other groups who were already
sitting there. While we were in the tent, they ordered the men to go outside one by one. We
heard how they were beating them. They were screaming. When they returned them to the
tent after a while, we could see that they were beaten. They were crying like children. I felt
so sad and sorry for them.
Following that they divided us into smaller groups and forced us into cars. I was in one car
with [Interviewee N2] and his family and [Interviewee N5]. They took us to the Belarus
border and ordered us to cross it. They told that if we come back they would kill us.’
Interviewee N4, female, spent nearly four months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border
(11 August- late November 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in December, on
the ECtHR list
These testimonies have also been confirmed by other people from the ECtHR group, such as
Interviewees N5, 6 and 8. They have also confirmed that Latvian forces used electroshock on
Interviewees N1 and 2 and dunked their head in water.
Interviewee N10 was not part of the ECtHR group but equally testifies he was taken to the
tent after having experienced pushbacks and violence over the preceding days. He told that
on 20-22 August intermediaries brought him, his wife, young children and two of their
relatives to the forest on the Belarus side close to an official border crossing point.
‘We wandered for two days in the forest before we saw a green fence. We walked along it
for around half an hour before we reached a border crossing point. We suddenly found
themselves in between Latvian and Belarusian soldiers who stood there with guns. We were
standing in the centre of the border strip. My legs began shaking; I thought they would start
shooting now. The gate in the fence was open and we carefully crossed into the Latvian side.
The Latvian border guards asked us to follow them inside the Latvian territory. We walked
around two kilometres. My children could barely walk, everyone was very tired. Then they
told us to sit and wait. First their boss arrived in a green jeep. He checked our papers. We
told him many times we wanted to claim asylum. He asked where we wanted to go and if we
wanted to go to Germany. I replied that it did not matter to me; I just wanted my children to
be safe. Then he called someone, and men in black uniforms arrived. They checked our
backpacks and threw all our belongings on the ground. They said they did not care why we
21
came to Latvia and started swearing. All this happened before my children’s eyes. Later two
men in military uniforms arrived.
They hit us very hard, they know where to hit to make it more painful but not to leave any
permanent damage. They dragged me to the ground and hit me with feet. Then the men in
black uniforms hit me with sticks and electroshock, including my private parts. They hit me
for no reason just asked why we crossed the border illegally, although we said that we
wanted to ask for asylum. They did not care about that.
On around 23 August they took us to a tent where we joined around 70 Iraqis. The following
day they loaded us into cars again and took us back to the border. Before that they hit us all
very hard by sticks and electroshock, everyone was screaming. They did that on purpose, so
that we do not come back again. I cannot even describe how brutal it was. Those who beat us
up were men in black uniforms. Then they dropped us off, ordered us to cross the border and
told that if we don’t do so they will shoot at us. It did not matter to them that children were
present there as well.’
Interviewee N10, male, spent nearly one month in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border
(August- September 2021).
On 24 August the UNCHR representatives visited the location the third-country nationals were
previously stranded but did not find any people there. On 25 August, when the groups had already
been removed from the border line, the ECtHR indicated interim measures in the H.M.M. and Others
v. Latvia. The Court decided, without prejudice to any duties that Belarus may have under
international law regarding the situation of the applicants, to apply Rule 39 and request that the
Latvian authorities provide all the applicants with food, water, clothing, adequate medical care and,
if possible, temporary shelter. The measure applied for a period of three weeks from 25 August until
15 September 2021 inclusive. On 15 September the ECtHR lifted temporary measures. The Court
indicated that a total of 11 of the group (six adults and five children), ‘had been admitted onto
Latvian territory for humanitarian reasons, in the main for health problems and the fact that some
were minors’
19
and that the other applicants no longer appeared to be at or near the border zone.
19
The group transferred to the Daugavpils centre on 20 August, see above.
22
August 2021 February 2022
III
‘I have never seen life like this. I will never forget that.’
Following the events described above, the third-country nationals who sought entry into Latvia from
Belarus continued to experience daily pushbacks. According to the interviewees, from then on every
night they used to be transported to a tent set up by the Latvian authorities in the Latvian territory
and then pushed back into Belarus the following morning.
20
During the day, they were transported
back to Latvia by the Belarusian border guards.
‘After the Latvians took us to the border [following the events on August 23-24] I was very
scared. After we crossed the border we spent three days in the forest on the Belarus side.
We were walking slowly and wanted to get somewhere but eventually Belarus soldiers
caught us again. We started to cry. I said, ‘Please, we will give you money, just don’t return
me to Latvia as they are going to kill me’. They told they had an order to bring us back. So
they put us in the car and took us to the border again.
Then the Latvian border guards saw us and told us to follow them. We walked around 50
meters inside the forest, so that no one could see what was going to happen. After 30-40
minutes commandos arrived in big vans. They yelled ‘Look down, look down!’, checked our
clothes, ordered us to lie down with our faces on the ground and beat us with feet.
From then on, this procedure repeated every day they took us to the tent and back to the
border (there was now one tent instead of the two). During my first month in the forest the
Latvians used to take us to the border and force to cross into Belarus two times a day.
