Latvia slams Amnesty report on Belarus border crossings

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Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs issued a stern rebuke to international human rights group Amnesty International October 13 after Amnesty published a highly critical report on the treatment of refugees at Latvia's border with Belarus.

Titled "Latvia: Return home or never leave the woods", the report alleges "Latvian authorities have violently pushed back refugees and migrants at the country’s borders with Belarus, subjecting many to grave human rights violations, including secret detention and even torture."

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenka has openly used third country nationals – and indeed boasted about it – as elements of a hybrid attack on Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, providing transport right up to the EU's external border. Yet according to Amnesty, people were merely "encouraged to come to the border by Belarus", and the hybrid attack was a "pretext" for sending border crossers back to Belarus "where they have no chance of seeking protection."

“Latvia’s shameful treatment of people arriving at its borders presents a vital test for European institutions, which must take urgent measures to ensure that Latvia ends the state of emergency and restores the right to asylum across the country for everyone seeking safety, irrespective of their origin or how they crossed the border,” Amnesty says in its conclusion.

Throwing the EU's border open to Belarus, a country that is currently actively helping Russia wage war on Ukraine, would not seem to be a realistic move at the present moment. Yet, in a particularly jarring phrase Amnesty says: "While Latvia sought to keep refugees and migrants from racial or ethnic minorities out, it welcomed 35000 refugees from Ukraine."

"When Amnesty International visited Latvia in March 2022 and documented the painful testimonies of people who experienced abuses at the Belarus border, Latvia had already welcomed 6,300 people who had fled from Ukraine. People coming from Ukraine were welcomed in Riga with warm food, clothing, and shelter, directed to orderly registration procedures, or enabled to transit safely to other countries in Europe," Amnesty says.

"The generous response of EU countries to almost five million people fleeing Ukraine is hard to reconcile with the violence, abuse, or plain neglect to which some of these countries exposed refugees and migrants at the border with Belarus," it adds.

"While geopolitical interests and the conceptualization of these migration movements as a tool of “hybrid warfare” may explain some of the disparity in treatment, the scale of abuse and ruthlessness shown towards individuals and families at the Belarus border can justifiably be explained by a fundamentally racist and discriminatory approach to non-white refugees and migrants," Amnesty says.

The report makes serious allegations of mistreatment and torture based upon the testimony of 17 people, most of whom were Iraqi nationals. One was an Iranian national. Some people had been returned to their country of origin and remote interviews took place after their return. In all cases, their personal details have been changed in Amnesty's report and pseudonyms have been assigned to them.

Those interviewed do not appear to have been asked if they knew or suspected during the long journey from Iraq whether their attempt to cross the EU's external border via Belarus might be illegal, or how it was organized and paid for. Nor is there an explanation of why Latvia in particular was thought to be suitable destination. Instead, Amnesty offers simple phrases such as "Mohamed, an Iraqi man, travelled with his family and arrived in Latvia on 13 August 2021."

The report was condemned by Foreign Minister Rinkēvičs who said Amnesty "has lost any credibility and this report further proves complete degradation of [a] once-respected human rights organisation."

Amnesty International has seen its once-respected reputation greatly diminished in recent months, initially as the result of a scandalous report on Russia's invasion of Ukraine which seemed to place blame on Ukraine for being invaded, and for reports similar to the Latvian one about illegal border crossers from Belarus to Poland and Lithuania.

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