“Some migrants were afraid of the Belarusian border guard”

Teili Piiskoppel. PHOTO: Andres Haabu

The first rotation of ESTPOL5 Estonian border guard officers returned on Saturday after spending a month helping to guard the Lithuanian border. Team leader Teili Piiskoppel said that migrants coming from Belarus were mostly calm when detained, while handcuffs had to be used to allow people to calm down on a couple of occasions.

How were your working conditions? How long were your days and where did you spend the night?

We had a 12-hour day shift, then a 14-hour night shift, followed by days off – as per the Working and Rest Time Act. Our working and living conditions were entirely decent. We stayed in a hotel.

How often did you and your colleagues come into direct contact with illegal immigrants during your time in Lithuania?

We were tasked with guarding the migrant camp in the border station as well as going on patrol. We detained as many migrants as we had to. We saw a couple of hundred of migrants between the team. I spent the least time on the actual border, which is why I also saw the fewest migrants – just four.

Talk us through the detention process.

The migrants cross the border. They usually show up on security cameras, with patrols then told where to go look for them. Most opt for the most civilized route and find a road. They are given orders in English and Lithuanian. Most are peaceful, understand that they need to stop and sit down, which is when they are processed.

You said that most are peaceful. Have some people resisted?

People resisted in a few cases that mandated the use of handcuffs so they could calm down. They were afraid they had been caught by the Belarusian border guard. They said it is dangerous. They calmed down once they learned they were dealing with the Lithuanian border guard.

That is very interesting because it is common knowledge that Belarus is facilitating illegal entry into Lithuania.

There are various theories. Members of our team never saw Belarusian border guards walking migrants over the border. Our Lithuanian colleagues also said that the Belarusian side did not exactly turn a blind eye. But these tales of danger on the Belarusian side came from migrants.

Postimees journalist Sander Punamäe visited a refugee camp in Lithuania and was told the opposite by a migrant. They said a Belarusian border guard instructed them in terms of where it is safer to cross the border – in other words, helped them.

Yes, like I said, there are different stories. Only the migrants and Belarus likely know the truth of it.

What tools did you use?

We used the same tools we do in our everyday work in Estonia.

Were you ever afraid?

Not generally. Perhaps during some moments when there were more migrants than officers at camp. It depends on the person, but as officials, it is a professional habit of ours to be cautious. However, I have no information to suggest anyone was afraid for their life.

We know that people of many nationalities have seized the opportunity to enter Lithuania. Who did you come across?

We at ESTPOL5 met Syrians, Iraqis and migrants from several African regions. It was a colorful bunch, while people from Iraq and Africa dominated the scene.

Describe the average illegal immigrant you had to guard?

Men were clearly dominant when we arrived in Lithuania. Gradually, the focus shifted. The longer we were there, the more families and Iraqis we saw.

There were families?

Yes.

How many when compared to individuals?

It is difficult to say because we did not keep count. The number of migrants in our camp changed every day, while the relative importance of families grew visibly.

It has been suggested in the press that most migrants are young men who are by themselves. Is that true?

As far as I have seen. Men seem to outnumber women.

How did the immigrants behave themselves? For example, Punamäe reports that their conduct was quite theatrical in the camp he visited. People collapsed in front of the camera and said they had chest or leg pains.

Yes, such incidents did happen. They attempted manipulation, likely to get more attention. They also wanted their phones returned to them so they could call relatives. Things were largely calm in our camp. Especially towards the end of our rotation when single men no longer dominated. Families tend to make fewer demands and avoid protesting.

Why was it necessary to confiscate phones?

So they could not reach out to their home countries and urge other migrants to make the journey.

What did people say in terms of why they were in Lithuania and what they want?

They were quite tongue-tied and maintained that they are better off in Europe than in their homeland where the situation is bad.

Was it a rehearsed answer repeated by everyone?

I can make no such claim. It was clear that the language barrier made it difficult for them to say more in terms of what was so bad at home. People said there was war and bombings.

Did you notice different behavior based on nationality?

The Africans tended to be calmer. They definitely included people of modest education and experience. The Iraqis were more pretentious.

Were there any attempts to escape from camp?

We heard of no such incidents in our camp.

Migrants showed my colleague Sander Punamäe water meant for washing that they claimed was their drinking water and complained of poor conditions. What about the situation at your camp?

There were few complaints. People mainly wanted the return of their phones and there were some complaints over the quality of food.

Did you see what they were given?

Yes.

Would you also complain about such food?

That is a good question as it is very hard for me to put myself in their position in terms of where they have come from and why. I believe it is up to the individual to decide whether the food deserved complaint.

What can Estonia learn from Lithuania’s experience?

We have a lot to learn as concerns preparations. How to prepare for such situations and how to handle such small matters as accommodation, catering and medical care of migrants.

What did your Lithuanian colleagues tell you when you left?

They thanked us for our contribution and experience and for teaching them a few things we do differently. They were very glad for the cooperation opportunity.

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