One or two times a week they ordered us to cross the border through a swamp. The water
was so dirty and we could not move, because if you move you can get sucked in. They told us
it was only one meter deep but sometimes it was deeper. And the water was black, so we
could not see if there was something dangerous inside.
One month later they ordered us to cross the border one time a day. Every day at 4am they
woke us up, put us in cars and drove us to the border. Sometimes they put 20-25 people in
one minibus. It was so hard for us we had to sit on our knees with our heads down like the
biggest terrorists in the world.
Every day they took us to different border pillars. We knew all their numbers. When the
Belarusians returned us back, the Latvians checked everything again and asked us to take off
all our clothes. Every day was like that.’
Interviewee N1, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August-
late October 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in early November, on the ECtHR
list
20
This was confirmed by all my interviewees who remained at the border after August 24.
23
‘[After the events on 23 and 24 august] they drove me to the border. I was together with my
family and two other women [Interviewees N4 and 5]. After that we got caught by Belarusian
border guards who returned us to Latvia, and the Latvians returned us back to Belarus. We
stayed alone in the forest for seven or eight days. Later the Latvians started to take us to the
tent every night. It was better than to sleep in the forest. We were around 48 persons in the
tent the rest of those who were with us on 24 August managed to go back to Minsk, as they
still had phones. Every morning they took us from the tent by a minibus to the Belarus
border. We stayed on the Belarus side for several hours and then had to return back.
Sometimes in one day Latvians forced us to cross the border with Belarus two or three times.
Some days they allowed my family to stay in the tent because my father had broken his leg
and my brother was small.
All the time I said we were ready to pay money to go back. Once we offered Belarusian
border guards 5,000 dollars just to let us go back to Minsk. They did not accept that. I offered
the Latvians money as well but they did not accept it either. Latvian forces did not let us have
phones. They broke all phones. We asked them, ‘Just give us a phone and we will go back to
Minsk.’ They said they could not do so. We tried to go back to Minsk many times but we did
not succeed because we did not have a phone.
Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11
August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November, on the
ECtHR list
‘When we were forced to cross the border [after the events on 23 and 24 august] we were
running about 10 km with children. We were very scared. But then Belarus border guards
caught us and took us back to the Latvian border. Then Latvian commandos in black uniforms
arrived again. These people are extremely cruel. They arrived in long big vans and forced us
inside like cattle. They checked all our belongings again and then brought us to the tent for
the night. At 4 am in the morning they woke everyone up and took us back to the border.
This repeated every day. It became a mandatory procedure for everyone, like going to work.
The Latvians fingerprinted us, and both the Latvians and Belarusians took pictures of us. The
Latvians told us this was their country and we needed to return to where we came from.’
Interviewee N10, male, spent nearly one month in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border
(August- September 2021).
They were three groups of Latvian commandos each of them brought people from the tent
to different border pillars. After some time Belarus border guards caught us and took us back
to the border. If there were many of us, they took us back by cars, but if there were only a
few people they just showed us the direction to the border and ordered to walk there.’
Interviewee N6, male, spent over three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11
August- mid-November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in late November, on
the ECtHR list.
24
After the Latvians forced us to cross the border into Belarus I was in a group of eight people.
We spent four to five days in the forest being pushed back and forth without food or drinking
water. We were even afraid to make fire. It was raining and we were drenched; we could not
sleep. We wanted to return to Minsk but were intercepted again by Belarusian border
guards.
Five days later, after the Latvians caught us again, they took us to the tent. Every time they
woke us up at 4am and drove us back to the Belarusian border. Later the Belarusian border
guards took us back. If they could not find us, we stayed in the forest. I spent 80 days at the
border out of these, we stayed around one month in the forest under an open sky. For the
rest of the time they took us to the tent for the night and then sent us back in the morning.’
Interviewee N8, female, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August- late
October 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in early November, on the ECtHR list
‘Every day early in the morning when it was still dark we were all taken from the tent to the
forest in Belarus. The commandos entered the tent, woke us up and told we had to be ready
in 10 minutes. After 10-15 minutes they opened the tent’s door and took us one by one to
the cars. Sometimes women and children stayed in the tent because it was too cold. When I
stayed in Latvia there were 43 persons in the tent and Latvian soldiers normally took us to
the border in three cars 10-12 people in each car. But sometimes they loaded 20 people in
one car, although there was no space for so many people. On the way to the border we
needed to hold our heads down and not to look anywhere, so that the location of the tent
was not revealed. If anybody raised their head up they would get hit. Hitting was normal for
them. Every day they took us to different border pillars one day that could be the pillar N15
and the following day the pillar N37, 72 or 299.
Border pillars like N15, 47, 50 , 55 or 72 were easy. We walked two to three kilometres inside
the Belarusian territory; we knew there was a small village with some old empty houses. We
entered these houses and knew Belarus soldiers had their cameras placed there. We stayed
under the cameras and they arrived in half an hour. They brought everybody bread and
water. Sometimes we paid them money and they bought us food from the shop, such as
meat or cheese. We stayed there, eat the food and made fire. After one or two hours Belarus
border guards brought us back by car to the Latvian border. Sometimes they brought us back
in a group of around ten persons but we could also be 30-40 people.
