At the end of 2002, Lithuania hosted more than 200 refugees and asylum seekers. These included 1 person granted refugee status during the year and 200 asylum seekers awaiting first-instance decisions.
During the year, about 300 persons applied for asylum in Lithuania, including 250 persons from Russia (mostly Chechens) and 17 from Afghanistan. Of the 325 cases decided in 2002, Lithuania made one grant of refugee status in the first instance. Some 24 persons were rejected in initial asylum determinations. 220 persons (mostly ethnic Chechens from Russia) were granted temporary residence.
The Law on Refugee Status, regulations introduced in 2001, and the Aliens Law define the Lithuanian asylum procedure. Asylum seekers, except for those arriving from countries deemed safe, may submit applications with any state official, which forwards the request to the Migration Department in the Ministry of the Interior. Asylum seekers arriving from countries deemed safe are barred from admission at the border.
Asylum seekers who have arrived legally may live where they chose or stay in the Refugee Reception Center in Rukla until the Migration Department decides on their application – usually within six months. Asylum seekers coming from countries deemed safe are considered to have manifestly unfounded claims and, along with those who arrive with improper documents, are processed under an accelerated procedure and are held at the Foreigners Registration Center in Pabrade until they receive a decision – usually within one month. During the year, 25 applications were rejected as manifestly unfounded. Asylum seekers may not work in Lithuania.
On November 5-6, the Lithuanian Border Service expelled 26 Chechen asylum seekers, mostly women and children, to Belarus. According to UNHCR, this was a violation of the UN Refugee Convention and international customary law. Following the intervention of UNHCR and non-governmental asylum advocacy groups, the asylum seekers were allowed to return and apply. UNHCR also expressed concern over Lithuania's restrictions on admitting asylum seekers from regions of armed conflict.
Chechen asylum seekers who traveled to Lithuania by transit trains during the year complained that border guards prevented them from disembarking to claiming asylum at Vilnius. According to the Lithuanian Red Cross and news reports, Chechen families resorted to pulling the emergency brakes and jumping off the trains outside of town in order to have their asylum claims registered.
Adjudicators may grant "temporary residence" to asylum seekers on humanitarian grounds. During the year, 220 asylum seekers from countries with armed conflicts, and 67 asylum seekers with other humanitarian needs, including those requiring medical treatment, received temporary residence permits.
Rejected asylum seekers may appeal against negative Migration Department decisions to the administrative courts, but must do so within 14 days.
On January 28, an act of parliament eased fees for extension of residence permits. Holders of temporary residence are usually unemployed and usually could not afford the $110 to renew their permits, causing them to be regarded as illegal residents.
On January 15, the Lithuanian Parliament passed amendments to the Law on Refugee Status that brought Lithuanian asylum policies further in line with international and European Union standards. The amendments introduced temporary guardianships for unaccompanied child asylum seekers and the right to apply for family members of separated children granted refugee status.
A 2001 regulation relating to the accommodation of foreigners at detention or registration centers required that asylum seekers be segregated from other detained foreigners, and that unaccompanied children be separated from adults. The regulation included lists of detainees' rights and duties, including the right to legal assistance, interpreters, medical care, food, clothing, and pocket money. However, the Lithuanian Red Cross reported that authorities in the registration centers ignored the applications of some would-be asylum seekers. Also, asylum seekers and other detained foreigners are sometimes commingled.
The Foreigners' Registration Center is used not only for detention of asylum seekers and illegal aliens in general, but also for some asylum seekers not under detention orders. Since the beginning of 2001, such residents have been allowed to leave the center with permission from the administration. The Refugee Reception Center makes similar allowances. At year's end, the Refugee Reception Center housed 100 asylum seekers, while the Foreigners Registration Center had 300 residents, including 122 asylum seekers.