The Lithuanian-Belarusian border is littered with the bodies of migrants, who died trying to enter the EU, human rights groups have claimed.
Sienos Groupa Lithuanian humanitarian organization, has drawn up a list of around 30 people whose families have lost contact with them on the eastern border of Europe.
The group works hard to help relatives find their missing loved ones, gathering information and ominously traveling through refugee camps, hospitals and morgues.
Much of what happens goes under the radar, they say, as migrants and their families are often too scared to come forward, fearing a run-in with the law – and the transience of people on the move makes the task doubly difficult. difficult for them. to ask for help.
“No entry zone”
To complicate their efforts, the complete blackout by the Lithuanian authorities in the border area prevents humanitarian groups and journalists from monitoring the area.
“The problem is that we just don’t know,” Vakarė, a Sienos Grupe volunteer who asked that we not use his full name, told Euronews. “There’s this whole darkened invisible line that you’re not supposed to cross.”
“Nobody knows what’s going on inside.”
People crossing the border have also accused Polish border forces of dragging corpses to the Belarusian side, who simply bury the remains – a claim strongly denied by Poland.
“Migrants are mostly meaningless and faceless people, they are not even [considered as] human,” Vakarė said.
“No one is really passionate about making sure their body doesn’t rot in the forest.”
Known as Europe’s forgotten migration crisisLithuania, Poland and Belarus have been pushing migrants across their borders since 2020, in a situation close to ping-pong.
Vilnius and Brussels accuse Minsk of militarizing migration – flooding the EU border with migrants as a form of hybrid warfare – while Lithuanian border guards have been repeatedly accused of violently pushing migrants back into Belarus.
In the meantime, people are suffering.
The border area is a dark, humid forest filled with swamps, which is regularly buffeted by harsh weather conditions and sub-zero temperatures in winter.
Meanwhile, migrants – mostly from the Middle East, Africa or Asia – are often unaware of how brutal winter conditions can be in the region, arriving without proper clothing or supplies.
Belarus has even been accused of pushing migrants across the Lithuanian border barefoot.
“They don’t understand the harsh winters we have here,” Vakarė explained.
“Everything is cold, slippery and dangerous. If you injure yourself, even if it’s just a small one, it could mean you’re completely unable to cope.”
“People can get into trouble very quickly.”
At least three migrants have lost their legs to frostbite in recent months, and many more are suffering debilitating hand and foot injuries that will stay with them forever.
In January, Sienos Groupe identified the body of a migrant, who was found dead in a river by a wildlife watcher in August, after receiving desperate messages from his wife in Sri Lanka.
This is what the NGO said it “fears to come true”: the first confirmed case of death of a migrant on Lithuanian territory.
In a statement, a spokesman for the Lithuanian Interior Ministry told Euronews that authorities had “no data regarding dead migrants” at the border with Belarus.
They said the body found in the Neris River was that of a Sri Lankan national, but did not confirm whether it was an “irregular migrant”.
An investigation is underway.
For those who have lost loved ones, the uncertainty is agonizing.
“As a family, the disappearance of my brother has left us completely destroyed and broken,” said a relative of a missing person, who wished to remain anonymous for reasons of confidentiality. “We don’t know what to do to find him.”
“His wife and two small children in Syria are desperately waiting to hear from him.”
Another woman was called from her husband’s phone by Lithuanian border guards in June, who ominously said they had found his suitcase and valuables scattered in the forest.
When crossing the border, the man reportedly told his companions to leave him behind and that he wanted to call the border guards because pain in his foot was making the walk unbearable.
His whereabouts remain unknown.
“Every day I receive a message about a new missing person,” Vakarė said. “We don’t have answers for these people. We don’t have a body. We don’t have their stories.
In January, the Lithuanian government approved controversial legislation to formalize pushbacks as official policy.
He says the exceptional situation on the border with Belarus justifies the law, although critics have pointed out that it violates international law by denying people asylum.
“Every death is a fault of their policy,” Vakarė said. “The state claims the bodies are not there, that they are human and doing all they can, but it is still a stain on their reputation.”
“The bodies are very, very visible evidence of the failure of the whole strategy.”