We arrived at the Latvian border at 12-1pm, it was good time. We searched for surveillance
cameras and stood under them waiting for the Latvian border guards to come and call the
commandos who would then take us to the tent. We would arrive at the tent at 2pm, and at
around 4pm they would bring us biscuits and water. That was our dinner. And once in three
days they gave us a little soup, nothing more.
But some border pillars were very difficult. Border pillars like N189, 200 or 259 are close to
Lithuania and there are no villages or houses there, nothing. This is why the Belarusian
soldiers told us not to go far from the border, just stay and wait for them to come. So when
we crossed the border at this place we walked around 200 m into Belarus, collected firewood
25
and made fire so that we do not die from the cold while we were waiting for the Belarusian
soldiers to come. We did not know how long we would need to wait sometimes they
arrived in one or two but sometimes only in five or six hours. It was very cold in the forest
and I did not feel my fingers and toes anymore. And the Latvian tent was very far from
these pillars, the way was very long. After the Belarusians took us back to the border we
had to wait for Latvian commandos for one or two hours in the cold. After they arrived
they ordered us to hold our heads down again and checked everybody’s clothes for some
spying software. Then we taken into commandos’ minibuses and needed to hold our heads
down again. We needed to drive for one or two hours to get to the tent, so we only arrived
there at night. And in the morning everything repeated again.’
Interviewee N11, male, spent two months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October-
December 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December
‘When I was in the forest the snow was more than a meter deep. We were walking all the
time to make our bodies warm, because otherwise we would have died. When we were
taken back to the Latvian border, Latvian border guards called the commandos. It was very
cold, and sometimes we had to wait for several hours in the snow until they came. When
they arrived they checked all my body.
The Latvians asked us to cross the border through a swamp. It was very cold and it was
covered with ice. Three times I broke through the ice and fell inside the water. All my body
was wet.’
Interviewee N12, male, spent two months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October-
December 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December.
The interviewees reveal that every time they came back to the tent, Latvian authorities checked their
clothes. In some cases, people were reportedly asked to undress completely. In addition, both
Latvian and Belarusian authorities reportedly ordered people stranded at the border to provide
information about the other side.
‘The Latvians asked us many times what was happening on the Belarus side, what the
Belarusian soldiers were doing, what they wanted, what they said. Latvian police SWAT were
checking us every day. During one of these times they saw my watch; it was a fake Rolex
watch. They said, ‘Oh, it’s Rolex’. Two or three days later they asked me to give them my
watch. When I later asked where my watch was they promised to give it back to me but it
never happened.’
Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11
August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November, on the
ECtHR list
26
On one occasion Latvian commandos checked the wallet of my husband with 1,000 dollars,
took all the money from it and gave him the empty wallet back. We noticed that only later, as
we had to look on the ground while they were checking our clothes.’
Interviewee N8, female, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August- late
October 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in early November, on the ECtHR list
Every day the Latvians were asking us what Belarus border guards were doing, what we saw
on the Belarus side and where they took us. So I had to be a spy for them, because otherwise
they would beat me up. Every day the Latvians were checking everything and ordered us to
take off all our clothes. They were scared that the Belarusians could put spying software
inside.
Belarus soldiers never asked me about Latvian soldiers. We were brought to the Latvian
border by one or two young soldiers without guns. But on the Latvian side we were
intercepted by 20 persons with night-vision devices; it looked like that they were sent there
for something big. But the Belarusians were easy with us; they gave us food and sometimes
cigarettes. By contrast, the Latvians even confiscated a lighter if we had one and we could
not make fire. They wanted us to get cold. We had to look for Belarusian border guards and
ask them for a lighter.’
Interviewee N1, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August-
late October 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in early November, on the ECtHR
list
‘They played a political game with us. The Latvians asked me to give them information about
Belarusians for example, how they were dressed and where they were located. The
Belarusians also asked us about the Latvians, but if we gave any information to them we
would get beaten by Latvian soldiers.’
Interviewee N11, male, spent two months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October-
December 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December
I speak good English, so the Belarusians told me I had to work as a spy for them. I said I could
not do so because Belarus had a dictator and maybe the Latvians would kill me in the forest if
I bring any information. But then a Belarus soldier brought me to some place and put
something on my clothes to reveal my location and intercept information when I speak with
the Latvian army. I saw this and put it in the fire. If Latvians saw that they would hit me.’
Interviewee N12, male, spent two months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October-
December 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December
27
The testimonies collected reveal that the interviewees were forced to live in inhuman and degrading
conditions for several weeks or months and were continuously exposed to violence by the Latvian
forces.
During my first weeks in the tent they hit me many times. After that they did not hit me
anymore because I learned to play by their rules not to speak, not to look up, not to make
any wrong move. If they gave us food we took it. If they did not give us food we could not ask
them for anything.
If some people attack me in Iraq I can defend myself or run away. But here I was a refugee, I
was asking for food and a place to sleep, and they were hurting me. And when they hit me
they told me, ‘Don’t make any mistake, don’t defend yourself’. I had not seen any place like
this. Even if the government catches Daesh, they put them in jail but do not do to them what
Latvia did to us. I wish Latvia is never successful.
One night when they were taking us to the forest the commandos hit a woman. She was the
mother of [Interviewee N2]. They hit her and she yelled. They told her, ‘Don’t scream, just
shut up and don’t make any noise. Don’t cry or we are going to beat you more’.
