Guest post by Lisa Marie Borrelli and Annika Lindberg, PhD researchers at the Institute of Sociology, University of Bern.

While most of Europe is occupied with the ‘refugee crisis,’ Lithuania is experiencing its own challenges in constructing a migration regime because it‘s found itself increasingly entangled as a transit country for irregular migrants en route to Western Europe. During a field visit to the Lithuanian Foreigner Registration Centre in Pabrade in December 2015, we had the opportunity to gain first-hand insights into the unfolding of a Baltic migration regime as experienced through the eyes of the State Border Guard Services (SBGS), who have reluctantly taken on the role of acting migration officials.

Entering Lithuania (Photo by Annika Lindberg)

This post discusses research conducted as part of the project ‘Contested Control at the Margins of the State,’ focusing on state responses to irregular migration in the Schengen area. In this blog post, we discuss some of our experiences from this field visit, which included semi-structured interviews with State Border Guards in Lithuania, as well as informal talks during participant observation and field visits of border lands, border crossing points, border check points and the Foreigner Registration Centre.

The Centre is a former military camp, located close to the Belarusian border. It was founded in 1994 when, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Lithuania started experiencing immigration and transit migration and urgently needed facilities to register and accommodate apprehended irregular migrants. The Centre is a highly securitized facility, encircled by concrete walls and rows of barbed wire, and supervised and patrolled by armed and military geared border guards. At the time of our visit, it housed around 200 people, half of whom were categorized as asylum-seekers, while the rest were classified as ‘illegal migrants.’ The two groups were accommodated separately in a semi-open asylum centre compartment and administrative detention, respectively, and were kept separate at all times. Although the asylum centre is less securitized, it remains a semi-closed facility. According to a law passed in 2012, the state may decide to detain asylum-seekers to prevent them from absconding. The average stay in the camp is between two to three months while the processes of either regularization or removal are ongoing. The groups represented in the Centre are strikingly different compared to Southern European transit countries: most arrive from Vietnam, Georgia, and Chechnya, while the number of asylum-seekers or detainees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Eritrea are close to zero. The composition can be attributed to Russia’s rather generous visa policies vis-à-vis Vietnam and the shared language with Georgia, which renders irregular travel easier.      

The Foreigners Registration Centre in Pabrade (Photo by Annika Lindberg)

The SBGS have partially taken on the role of migration officials, while asylum claims, as well as the decisions to detain are determined by the national migration authorities. Their tasks are manifold: they register people upon arrival, take their fingerprints, conduct the initial asylum interview, and ascertain their need for social support. In case of detention and removal, they also handle return procedures, including negotiating return agreements, booking flight tickets, and escorting detainees to the airport. For each ‘client,’ all of these tasks are administered by the same official, which our informants regard as a good arrangement, since it allows them to build trust and personal relationships with the people under their supervision. Moreover, the assumed temporariness and transitory nature of migration to Lithuania enables border guards to construct a narrative of ‘shared goals’ with detainees and deportees―namely, the expeditious and smooth return to their countries of origin. While our NGO interviewees questioned the prevalence of such ‘humane’ and almost solidaristic attitude among border guards, it seemed to function as a coping strategy for officials. As one of the border guards put it, when asked about his job by friends and family, he tells them that he works at ‘the government’s travel agency, which only provides one-way tickets’ and that his job was to ‘wave people goodbye at the airport.’ This narrative sustains the idea of an essentially humane and efficient migration control regime, or at least delineates a process of creating and maintaining personal distance from a job that can be ethically and emotionally troubling.

However, our SBG informants questioned whether such personal relationships with detainees could develop in a ‘typical destination country’ such as Germany or Sweden, where people ‘will do anything’ to avoid being sent back to their country of origin. There, the diffusion of responsibility for each removal is necessary, as it would otherwise be too emotionally and morally challenging for officials to handle removals. Hence, the construction of complex bureaucratic organizations and division of labour, which scholars following Hannah Arendt such as Zygmunt Bauman and Gregory Feldman have depicted as dehumanizing and cruelly effective in enforcing objectionable decisions, are from our SBG informants’ perspective perceived as a necessity in order to cope with ethically challenging job tasks. Their own migration control regime is depicted as being under development or in a transitory phase, balancing uneasily between security and control, and care and solidarity with people involuntarily getting ‘stuck’ in Lithuania on their way to Western Europe.

And indeed, border guards recognize that the detention facility has shortcomings, notably an acute lack of social and recreational services due to low or non-existing EU funding. The border guards we spoke with regretted the lack of a clear mandate and adequate training to perform such functions. For instance, the Centre has only one social worker for 200 detainees. Charity organizations and migrants’ rights organizations try to fill this gap by providing legal advice, healthcare services, and social activities for asylum-seekers. Yet, their access to detainees is severely restricted, leaving them with few opportunities to voice their concerns and obtain necessary support. As our SBG informants point out, international and EU funding is generally reserved for refugees and for projects facilitating ‘assisted voluntary return.’ In contrast, the irregular migrants in Lithuania raise neither compassion nor security concerns.

Long path ahead (Photo by Lisa Marie Borrelli)

The Lithuanian case illustrates the diversity of configurations of migration control that coexist in the contested Schengen area. In the Pabrade Centre, the lack of training, facilities, and resources of the SBGS have serious implications for the conditions under which detainees are accommodated. And yet officials attempt to compensate for these shortages with good humour and the narratives of care and solidarity. Although Lithuania may seem like an ‘outlier’ of the European migration control regime, the challenges and dilemmas faced by officials in handling the self-contradictory task to develop ‘humane’ detention and removal practices are not so different from those that prevail in ‘government travel agencies’ in other European states.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Borrelli, L.M. and Lindberg, A. (2016) Lithuania’s ‘Hotel’ with Special Guests. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/04/lithuania's (Accessed [date]).