Lithuania is complaining with increasing urgency that its neighbor Belarus is deliberately smuggling migrants illegally across its border to punish the Baltic state for EU sanctions against Minsk. In all of last year 2020, Lithuanian border guards apprehended 81 people, and since the beginning of this year until this Wednesday, the number is almost 1800, 1100 so far in July alone. On Thursday, there were 107. The Lithuanian government has declared a state of emergency, and because Foreign Minister Gabrielus Landsbergis cannot expect any help from Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, he has flown directly to Iraq.
That is where most of the migrants detained in Lithuania come from. Landsbergis has not been successful in Baghdad. His mood was very subdued when he said on his return that the Iraqi government is "very cautious about returning its citizens." The greatest help Baghdad offered, he said, would be to help identify the refugees.
Landsbergis accuses the Belarusian leadership of using Iraqis "to put pressure on my country and the European Union." There are flights from Baghdad to Minsk several times a week. "We have the impression that Iraqis are promised an easy trip to Europe and then end up in a forest," the foreign minister told his Iraqi counterpart, according to a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty report. "They are lied to by smugglers and spend a lot of money."
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida ?imonyt? said Belarus was offering migrants from Iraq cheap flights to Minsk through travel agencies. This was proved by documents found on one of the refugees. Most of them, on the other hand, did not have any identity documents with them.
Besides Baghdad, Lithuania considers the route from Istanbul to Minsk - there are several flights a day - to be the second route migrants use to find their way to the EU - with approval from Belarus. Many of them come from the Middle East and Africa, from Congo, for example, Cameroon, Mali, Gambia. Belarusian ruler Lukashenko had made it clear that he was by no means thinking of closing the borders to Poland, the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania, and Ukraine.
One of his biggest critics, Belarusian opposition politician Pavel Latushko, therefore considers the Lithuanian government's suspicion that Minsk is organizing flights from Iraq and willingly letting refugees into the neighboring country to be entirely plausible. There has never been a natural movement of refugees through Belarus, Latushko told Deutsche Presse-Agentur: "The regime itself organizes them artificially" because it wants to take revenge for the EU sanctions. And Lithuania is among the states that are exerting particularly strong pressure against Minsk within the EU.
The government in Vilnius is now advocating further sanctions against Belarus because of the migration conflict. Above all, however, the country wants to protect itself. The number of refugees is small compared to those in other EU countries, but for Lithuania it is large. The country has less than three million inhabitants and has hardly taken in any refugees. For Vilnius, the increased illegal migration across the Belarusian border means something completely new. Lithuania is an external EU border, and about 60 percent of the 680-kilometer border with Belarus is unprotected. The country is now upgrading its security measures and has begun building a 550-kilometer-long fence, which will be a mixture of a physical barrier and electronic surveillance.
Lithuania has already asked Greece about its experience in protecting the EU's external border, and Germany is sending ten police officers to step up surveillance, according to Interior Minister Agn? Bilotait?, which the Federal Interior Ministry confirmed on Friday. The deployment would begin on July 30. The EU border agency Frontex is already helping with patrols and questioning refugees.
In addition, the Lithuanian parliament has tightened laws. Rejected asylum seekers now have only limited rights to appeal, and once they have been arrested they may not be released until six months later - all of this is intended to act as a deterrent. At any rate, Lithuanian aid and human rights organizations are shocked by this. They see this as a breach of international statutes.
Image by Gerd Altmann