Human rights defenders in Latvia are being judged for helping transit refugees: why is this a violation of international legal norms

Human Constanta
6 February 2023

On January 13, it became known about the beginning of a criminal trial against two representatives of the Latvian organization Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem (English: “I want to help refugees”), who provide assistance to transit refugees on the border between Belarus and Latvia.

According to the head of the Latvian State Border Guard, human rights activists violated the regime of the border strip without obtaining a special permit, and thus committed an alleged criminal offense of illegal movement of people across the border. The representatives of “I Want to Help Refugees” themselves explained that they received a handwritten letter asking for immediate help from a group of five Syrians stranded in the Latvian border zone. When meeting with refugees in transit on the territory of Latvia, human rights activists immediately contacted the ambulance service and the state border guard of Latvia.

Such cases of persecution of human rights defenders and activists helping refugees and migrants in different countries are not isolated. According to data compiled by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, across Europe there is a demonization of migrants who do not have access to safe and authorized channels of entry into Europe. This is the first step towards stigmatization, hate speech and harassment, including of human rights defenders who show solidarity with people on the move.

The authorities of some European countries create a hostile public environment for migrants and people who protect their rights, use administrative pretexts to restrict the activities of organizations and individuals that support migrants, and also prosecute people by accusing people of facilitating irregular migration or even human trafficking.

This approach of the authorities is contrary to the international legal standards and such fundamental values of European democratic countries as respect for human rights and dignity, equality and solidarity. Note that the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in November 2021, in a similar case on legislation in Hungary, recognized that the criminalization of the actions of any person who assists irregular migrants in applying for asylum is unacceptable and does not comply with EU legal standards.

The Court noted that even the theoretical possibility of such criminalization is detrimental to the protection of human rights. The European Commission has also repeatedly spoken out in support of human rights defenders who continue to protect the rights of migrants, as well as the inadmissibility of criminalizing the provision of humanitarian assistance to migrants and asylum seekers, regardless of the way they cross the border.

The Human Constanta team strongly condemns the Latvian authorities for the criminal prosecution of representatives of a human rights organization for the fulfillment of their humanitarian mission. Latvia and other countries should rethink their approach to forced migration and provide a safe and supportive space for civil society organizations and human rights defenders, free from intimidation, arbitrary harassment and persecution. It should be reminded that migrants who ended up on the borders of Belarus and the EU are used by the Belarusian regime as an instrument of political pressure on European countries. Such an approach of the Belarusian authorities towards migrants, as well as repressions against Belarusian civil society organizations and human rights activists, puts people in great danger on the territory of Belarus. Belarus cannot be considered a safe country for them.

The Human Constanta team calls for:

  • The Government of Latvia to immediately stop acts of criminal and other persecution of representatives of “I want to help refugees” and other human rights defenders who provide assistance to people on the move;
  • The Government of Latvia to guarantee the physical and psychological integrity of representatives of “I want to help refugees” and other human rights defenders who provide assistance to people on the move;
  • The Government of Latvia to revise national legislation to comply with EU standards in terms of the attitude towards human rights defenders who provide assistance to people on the move, and the migrants themselves;
  • EU countries to refrain from criminalizing the provision of social, legal and humanitarian assistance to people on the move, and ensure proper legal procedures for applying for international protection for all people on the move regardless of nationality and border crossing method.
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