Interviewee N1, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August-
late October 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in early November, on the ECtHR
list
‘The Belarusians were friendly with us. When they found us they said ‘Hi’ and ‘Welcome
again’, and when they sent us back they said ‘Good-bye’ and ‘See you tomorrow’. And we
were sent to the border by just one or two persons in civil clothes. But on the Latvian side
there were too many people with huge guns. I don’t know why they were using these guns,
we are normal people. And they come with police SWAT, not ordinary border guards. All
the time they gave us orders ‘Sit on your knees’, ‘Hand behind your head’, ‘Look down’,
‘Take off your clothes’, like if we were terrorists.
They told me they did not care if we die or not as that was not important for their country. I
was severely beaten up two or three times. At other times they did not hit me so hard they
said it is like a joke. My father broke his leg many years ago, and after I told Latvian soldiers
his leg was getting worse, two of them wanted to hit me. One time they hit my mum with
feet and I would have preferred to die rather than see that. I could not do anything. Her
shoes were broken and they sent her to the forest without shoes. Later Belarus soldiers gave
her shoes.
Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11
August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November, on the
ECtHR list
28
Once at 12am they brought us to a place in the forest close to the border crossing point and
told us to sit there. It was raining heavily all night, and my children spent the night lying on
the ground. I put all my clothes on them, and then after 4am a border guard came and gave
us one green trench.
In the morning people in black and military uniforms arrived. One of them started swearing
at me and asked why I came to the Latvian side again. We replied we were only asking for
asylum, nothing more. He started beating me he dragged me to the ground and put his foot
on my leg. He was dressed in military uniform. He took a gun and pointed at my head. After
that they took my friend in the car and started beating him too.’
Interviewee N10, male, spent nearly one month in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border
(August- September 2021).
Many times I saw the Latvians beating men and hitting them with electroshock. They
punched me two or three times as well. That happened in November. They took us to the
border and ordered to cross into Belarus. I probably did not have enough vitamins and could
not walk fast, so they punched me on my back to make me move faster. They punched other
women I was with, too.’
Interviewee N4, female, spent nearly four months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border
(11 August- late November 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in December, on
the ECtHR list
‘They used to take us to the tent for the night and bring us back to the forest at 4 or 5am.
Sometimes the Latvians forced us to cross the border through the river. We cried and said,
‘Please, we are women and cannot swim’. The water was up to my chest but it did not matter
to them. It was snowing already as they asked people I was with in the tent to cross the
border through water.
The men were regularly taken out of the tent, beaten up and hit with electroshock. We could
not do anything; we cried and waited for the men to return. Sometimes they were beating
them for several minutes, sometimes it lasted for 30 minutes or one hour. Those who hit
them were commandos in masks and black uniforms.’
Interviewee N5, female, spent nearly four months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border
(11 August- late November 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in December, on
the ECtHR list
The Latvians beat the men up and hit them with electroshock. They did not hit women but
nonetheless treated us badly. Once I had a headache and asked them for a tablet they
pulled me by my hair and pushed me aside.’
Interviewee N18 , female, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August-
late October 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in early November
They used to take the men outside the tent and beat them by sticks and electroshock. We
stayed in the tent and could hear them screaming and crying. And every time new people
were brought to the tent they got beaten up. Everyone had to undergo this procedure.’
29
Interviewee N13 , female, spent nearly four months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border
(August- late November 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in December
They treated us worse than animals. We were not allowed to smoke or to look into their
eyes, nothing. One person I was with did not know the rules and started smoking in the tent.
They took him out of the tent and beat him very hard.’
Interviewee N14, male, spent several days in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October-
November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November
The Latvian border guards handed us over to the commandos who treated us very badly. We
lived in the tent like in a prison, as if we had killed someone. If we looked at them or asked
for something even to give us some food or water we would get beaten immediately. We
were not supposed to say anything at all, so we were silent like children. They were also
always swearing at us [quotes some offensive words in Russian].’
Interviewee N6, male, spent over three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11
August- mid-November 2021), returned to the country of nationality in late November, on the
ECtHR list.
‘Latvian commandos beat me up five times. At 3am in the morning they took us from the
tent to the Belarus border and loaded 25 people in a small minibus. If they were taking us to
the distant border pillar for example, N214 - we were driving for around two hours. And we
needed to hold our heads down. Once I told an army soldier I could not sit on my knees in
the car as all people were on top of me and my knee hurt. When I got off the car he asked me
where it hurt, and one of them hit me with a foot in my knees. Now I need a bone
replacement, and the surgery is very expensive. On another occasion the commandos caught
me near the door of the tent, hit me in my stomach and put me back in the tent. I could not
breathe, had a blackout for a couple of minutes and threw up.
One day they brought ten new people to the tent. We were now 45 persons in the tent and
some of them did not have a place to sleep. I gave my place to a woman from Syria. One of
the newcomers (also from Syria) was shouting. A soldier entered the tent and said he heard
voices. I said we were just speaking about the place to sleep, because too many people came
and maybe we needed two tents. He ordered me and the man who was shouting to come
out of the tent, and three commandos beat me up. My nose was bleeding. They brought me
back in the tent and the following morning ordered us to wake up and go to Belarus. I
screamed, ‘Please, let me stay just for one day and have a rest because I do not feel my
body’. They said, ‘F*** your body, go to Belarus’.
