Lithuania seeks international help to halt ‘weaponised’ migration via Belarus

Minsk accused of funnelling migrants to EU border in revenge for western sanctions

Lithuanians sell things to migrants standing behind the fence at the refugee camp in the village of Verebiejai, Lithuania, on July 11th. Photograph: Mindaugas Kulbis/AP

Lithuanians sell things to migrants standing behind the fence at the refugee camp in the village of Verebiejai, Lithuania, on July 11th. Photograph: Mindaugas Kulbis/AP

 

Lithuania is seeking help from governments in Europe and the Middle East to stem a surge in migrants arriving via neighbouring Belarus, which is accused of using illegal migration to punish the Baltic state for denouncing the Minsk regime and supporting the opposition movement led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

More than 1,700 migrants have been caught entering Lithuania so far this year – compared with about 80 during the whole of 2020 – and Vilnius says officials and agencies loyal to autocratic Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko are facilitating their travel to Belarus and onward journey to the border.

Lithuanian politicians say migrants from the Middle East are flying into Minsk on frequent flights from Iraq and Turkey, and that a recent Lukashenko decree allowing citizens of 73 states to enter Belarus without a visa to receive Covid-19 vaccinations is actually a front for more “weaponised” migration.

During talks in Ankara on Wednesday, Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielus Landsbergis said he had “discussed the possibility of reducing the number of flights from Turkey [to Minsk]. Also, perhaps we could investigate with Turkey the entire route and how migrants, with the help of Belarus . . . end up in Lithuania.”

“The general approach is positive. Turkey does not want to become a tool of Lukashenko in an organised chain of illegal migration,” he added.

Mr Landsbergis is now travelling to Baghdad for talks on how to slow the flow of migrants to Belarus and send illegal Iraqi migrants home from his country.

Razor-wire fence

Lithuanian prime minister Ingrida Simonyte is expected to meet Greek officials on Thursday to discuss their experience of dealing with very large migration flows and ways to improve the protection of the EU’s external borders.

Lithuania is now erecting a razor-wire fence along its frontier with Belarus, and on Tuesday its parliament passed legislation to speed up asylum rulings, accelerate the deportation of failed applicants and deprive them of the chance to appeal – measures that critics called an unacceptable attack on migrants’ rights.

EU border agency Frontex said it was launching a “rapid border intervention” in Lithuania and sending more patrol cars, border guards and other staff to the country, in what it called a display of “EU solidarity in action”.

Mr Lukashenko threatened to allow migrants and drugs to flow west in May, when EU states imposed more sanctions on his regime for diverting a Ryanair jet to Minsk so that activist Roman Protasevich could be arrested.

He was flying from Athens to Vilnius, which has given refuge to Ms Tikhanovskaya and other anti-Lukashenko figures since huge opposition protests last summer.

The Belarusian security services continued their crackdown on critics of the regime on Wednesday, raiding the offices of several rights groups and detaining activists, in what Ms Tikhanovskaya – who is now visiting Ireland – condemned as a display of “state terror”.