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Detained da Vincis: The Artist Asylum Seekers Trapped in Lithuania

Last summer, 4,000 people seeking asylum arrived in Lithuania and were placed in immigration detention. While the future is uncertain, many are using art to process fear and trauma

A painting of a ballet dancer by Amir, with the detention centre fences in the background. Photo: Gabriela Ramirez

Detained da Vincis The Artist Asylum Seekers Trapped in Lithuania

Last summer, 4,000 people seeking asylum arrived in Lithuania and were placed in immigration detention. While the future is uncertain, many are using art to process fear and trauma

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“I have seen her paintings and drawings… like Leonardo da Vinci,” says one of the security guards who checks in visitors to the bright blue shipping container in Medininkai. The Lithuanian city borders Belarus and is home to one of five refugee camps across the country. More than 4,000 people have been detained here in precarious conditions since summer 2021.

The paintings are by Anna (not her real name), an Iraqi woman who, along with thousands more, have made the dangerous journey across the forest that divides Lithuania and Belarus.

Most of those arriving here are under 30 and fleeing war and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and various African countries. Having crossed the border from Belarus, they were apprehended by Lithuanian State border guards before being detained in foreigners centres. They are not permitted to leave and explore the country or travel to a new home. 

The arrival of the 4,000 people seeking asylum led to the Lithuanian Government declaring a ‘national emergency. “There was no available infrastructure,” the Interior Minister Agnė Bilotaitė, said. “All of it had to be created. It was not easy to find places.”

Unlike daVinci, Anna doesn’t have an easel on which to balance her canvases. Instead, she uses the barbed wire fence that surrounds Kybartai foreigners registration centre – a former prison where the Lithuanian Government accommodates thousands of migrants.

It still looks and feels like a prison with barred windows, a high perimeter wall, and a small square with a single tree in the middle.

Anna uses the fences to support her canvases. Photo: Gabriela Ramirez

The message to those held here is stark. “No one of you will receive asylum and be recognised as a refugee,” Foreign Affairs Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis posted on Facebook, demonstrating the lack of willingness even to consider their individual cases.  “You will have to live in the tent camp until we find a way to send you home.”

It has been seven years since Anna last saw her family. She can’t recall the last time she had a visitor. But today, she receives donated frames, canvases, watercolours and brushes all collected by the Sienos Group, an initiative established last November to support the migrants coming to Lithuania. 

Though their artistic styles vary widely, the ability to connect to the outside world through art is something the detainees helped by the Sienos Group share.

Helping to coordinate the delivery of arts supplies to women like Anna is Ewa, who first got involved with the Sienos Group to support people coming through the Lithuanian-Belarusian border with humanitarian aid, food and clothes.

She quickly realised that the detainees could be supported in other ways – that they had artistic talents that she could help to encourage. She started posting their work on Facebook. Since then, her profile has turned into an online exhibition of their artwork. 

Known in the camp as the “mother of refugees”, Ewa receives requests from detainees to “show my paintings”. Her inbox has become a helpline for many other visual artists living in camps eager to paint and show their work to the world while they are behind the fence.

A pencil portrait of Ewa by Daniel. Photo: Gabriela Ramirez

A Geopolitical Row

Back in summer 2021, the contested leader of Belarus and Vladimir Putin ally, Alexander Lukashenko, threatened to flood Lithuania “with migrants and drugs”. Many people seeking asylum enter the European Union via Belarus and the countries that border it, having fled places such as Syria and Iraq. 

Because of Lukashenko’s words, the EU viewed the border crossings by refugees from Belarus into member states such as Lithuania and Poland as an act of aggression. In Poland, people seeking asylum were forcefully pushed back into Belarus, sometimes with violence. Those who made it to Lithuania were detained.

Amnesty International accused Lithuania of “arbitrarily detaining thousands of people in militarised centres where they were held in inhumane conditions, tortured and otherwise ill-treated”.

In response, Interior Minister Bilotaitė said: “The context of the situation has not been taken into account because these are not just migration processes and these are not war refugees fleeing from war.” The 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Lithuania is a signatory, does not, however, protect people fleeing war but individuals seeking protection on the basis of persecution because of their race, religion, ethnicity or other characteristics.

“The European Union forced Lithuania to put us in prison to save Germany and Europe,” says Amir, who, like Anna, is from Iraq. He has now been living behind the fence for almost a year. He doesn’t know how long he will be held. 

It’s this legal limbo that can cause so much distress and pain. 

“As a prisoner, at least you know how long you will be in prison, but here we have no idea – we know nothing,” says Daniel Español, who fled Iraq before claiming asylum in Lithuania more than a year ago. His surname is a nickname – Daniel speaks Spanish. In Iraq, he used to work as a NATO translator in the Basmaya area.