Hitting in the head was an ordinary thing for them. That happened every day. If you ask
them for something, you will have a problem maybe they will not give you water and
biscuits for two days. I have never seen a country like Latvia.’
Interviewee N12, male, spent two months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October-
December 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December
30
Asylum-seekers from Syria at the Latvia-Belarus border (presumably on the Belarus side). The
picture was taken in early December and sent to their relatives to show they were alive. A
representative of the Latvian NGO ‘Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem’ has confirmed the boots the
people in the picture are wearing were previously delivered upon request to the Latvian State
Border Guard.
31
Latvian soldiers gave us only biscuits and one bottle of water a day. There were different
types of biscuits (Interviewee N11 has confirmed these included Latvia-produced Selga
biscuits) and rice cakes. They were not tasty and we hated them but had to eat this as we
were hungry. These were the worst days of my life. Belarus soldiers were better as they
brought us bread or some other food. They also did shopping for us.
Interviewee N11, male, spent two months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October-
December 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December.
‘On the Latvian side we were only given small biscuits and 1.5 litre of water per person a day.
At first the Belarusians did not give us any food but later they started to give us bread and
other food, so that we could have protein or vitamins. They asked us not to tell the Latvians
about that because then they would not give us any food, at all. Sometimes the Belarusians
also let us go to a shop, or we gave them money and they bought food for us. They were
cheating, of course for example, we gave them 100 dollars or more but they brought us too
little food. But that was good for us anyway because we did not eat anything for a long time.
During my last month in Latvia (October 2021), the Latvians started to give us a little soup
once in three days. I had lost 20 kilograms of weight during my time in the forest.
Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11
August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November, on the
ECtHR list
The Latvians gave us a package with three types of biscuits and water, just not to die. And
they gave us a little soup every three days but I could not even feel it, it was just like water.
We were not given anything else in Latvia.’
Interviewee N13 , female, spent nearly four months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border
(August- late November 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in December
‘They only gave us water and biscuits in the tent. And once in three or four days they gave us
a little soup. We did not have any fruits or protein, nothing. If the Belarusians did not give us
food, we would have died. They gave us bread and a little meat for example, one loaf of
bread and piece of meat for three people.
32
But on one occasion five persons [from our group] attempted to go back to Minsk. The
Belarus border guards caught them on their way and did not give us any food for two days as
a punishment. I saw people were dying and I told everyone, ‘Please don’t go to Minsk
because otherwise they will not give us any bread’.
Interviewee N12, male, spent two months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October-
December 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December
‘The tent itself was dirty. There was a heating device inside but the tent was poorly
ventilated and it was getting too hot. If we opened the tent’s door the commandos came and
closed it. They said they would turn the heater off if we opened the door. And if they turned
it off, they would not turn it on till the morning, and it was impossible to sleep like that.
There was also no hot or cold water in the tent, toilet was outside and we had to ask for
permission to go there.’
Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11
August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November, on the
ECtHR list
‘The toilet was located several meters apart from the tent. The door of the tent always
remained closed we could not look outside. If we wanted to go to the toilet, we needed to
stick the hand out of the tent and ask for permission. The soldiers accompanied us to the
toilet; they put their hand on our heads and demanded us to look down. We were not given
any water and could not wash our face or hands or anything. We were so dirty. I did not
shower for three months.’
Interviewee N1, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August-
late October 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in early November, on the ECtHR
list
‘The toilet was just a hole in the ground with sticks around it. There was the black plastic
material wrapped around these sticks. The commandos were watching us even while we
were sitting on the toilet and hit us if we looked them in the eyes. We did not have any
possibility to wash ourselves in the tent. Once they took us to a river and told us to wash
ourselves but it was very cold. I stepped inside the water but came out of it straight away
because it was too cold. I did not shower for around three months and was able to do so only
after they brought me to the Daugavpils camp.’
Interviewee N6, male, spent over three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11
August- mid-November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in late November, on
the ECtHR list.
‘There was no water or soap, so we could not wash ourselves. One day one soldier brought
us near the river, made fire and told all people to wash themselves. But it was already -2C
and not everyone could do so.’
Interviewee N12, male, spent two months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October-
December 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December
33
The interviewees testify that in mid-December the Latvian authorities stopped bringing people to
the tent, forcing them to live under an open sky despite the extremely low temperatures.
Air temperatures recorded in the Daugavpils region (August 2021-February 2022). Source:
https://meteostat.net
“Later the Latvians did not bring us to the tent anymore and we slept in the forest. We kept
moving back and forth between Latvia and Belarus. We were looking for Belarusian border
guards to get some food, as they gave us bread and soup sometimes. The Latvians only gave
us biscuits once in three days, nothing else. We were constantly walking to warm up. We
could not stay at one place because it was so cold.
We only survived because we could make fire otherwise we would have died. We were
sleeping in shifts for 2-3 hours, and two or three people had to keep the fire burning.
Sometimes we could not make fire because the firewood was too wet to use, so we were
simply walking back and forth. I have one kidney and spent two months in the forest”.
