On November 23, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian denounced Lithuania over its handling of the refugee crisis. Thousands of North African and Middle Eastern migrants and refugees have amassed at the Belarusian border with Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, seeking to reach European Union.
A reporter from China’s Hubei Daily Media Group asked Zhao to comment on, in the reporter's words, “the violent repression of refugees by soldiers and police in the Lithuanian border area.”
The reporter claimed that Lithuanian security forces had “reportedly attacked refugee children with teargas at the Belarus border,” while inside Lithuania refugees were suffering from scabies at “packed and unsanitary” detention facilities.
Zhao, citing recent reports, described Lithuania’s treatment of the refugees as “brutal,” adding that “unfair treatment” of women and children had been “especially outrageous.”
“Lithuanian soldiers and police went so far as to attack refugee children with teargas in addition to dog bites on refugees,” Zhao said. “We strongly call on the Lithuanian government to abide by international law… immediately stop violent repression, protect the refugees' basic human rights, and responsibly respond to the legitimate concerns of the international community.”
Zhao’s statement on Lithuania’s role in the current border crisis is partially true. While Lithuanian personnel have reportedly committed rights abuses, some claims -- for example, that Lithuanian soldiers attacked children with teargas – have not been substantiated. Zhao also failed to acknowledge that Lithuanian authorities have tried to improve living conditions at detention facilities.
Moreover, Zhao said nothing about Belarus’ role in instigating the border crisis. His statement also came as China downgraded relations with Lithuania over its decision to allow Taiwan to open a representative office.
Still, Lithuania has been implicated in the mistreatment of migrants and refugees.
On November 9, Lithuania’s parliament declared a state of emergency on the border with Belarus, and troops were deployed there. The state of emergency authorizes border guards to use "mental coercion" and "proportional physical violence” to keep migrants from entering Lithuania, Reuters reported.
On November 17, Ruslan Trad, an award-winning journalist who has extensively covered refugee issues, tweeted out a video purportedly showing Lithuanian border guards using dogs against refugees.
In that video, a dog can be seen biting a man who is on the ground in a sleeping bag.
On July 3, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that the Lithuanian State Border Security Service fired tear gas and warning shots while detaining a group of migrants. There were no reports that children were among the migrants in that incident.
Lithuanian National Radio and Television (LRT) reported on November 3 that officers at a center where refugees are being kept in the town of Pabrade, near Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, used tear gas to quell unrest. The State Border Guard Service claimed none of the asylum seekers needed medical attention after the incident. No reports mentioned that children were present during that incident.
In their comments about the plight of refugees and migrants seeking to enter Lithuania, Zhao and the Hubei Daily Media Group’s may have been relying on reports by Lithuanian state and civil society watchdogs. State-funded media have detailed the plight of refugees and migrants in Lithuania, and government officials have acknowledged the problem. That sharply contrasts with how Beijing handles accusations of rights abuses in China.
In October, the Ombudsmen’s Office of Lithuania’s parliament published a report stating that refugees at the facilities faced “inhuman and degrading” treatment.
The report noted that migrants, including minors, were kept in tents and other makeshift accommodations that were sometimes damp and inadequately heated, and lacked proper access to medical care and medicine. Hygienic and/or private bathrooms and shower facilities were also unavailable. There was also a lack of hot food and water.
The report by the Ombudsmen’s Office of the Lithuania’s parliament was provided to the European Court of Human Rights, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and the European Council’s Commissioner for Human Rights, among others.
Earlier, in July, Lithuania’s Red Cross had issued a report citing “gross violations of human rights” and EU laws in migrant centers, LRT reported.
The Red Cross documented cases of scabies and other dermatological diseases. It also reported that 10 unaccompanied minors and a pregnant woman were sheltered in a hangar with single males.
The head of Lithuania’s State Border Guard Service chief, Rustamas Liubajevas, conceded they had not been able to provide the refugees with a “very high” quality of accommodation, LRT reported.
“We are trying to solve these questions by dedicating additional resources from our reserves, additional funding so that we are able to ensure at least basic conditions,” LRT quoted Liubajevas as saying. "Definitely, the criticism from the Red Cross and other non-governmental organizations is very important. However, we live in extreme conditions.”
Those efforts appear to have borne fruit.
In October, Kristina Meide, the head of the Lithuanian Red Cross, said conditions at the facilities had changed dramatically.
"We overcame the initial crisis as a country: the migrants got a roof over their heads, warm food, a dry bed,” Meide told Estonia-based Baltic News Service.
Lithuania has also been accused of discrimination. State Border Guard Service chief Liubajevas recently told the New York Times that Belarusians caught entering Lithuania illegally are allowed to stay and request asylum. However, since August, Lithuania has denied entry to 7,000 migrants from the Middle East and North Africa.
China’s allegations that Lithuania has mistreated migrants and refugees coincided with Lithuania’s decision to let Taiwan, which China claims is part of its territory, open a representative office.
Following that decision, China expelled Lithuania’s ambassador and withdrew its own ambassador from Lithuania.
China’s Foreign Ministry accused Lithuania of “undermining Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Thus, China’s focus on Lithuania appears to be politically motivated, since outside monitors have documented that Belarus and Poland have been responsible for the gravest abuses of migrants and refugees.
On October 24, New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a report that accused Belarusian border guards of “violence, abuse, theft, and extortion” against migrants and refugees. That report noted that at the time it was written, 13 deaths had been recorded, “mainly on the Polish side,” among migrants being pushed from Poland into Belarus.
Polish security forces also used tear gas and water cannons against migrants, some of whom threw stones and other objects.
The European Commission in October accused Belarus of luring thousands of migrants to the border by falsely suggesting they would be able to enter the European Union.
The EU accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of manufacturing the border crisis in retaliation for sanctions imposed on his regime after it cracked down on those protesting the August 2020 presidential elections, which observers say were neither free nor fair.
Belarus has denied that accusation.
Human Rights Watch found that “Belarus and Poland share responsibility for this human crisis.”