Amid rising public alarm at the influx of illegal migrants from Iraq and elsewhere, Lithuania has begun expelling the hundreds of individuals who have dashed across the border into the European Union member state from Belarus in recent months.
As of August 3, the latest day for which figures were available, 180 people were deported. The government has stated that force will be used, if need be.
The Lithuanian branch of the Red Cross has condemned these expulsions as a violation of international agreements that stipulate refugees’ right to seek asylum.
But the primary concern for Lithuanian officials now appears to be how to cope with the ongoing flood of illegal migrants; an influx Foreign Minister Gabrielus Landsbergis predicted could reach 10,000 people “by the end of the summer,” Politico reported.
Lithuanians like Landsbergis believe Belarus has engineered this crisis as payback for EU sanctions against the Belarusian government. Minsk also sees Lithuania, which houses critics of Belarus’ Alyaksandr Lukashenka, including ex-presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, as part of an alleged international campaign to topple its government.
A record 287 illegal migrants entered Lithuanian territory from Belarus on August 2; altogether, roughly 4,000 have crossed the Belarusian border since the start of 2021, compared with a mere 80 in 2020.
One 20-year-old detained Iraqi migrant, who gave his name as Shahed, told Current Time that he had paid $800 for the trip from Iraq to Turkey, and then on to Belarus.
Russian citizens also are among those detained, Lithuanian Deputy Foreign Minister Mantas Adomenas claimed in an August 3 interview with Russia’s Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio station. Adomenas did not provide details.
Lithuanians living in areas bordering Belarus already have started protests and blocked roads over the government accommodating these migrants, who, in this predominantly mono-ethnic society of just 2.8 million people, many view with suspicion and as the primary cause for alarm.
But one Belarus research specialist cautions that the anger, amplified by some right-wing parties sympathetic to Russia, should not be aimed at the migrants.
“The migrants themselves are not the problem,” said Vytis Jurkonis, a Belarus research specialist and head of the Lithuania branch of the U.S. human rights organization Freedom House. “The basic problem is the Lukashenka [de facto] regime.”
Belarus’ proposal to negotiate with Lithuania over border security amounts to “blackmail,” Jurkonis charged, and should not be accepted. Belarus
The Lithuanian border guard has announced that it no longer has space for detained migrants, and urged others to pick up the slack. The EU has pledged 20-30 million euros ($23.7 - $35.5 million) in 2022 to help Lithuania secure its borders. The country itself wants to build a border wall estimated to cost 110 million euros ($119 million).
-With additional reporting from AP