Interviewee N15, male, spent over two months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October-
January 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in mid-January
‘When the Latvians first brought me to the tent at the end of October, they fingerprinted me,
took my biometrics and checked my passport. They confiscated my phone and returned it
only when I was sent back to Iraq. Some Belarusian border guards later allowed me to use
their phone one or two times to call my parents and tell them I was alive.
34
The Latvians did not use electroshock on me but did beat me with hands, feet and sticks.
Sometimes this happened inside the car and sometimes in the forest outside the tent. Every
morning at 4am they woke us up and drove us to the Belarus border. The Belarusians would
then send us back. This was routine.
In mid-December they stopped taking us back to the tent and we stayed outside. It was very
cold, and we made fire during the night to survive. One or two people stayed awake and kept
the fire burning. When the Latvian commandos arrived, they took us to the Belarus border by
car they didn’t take us to the tent but immediately returned us to Belarus. The Belarusians
did the same. I have never seen life like this, I will never forget that. They are not human. I
was in a group of eight people, we cried so much. We spent the New Year’s Eve in the forest
under an open sky.’
Interviewee N16, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (October-January
2021), returned to the country of his nationality in January
I spent around one month on the Latvian border. Every day 15-18 people were taken from
the tent to the border with Belarus. Around December 14 everyone was thrown out of the
tent. They divided people into smaller groups (6-7 people in each group) and drove them to
different border pillars. Following that, we stayed in the forest for around 18 days. Every day
we were pushed back and forth once it happened to me seven times a day.
We spent nights on the Belarusian side in an unfinished house with no doors. It was very cold
and we slept in this house for one or two hours. When Latvian border guards caught us they
did not allow us to have a rest for more than 15 minutes and immediately forced us to go
back to Belarus.
During these days one person I was with even lost consciousness because of the cold. It
was so cold I did not feel my fingers. I even bit my fingers to the point they started bleeding
but I did not feel anything. Many people did not feel their back, arms or legs. The Latvians
would help us a little only in case they believed we were in pain or sick. But usually they did
not believe us. For example, I told them my leg hurt they checked it but did not see any
wounds. They told me I was telling lies and hit my leg with soldier boots. My leg still hurts
now. On another occasion I told them I had stomach pain and they hit me in my stomach. We
were hungry and could not endure beating but Latvian commandos still treated us this way.’
Interviewee N17, male, spent over one month in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border
(December 2021 -January 2022), returned to the country of his nationality in January
35
Ambassador of the United States to Latvia John L. Carwile, Head of Latvian State Border Guard Guntis
Pujāts and Latvian Interior Minister Marija Golubeva visiting the Latvia-Belarus border, 24 January
2022
Asylum-seekers at the Latvia-Belarus border (Latvian side). The photo was reportedly taken in the
second half of January (the author has received the photo on 6 February). According to the persons in
the picture, it was taken by Latvian police officers who agreed to send it to their relatives in Iraq to
show they were alive (see also pictures below: note a Latvian police car in the background).
36
The burns suffered by Interviewee N19 because of sleeping close to a fire
37
FORCED VOLUNTARY RETURN
They threatened to take us back to the forest if we refused to go back to Iraq’
The interviewees admitted in the Daugavpils centre on ‘humanitarian grounds’ claim that their
asylum applications were not registered and they were forced to accept the voluntary return
procedure after the Latvian authorities threatened to return them to the forest if they did not agree
to do so. The author was not allowed to visit asylum seekers at the Daugavpils centre and
documented the return procedure of Interviewee N7 at the airport instead.
‘On 20 August Latvian border guards transferred me, my wife and my children to the
Daugavpils centre. We told the centre officials that we wanted to claim asylum but they did
not register our applications. We spent three months and four days in the camp. During all
that time, our inspector kept telling us we needed to go back to Iraq or they would take us
back to the forest, or we would stay in the camp forever. I told the border guards at the
camp that I was beaten up in the forest. They told me the Latvians did not hit anyone and
most probably I was hit by the Belarusians. We did not want to go back but we had been
staying there for three months already, so eventually we forced to sign the [voluntary] return
form. At the Daugavpils centre, we were only allowed to use a phone one hour a day.
We paid 10,000 dollars to the intermediaries who organised our trip from Iraq to the Latvian
border via Belarus. That was all the money I had. I sold my house to be able to get to Europe
and now live in my father’s house. Previously we had never heard of a country named Latvia,
we just wanted to get to Europe.’
Interviewee N3, male, spent 10 days in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August 2021),
returned to the country of his nationality in late November after having spent three months in
the Daugavpils centre, on the ECtHR list
‘My family and I were transferred to the Daugavpils centre on 20 August. We asked for
asylum many times but officials were indifferent to that. We spent there four months and
were very tired, so we ultimately agreed to the voluntary return. It is dangerous for us to stay
in Iraq because my wife’s family did not agree to our marriage and have threatened to kill
me. We were forced to relocate because of that but I am still being threatened and feel
unsafe. I paid intermediaries 10,000 dollars to bring our family to Belarus and then to Europe.
I have spent all the money I had and borrowed 3,000 dollars extra. I have been left with
nothing now.’
Interviewee N7, male, spent ten days in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (August 2021),
returned to the country of his nationality in mid-December after having spent four months in
the Daugavpils centre, on the ECtHR list.
