Latvia's government has declared a state of emergency in eastern areas due to fears of an influx of migrants arriving via Belarus, as neighbouring Lithuania debated urgent steps to stem what it calls "weaponised" migration orchestrated by Minsk.
Lithuania, Latvia and Poland accuse Minsk of helping mostly Iraqi migrants fly into and then travel through Belarus to their borders, to hit back at them for strongly opposing its authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko.
Lithuania has detained more than 4,000 migrants near the Belarusian frontier so far this year – compared to about 80 during the whole of 2020 – and in recent days Poland and Latvia have reported sharp increases in the number of migrants arriving at their borders with Belarus.
Poland says it has caught about 900 illegal migrants so far this year, after detaining just 122 in 2020.
Latvia’s cabinet announced a three-month state of emergency in four eastern areas on Tuesday, to give more powers to border guards, police and the military to prevent migrants crossing the frontier illegally, and to allow quicker provision of temporary accommodation for migrants.
Guntis Pujats, the head of Latvia's border guard service, said on Tuesday morning that 65 people had been caught illegally crossing from Belarus overnight, bringing the total to more than 200 in 24 hours. All the migrant accommodation facilities available to his agency were now full, he added.
In Lithuania, meanwhile, parliament in Vilnius held a special session to debate proposals to give more power to the military to detain migrants and search suspicious vehicles near the border, and to build a 4m-high metal fence along most of the Baltic state’s frontier with Belarus at a cost of €150 million.
Lithuania has been a key supporter of Belarus’s pro-democracy movement since Mr Lukashenko launched a ruthless crackdown on critics last August.
Several prominent opposition figures are now based in Lithuania, including the movement's leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and, in May, Minsk forced a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land so that an activist on board could be arrested.
When the EU imposed sanctions over that incident, Mr Lukashenko said Belarus would no longer stop migrants moving to the West.
Mr Lukashenko argued on Monday that Belarus was simply “reacting in the way we can” to foreign pressure, and suggested Minsk might also stop working with the US to prevent the smuggling of radioactive material.
“Who needs some kind of dirty explosive going to the European Union?” he said. “If they [the US] cross too far over the red line, we won’t talk to them about this subject at all.”
The EU said on Tuesday it welcomed a decision by Iraq to suspend flights to Minsk, and Baghdad said about 280 Iraqis would be flown home from Belarus early this week.