Rather than working on Daniel’s application – and those of thousands more – the Lithuanian Government has tried to convince him to go back ‘voluntarily’ by offering up to €1,000. In many cases, according to Ewa, verbal abuse, torture and sexual humiliation have been involved in incentivising their ‘voluntary decision’.


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Drawing to Remember

“I have wanted to make a drawing for you since we met,” Daniel tells me. “But I have so many requests.”

Daniel now spends hours drawing incredibly realistic pencil portraits. Steve Jobs, Pope John Paul II, and former Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė are some of the familiar faces in the photos of his work. But he doesn’t only draw famous personalities. For Daniel, his art is also a way of remembering those who are far away while he is detained in Kybartai.

Daniel draws his girlfriend every month. He now has accumulated 11 drawings from the 11 months he has been living on the border of Lithuania.

Daniel’s work is striking and intimate. It can call the attention of anyone passing by, including guards and kitchen workers who have many times requested Daniel to draw their kids, wives, friends or even a portrait for themselves. “All for free,” he laughs. “Sometimes free, sometimes they pay,” he corrects himself.

Daniel poses with some of his drawings. Photo: Gabriela Ramirez

His clients not only come from the personnel working in the centres. Lithuanian and Polish people have got in contact with the Sienos Group and its volunteers, having seen the artwork on social media. It has also been exhibited at universities, community and cultural centres across the country.

“The only reason why I haven’t gone crazy in this prison is that I have paper and a pencil,” says Daniel. 

Amir agrees. “In this world, I can’t draw anything, but when I draw, I am in another world,” he says. Since he entered Lithuania, he has been transferred to three different camps. “This one [Kybartai] is paradise,” For Amir, the treatment at this centre is a “bit better”. “They treat me better because they see my artistic work,” he adds.

His new room has a small window, clean painted walls, and more space for his canvas and painting materials, where he usually spends at least seven hours per day. “I have nothing to do, so I can only paint,” Amir says.

‘Nothing to do’ is the reality for most of the asylum seekers in Lithuania, where there is a lack of integration programmes and access to education or other occupational activities. While there is ‘nothing to do’, many of them have decided to bring their skills and motivation to do ‘good things’ and get the most out of the situation.

In that sense, they have created a network of community support for each other. Carla, a young nursing student from Cameroon who stopped her studies due to the war in her home country, teaches English, French and Russian to three different class groups every day.

At 33, Amir desires “to go to art school”. Thinking about future plans helps to overcome the uncertainty of not knowing when his asylum claim will be processed. After all, dreams do not have an expiration date.

Amir and his artwork. Photo: Gabriela Ramirez

Uncertain Future

“The worst part is the uncertainty… we would like to know what the future is for us, or do they pretend to have us in prison forever?” Beatriz, another detainee, explains. 

The Lithuanian Government said that people would be detained for up to 12 months, however recently there were rumours this would be extended to 18 months. Interior Minister Bilotaitė denied such a plan, but Goda Jurevičiūtė, Advisor at the Human Rights Division of Seimas Ombudspersons, told Byline Times: “The Government decided not to extend the detention after 12 months, but, of course, there are nuances.”

One option on the table is that the Government could release the detainees so they can live freely in Lithuania while their asylum claims are processed, but they would not have the right to work or obtain a residence permit. 

Some held in the centre have also started to receive a so-called ‘green pass’ which allows individuals to go out for 24 or 72 hours if they have made a request. However, this strategy is reportedly at risk: 19 migrants who were allowed to move freely never returned to Kybartai.

“These people will probably leave for the countries they originally planned to go to as soon as they are free,” said Bilotaitė. “This will probably result in a situation where we will no longer have most of these people.” But Deputy Interior Minister Vitalij Dmitrijev said: “If these people are detained in Poland or Germany, they will be returned to us in any case.”

“It is a fundamental human right for people to seek asylum, and this also applies in extraordinary situations or in times of emergency,” Renata Kules, a spokesperson for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told Byline Times. “We call on Lithuania to live up to its international obligations by providing access for asylum seekers and by ensuring proper reception conditions and fair and efficient asylum procedures.”

A painting by Mario shows some of the scenes he and other asylum seekers have escaped from. Photo: Gabriela Ramirez

The treatment of people seeking asylum from the Global South is now being compared to the arrival of Ukrainian refugees since Putin’s invasion of the country. While 4,000 asylum seekers led to a ‘national emergency’, the Government has boasted of its efforts to welcome 48,000 Ukrainian refugees – 1.7% of the country’s population. 

In late June, the European Court of Justice ruled that Lithuania’s automatic detention of migrants and refugees for extended time violates EU law and cannot be justified by emergency circumstances.

For now, the artists held in detention must wait to learn if they have the right to remain in Lithuania. For many of them, the question is: when will this heavy rain stop? Even when the terrible weather has become the main inspiration for these creative people to make art behind a fence for over a year living in prison. 

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