38
Interviewee N7 returning to Iraq with his family via the IOM assisted voluntary return programme
after having spent four months at the Daugavpils centre, 16 December 2021
39
‘In November 2021, after I had spent three months in the forest, the border guards
approached us and told we had a chance to return to our country. They told they would
transfer us to the Daugavpils camp and threatened to take us back to the forest if we refused
to go back to Iraq at a later stage. Later we told the officials at the Daugavpils centre that we
got beaten in the forest but an inspector told me via an interpreter to shut up, or they would
return me to the forest. I told them I wanted to apply for asylum but they told I had to sign
the voluntary return form if I did not do so, I would have to stay at the Daugavpils centre
for months or even years. I was not offered any legal assistance.
I wanted to ask for asylum for political reasons. I am now hiding, and the state authorities do
not know I have come back. I have not even told my parents. I spent 15,000 dollars to bring
my family to Europe. I sold my house and spent all the money I had.
If the Latvian authorities say they did not know how refugees were treated, this will be lies.
Everyone in the Daugavpils camp knows we were beaten up. I do not even want to say the
name ‘Latvia’ ever again. I feel very offended.’
Interviewee N6, male, spent over three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11
August- mid-November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in late November, on
the ECtHR list.
‘On 27 October they brought me to the Daugavpils camp. On the preceding day I told one of
the Latvian soldiers I could give them money or do anything to go back home and that I was
ready to pay for my plane ticket. He told me he would ask his chief. The following day Latvian
soldiers in military uniforms put me in the van, closed the door and started to speak. They
said if I tell any journalists or organisations about what happened in the forest they would
catch me anywhere. They told me, ‘If you go back to Iraq, don’t think you will disappear’.
They told me not to tell anyone the names of their guns or how they were dressed. They said
that if I make any move, yell or try to get out of the airport they would bring me back to the
forest and keep me there until I die. They said it would be easy for them as they would not
shoot me but I would die from the cold or from a bear or wolf attack. Following that they
forced me to record a video saying that I wanted to go back home and that Iraq is fine for me
as I can live in a village and it is not so dangerous for me right now. I recorded everything for
them just to be able to come back home. They told me I would never get a chance to stay in
Latvia anyway.
Then they took me and [Interviewee N18] to the border guard office and asked me to write a
statement by hand that I wanted to go back home. Following that they drove us to the
Daugavpils camp. In the car they ordered me to look down. In the Daugavpils centre they told
me I had signed the paper where I agreed to go back to Iraq and had no chance to stay in
Latvia. On the next day I saw two big officers with three stars. I had spent 78 days in the
forest but they told me that I only came to Latvia the night before. I was not provided any
lawyer in Daugavpils and went back to Iraq eight days later.
I had good shoes but when I came back my toes were sticking out of them. They did not even
let me cut my hair or change my clothes before the flight. I was so dirty, and at the airport
40
everyone was staring at me. I had lost 27 kilograms of weight in the forest. When I came back
everyone told me I looked slimmer but they don’t know what happened to my mind. When I
came back I could not believe it for one week. Every day I was thinking if it was real that I was
there and was sleeping in a bed. It felt so… I don’t know how to explain. Iraq is very
dangerous for me but they made me feel that it is heaven comparing to where I was and
what they did to me. I could not sleep many nights; I often had nightmares about what has
happened to me in the forest and woke up in fear. I had never thought I would come back
alive. I was sure I was going to die there. But God did not want us to die. I feel better now,
and now I only think about my friends who are still there [the interview took place on 18
January 2022].
I wanted to become a refugee in Europe because I have been threatened by some groups in
Iraq. They want to kill me. I wanted to get anywhere in Europe where I could be safe. In 2018
I tried to go to Europe via Turkey but Turkish border guards hit me, put me in jail for ten days
and deported me back to Iraq. In 2020 I went to Greece but Greek commandos caught me
near Saloniki, took me in the car and brought back to the border. They did not beat me, just
took away my phone and some other belongings and returned to Turkey. And Turkey again
sent me back to Iraq. Now I tried to go to Latvia I paid 1,800 dollars to get to Minsk. I
wonder how the EU allowed Latvia to join. It’s all mafia. Once I had a chance to ask a NATO
soldier when this was going to finish. He said they had an order from the government to do
all that. But if you don’t want refugees, tell them to go home and not come here again, but
don’t leave them in the forest.
Now I am back but I will keep trying to move to Europe anywhere safe.’
Interviewee N1, male, spent 2.5 months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (10 August-
late October 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in early November, on the ECtHR list
My life before 2021 was very good. My father and my mother both worked in the army, and
I studied pharmacy at a university. We had a big house and good cars. But then everything
changed. My father worked at the department, which dealt with crimes related to narcotics.
Once he discovered a drug dealer and reported him to his superior. The drug dealer was sent
to jail. It turned out that he was a son of a high-ranking official of the Patriotic Union of
Kurdistan, an influential political party. After a year in jail the former drug dealer was
released and started to take revenge on those who had put him in jail. On two occasions in
November and December 2021 my family’s house was shot and once my father was shot at
when he was near the army station, where he had worked. The police said it could not
protect my family.
