The Lithuanian border authorities have had to deal with over 3,300 migrants this year, a substantial increase that has been blamed as an “act of aggression that is aimed to provoke” by the Belarus government and its long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko. In July, Lithuania declared a state of emergency at its border, accusing Lukashenko of amassing migrants on its border in retaliation to Lithuania’s support of the Belarus opposition and EU sanctions.
A large majority of the migrants come from Iraq, reportedly headed to Lithuania as part of a concerted effort by Belarus including targeted social media aimed at baiting Iraqi asylum seekers. Factions have also moved from Syria and several African nations, including the Democratic Republic of Congo. Over 270 migrants crossed the Lithuanian border last weekend, more than three times the reported 74 illegal border crossings in the entirety of 2020.
The allegations surrounding the migrant crisis at the Lithuanian border are that Belarus has “weaponized” these migrants to disrupt EU migrant policy, flying them from areas including Istanbul and Baghdad into Minsk, with many then trying to cross the border into Lithuania to enter the EU.
Lithuania’s interior ministry released video footage from a helicopter allegedly showing large groups of migrants being transported to the EU border by Belarus’ border guard authority.
Lukasheko’s alleged motivations come as his administration has faced increased sanctions from several major EU economies and the US, measures that he has described as waging a “war”. The sanctions are aimed at stifling Lukashenko’s economy, hitting the banking, tobacco, fertilizer and oil industries, with Luxembourg foreign minister Jean Asselborn stating last month that he hoped that the sanctions would “bring this regime down to its knees”.
Following violent repression and intimidation of peaceful protestors demonstrating against a corrupt Belarus presidential election last year, one that extended Lukashenko’s 27 years in power, sanctions against the president’s regime have so far been met with retaliation. Sanctions on Lukashenko were furthered following a move to force down a commercial Ryanair flight in May to detain journalist Roman Protasevich, an act that has been generally described in the international press as a ‘hijack’.
In response to the migrant surge, the Lithuanian government has promised to finish constructing a 500km fence along its border, whilst the EU border agency Frontex has dispatched around 100 officers, 30 patrol cars, and two helicopters amid calls from the European Commission for support for Lithuania.
Lithuania Prime Minister Ingrida Simontye has promised that the razor-wire barrier fence, which began construction last month and is expected to exceed 100 million euros in costs, will be installed with or without EU funding.
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As attempts to halt flights from Iraq to Belarus have mostly fallen short, diplomats say they expect the number of migrants arriving at the Lithuanian border to keep increasing, with Belarus officials also reportedly beginning negotiating visa liberalization with Pakistan. According to a Politico newsletter, an Iraqi news agency has claimed that Iraqi Airways will temporarily be cancelled from 5 to 15 August following the controversy.
Lithuania’s foreign minister has urged the EU to “step up” actions to stop the arrivals, warning that the number of migrants could top 10,000 by the end of the summer.
At a press conference on August 2 in Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, EU commissioner for home affairs Ylva Johansson declared that the issue was “not primarily a migration crisis” but an “act of aggression aimed to provoke.” Johansson blamed the situation directly on the Belarus government, adding that “what we are facing is an aggressive act from the Lukashenko regime.”
Lukashenko has denied that the migrants were being used for political pressure, claiming that Lithuania was merely “whining,” while also stating that he has no plans to stop the flow of migrants, according to the official BelTA news agency.
If someone thinks that we will close the border with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine and become a filtration camp for fugitives from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, they are mistaken at least. We will not hold anyone. We are not their final destination after all. They are headed to enlightened, warm, cozy Europe… They have destroyed these countries.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, July 6, BelTA
Lithuania’s Prime Minister Simontye claimed, at the Vilnius press conference alongside Johansson, that Lukashenko was “weaponizing” the migrants, and warned that they would not be accepted. She also called upon the EU to use its leverage over Iraq to return the large number of migrants. This message was echoed by Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, who in a tweet on July 2 called out Lukashenko by name in stating that the antagonising “shall not pass.”
Lithuanian gov’t declared state of emergency today as record 150 illegal migrants crossed into LT from Belarus in the last 24hrs. Lukashenko seeks to weaponize migration to weaken our resolve for sanctions. Emergency or not – it shall not pass! pic.twitter.com/v9sjZPSPtd
— Gabrielius Landsbergis (@GLandsbergis) July 2, 2021
The European Commission will offer 12 million euros in funds to Lithuania to help curb the crisis at its border, and a delegation is reportedly being sent to Vilnius next week to negotiate more funds needed. “The sooner we arrange [the meeting] the better. Lukashenko keeps waging hybrid operations against the EU and it is our duty to react and take decisions fast,” stated a senior EU diplomat, in a report by Politico.
Expect more fireworks this summer as the migrant crisis engineered by Lukashenko is not about to blow away.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: Protests in Minsk, Belarus, in 2020. Featured Photo Credit: A_Matskevich, Pixabay.