‘Brother, Help Me’: People Are Losing Limbs in Europe’s Forgotten Migrant Crisis

VICE World News spoke to the family of a Sri Lankan migrant who had his leg amputated and lost his five other toes to frostbite after being trapped in no-man’s land between Belarus and Lithuania.
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People look on as a helicopter flies overheard near the border between Poland and Belarus, in a photo taken in November 2021. Photo: LEONID SHCHEGLOV/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images

The news was so distressing it stopped the man in his tracks. His brother-in-law was lying in a Lithuanian hospital after having one of his legs amputated, while all five toes on his remaining leg had been removed due to frostbite. The brother-in-law, 25, did not receive treatment in time after fracturing his leg while running in the swampy forests of northeastern Europe as he and other migrants tried to pass through.

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“We were shocked,” said the 37-year-old Sri Lankan who lives in Germany with his wife and kid. The last the man had heard of his brother-in-law, he was in Belarus, studying. But now, Lithuanian aid workers say the 25-year-old is in such a bad state that he “constantly trembles.”

“I call him every day and he just cries and cries,” the man in Germany told VICE World News via a WhatsApp call. “It’s very hard right now to be frank with you.” He is preparing to travel to Lithuania to see his brother-in-law. VICE World News agreed not to name the man or his relatives because of a possible legal case against Lithuanian authorities.

The Sri Lankan migrant is one of the hundreds of people currently caught between Lithuania and Belarus, with both governments accused of “weaponising” migrants in a standoff that’s one of the EU’s worst border crises. Thousands of migrants have been affected, aid groups say.

Since 2021, Lithuanian and Belarusian border guards have violently pushed back migrants, actions that some say resemble using people as ping pong balls.

Social media videos purportedly show Belarusian border guards damaging fences and escorting migrants through Lithuania's new 500km metal fence. They hover for a while, and then, as Lithuanian border guards speed to the scene, the Belarusians flee. Usually, the Lithuanian soldiers push the migrants back into Belarus, only for the Belarusians to force the migrants back – again. 

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On Belarus’ southwestern border with Poland, the same scenes are playing out. Polish officials say they’ve noticed a surge in migrant movement in recent weeks and have found several dead bodies. The EU blames Belarus’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko – dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” – for engineering the crisis by inviting migrants to Belarus and pushing them into EU borders in protest against sanctions imposed since the country’s rigged 2020 elections. Those sanctions have intensified over Minsk’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

In the same hospital room as the 25-year-old migrant is another Sri Lankan man, 20, who also faces another amputation this week. 

The two men are considering legal action, lawyers representing them say. Officials called for additional medical help on the 25th of October, three days after detaining the 25-year-old, possibly violating agreements to provide immediate help in emergencies, aid workers say. 

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The younger man arrived in the same group, but claims he was not assessed for injuries before being pushed back, even though he said he was hurt, one lawyer representing the migrant said. One week later, pushed again from Belarus into Lithuania, he was finally checked. On Tuesday, his leg was amputated. The other could be cut off in the coming days. 

Lithuania’s interior ministry, which is responsible for the country’s border guards, did not respond to VICE World News’ questions on whether the guards possibly violated lawful procedures.

More migrants could face life-threatening injuries, aid workers fear, and some could even die. Already, many are missing. Some groups, including families with children, have been pushed back and forth up to a dozen times and spend days in the cold, an official with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Lithuania told VICE World News.

Many of the migrants – mostly  people in their early 20s – don’t have the intention of staying in Lithuania, a small country on the edge of the European Union, and plan on heading somewhere like Germany. People from the Middle East made up the bulk of migrants last year. But increasingly, groups from Sri Lanka – a country reeling under an economic crisis that brought the country to a standstill in March, – Pakistan, India, Nigeria, Egypt, and DR Congo are heading in. 

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The MSF official says many of the migrants were in Belarus for a while, following Minsk's drive last year to pull in migrants on cheap tourist visas. The number of people crossing slowed, but in recent months, dozens of people have been trying to get into Lithuania again. People usually pay smugglers to get them close to the border.

A member of Sienos Grupe, an aid organisation that combs the border forests for stranded asylum seekers, said calls to the group’s hotlines have increased since October, likely due to increasingly cold weather as winter arrives. They said migrants their team finds are often in miserable conditions. 

“We see people sometimes with no cover from snow or rain, no roof, no tent, and sometimes with very little clothes,” said the aid worker, who asked to remain anonymous because of fears over online harassment and potential scurrilous investigations into their work. “People come really unprepared with their light jackets. Literally, we met people with no shoes because they lose shoes while crossing through the swamps.”

The aid worker said they were worried about Lithuania’s sharpening efficiency in spotting movements at its border wall. “We are scared of leading the police to the migrants,” they added.

Those caught by border guards, including families with children, are most certainly pushed back to Belarus again unless their health needs are so dire it requires the amputation of a limb, for example. In one case, a sick Pakistani man treated in Lithuania was forced out before he could completely recover, only to end up being hospitalised again in Belarus. 

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Lithuania’s pushbacks, presently under ministerial orders, could soon become law. Earlier this year, the Court of Justice of the European Union slammed the country’s automatic detention policy that saw more than 2000 migrants held in centres in 2021, so authorities have focused on hardline pushbacks. Local media site, LRT, says 18,000 entry attempts at the borders have been recorded since last August. Although people who were detained have been freed, some – mainly migrants from African countries – remain imprisoned under harsh conditions and could be deported, the MSF official said. 

Back in Germany, the 37-year-old man struggles to console his wife, whose brother is still in the Lithuanian hospital after his life-altering surgeries. “She is pregnant, she can’t digest this,” he said. 

He speaks to his brother-in-law daily. He tries to reassure him. The other Sri Lankan national who lost his leg this week cries to him sometimes over the phone in their native Tamil: “Brother, help me.” 

Lawyers told the man that the two hospitalised men want to open a legal case, but the man is more worried about the possibility of bringing his brother-in-law home to Germany. 

“The lawyers said it’ll take three months to bring him over here but I told them he wants to come earlier,” the man said. “He’s been in the hospital for nearly a month. He says he hasn’t cleaned up properly. A man in his 25th year with just one leg. It’s too hard, you can’t imagine.”

UPDATE 18/11/2022: This story has been updated.