My father understood we did not have any other choice but to flee the country. We sold our
house and went to Turkey in January 2021. We were hoping to reach Europe from there and
apply for asylum. My father and I went to Izmir and tried to reach Europe in a ship container.
My mother, my sister and my brother did not try to go this way as it was too dangerous.
There is not enough oxygen in the container and one can die there. But before we departed
the Turkish gendarmes caught us and deported us back to Iraq. My sister is the only member
of my family who was able to reach Europe. We paid 16,000 dollars to smugglers who
41
provided her with a fake French passport. She was eventually able to board a plane and
arrive in France. My mum and my brother tried to go this way too but the police caught them
and deported them to Iraq.
We paid 10,000 dollars for four people to reach Europe via Belarus 2,500 dollars per
person. While I was in the forest I asked officers to deport us and told we were ready to pay
money for that. I told we could not stay because my father’s leg was perviously broken and
was getting worse and my brother was sick. After we had spent 87 days in the forest, they
told us there was now a possibility for us to return. First they took us to the border guards
office in Robežnieki where I needed to sign a paper confirming I was ready to go back to Iraq.
Then we were taken to the detention centre in Daugavpils. In the centre we were asked to
sign some other papers saying we agree to return to Iraq. It was also written there that if we
did not want to return no one could return us against our will. But one officer at the centre
(he had three stars on shoulder straps, he was bald and wore glasses) told me that if we did
not agree to return they would send us back to the forest. I asked if there was any other way
we could stay in Latvia but they said there was no opportunity to ask for asylum. We did not
want to go back to Iraq but had no other choice, so we agreed to return.
I think Latvia does not have any laws. I don’t know why Latvian border guards told all the
time that they knew we wanted to go to Germany. I just want to live in a safe place. And
money is not a problem for my family. We do have money but there is no legal way to come
to Europe and ask for asylum. Money does not mean anything if we cannot live normally.
Those on the Latvian side were talking about money all the time. They said that Iraqi people
were coming to Europe for money. I told them I did not want their country to give me money
on the contrary, I was ready to pay money just to be able to stay there.
Now we are back in Iraq and our lives are not safe. We are now looking for other ways to get
to Europe. If there is no other way I am ready to go to Turkey again and try to go to Europe
by boat. It is very dangerous and I can die, but I don’t have any other option.’
Interviewee N2, male, spent nearly three months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border (11
August- early November 2021), returned to the country of his nationality in November, on the
ECtHR list
‘After having spent more than three months in the forest, I could not live like that anymore
and wanted to kill myself. After they saw I wanted to cut my wrist, one of the soldiers in
military uniform gave me a knife and told me, ‘If you want to kill yourself so much, here is a
knife, but only do that on the Belarus side.’ After this incident the border guards offered to
take me to Daugavpils and return to Iraq. I had told them I wanted to return home before
but the border guards said it was not possible at that time.
At the Daugavpils centre I wanted to ask for asylum but I was told I had no chance and had to
return back home. I was placed in quarantine for ten days and on 11 December went to Iraq
via Istanbul.’
42
Interviewee N5, female, spent nearly four months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border
(11 August- late November 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in December, on
the ECtHR list
In total I spent 102 days in the forest. I asked Latvian border guards for asylum many times,
but they told us that the only option for us was to return to Iraq. Two times I was taken to
the border guard station where I needed to sign a paper confirming I agree to return to my
country and tell that on a video. But after that nothing happened and I remained in the
forest. I was so tired that I wanted to kill myself. Then they took me to the border guard
station for the third time and I signed the papers again the station was located around 20
minutes driving from the tent. Several days later they took me and [Interviewee N5] to
Daugavpils.
During out last week in the tent they made fun of us. They brought several dogs inside the
tent and told they would miss us as we were going away soon, so their dogs would now play
with us a bit. They kept their dogs on a loose leash as these attempted to bite us. We were
screaming and crying. Then they took me outside the tent and wanted to hit me, but then
threw me inside again and I fell on the ground.
I spent nine days in the Daugavpils centre before returning back to Iraq. I still cannot believe I
am at home. I will never forget all that has happened.’
Interviewee N4, female, spent nearly four months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border
(11 August- late November 2021), returned to her country of nationality in December, on the
ECtHR list
‘We had been living in the forest for nearly four months. I did not want to live anymore and
wanted to kill myself. Ultimately they offered me to return to Iraq and I agreed. I begged the
Latvian border guards not to force me go back as I am threatened in Iraq as a Yazidi woman,
but they told me I needed to sign the return papers anyway. I was not offered any lawyer at
the Daugavpils centre.
I now live in a Yazidi displacement camp in the town of Zakho close to the border with
Turkey. I previously lived in the city of Shingal and was forced to flee after it was taken over
by Daesh. During that time I was captured by a Daesh militant who raped me and forced to
live with him for three months before I managed to escape. I was a virgin and am now
considered spoiled [crying]. I now live in a tent and do not feel safe. I am afraid someone will
come and abduct me again.
I just want to say that I will never forget what Latvia did to us. Latvian commandos treated us
worse than Daesh. They humiliated us so much. It is so painful to remember that.
Interviewee N13 , female, spent nearly four months in the forest at the Latvia-Belarus border
(August- late November 2021), returned to the country of her nationality in December.
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