Lithuania says Belarus is flying in migrants, plans border barrier

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Lithuania on Wednesday accused Belarus of flying in migrants from abroad to send to the European Union and said it would build a barrier on the border and deploy troops to prevent them crossing illegally into its territory.

Belarus decided to allow migrants to cross into European Union member Lithuania in response to EU sanctions imposed after Minsk forced a Ryanair flight to land on its territory and arrested a dissident blogger aboard.

Hundreds have been making the crossing in recent days.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said Belarus had been offering migrants flights to Minsk, citing evidence found on at least one migrant who had reached Lithuania.

“There are travel agencies, direct flights that connect Minsk with Baghdad for example, and there are agencies both in Belarus and other countries that operate and attract ‘tourists’ to Minsk,” Simonyte told Reuters in Vilnius.

She said the main airport from where people flew into Belarus was Baghdad, but she would not rule out people also flying in from Istanbul.

The documents cited as evidence, copies of which were sent to Reuters by a Lithuanian government official, include applications from Minsk-based agencies called UmnoTury and Tsentrkurort, dated May 27 and June 7, asking the Belarusian Foreign Ministry for visas for three Iraqi citizens.

The official also sent copies of four boarding passes for a flight with Belarusian national carrier Belavia from Istanbul to Minsk on May 27, found on a migrant.

Turkey’s foreign ministry did not immediately comment on Lithuania’s claims.

BARRIER

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on May 26 that his country would no longer prevent migrants from crossing its western border into the EU.

Lithuania is working to organise a visit by its foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis to Baghdad next week to discuss migration, a foreign ministry spokesperson said.

Simonyte said Lithuania would take action to stop migrants crossing the border by increasing patrols and building a barrier, while it would also begin building a camp to house those who had already reached the country.

“We will begin building an additional physical barrier, which divides Lithuania and Belarus, which would be a certain sign and a certain deterrent to organisers of the illegal migration flows,” she told a news conference.

She also said the country, a Schengen free travel area member, was considering imposing border controls with neighbouring EU countries to stop the migrants travelling from it towards Western countries in the bloc.

BORDER GUARDS

Earlier on Wednesday, three Lithuanian border guards had struggled to communicate with four visibly tired persons in jumpers, sheltered at bus stop at a village 2 km from the border. None spoke English.

They identified as Iraqis with no passports, and were taken for questioning, still without translator, in the entrance hall of the border guards’ headquarters.

“We were used to dealing mostly with cigarette smuggling from Belarus. This is all new to us,” said Povilas Vitkus, a border guard.

Less than a dozen officers patrol the 64 km stretch assigned to Vitkus’ border post – mostly forests and marshes – and they rely on villagers to report illegal migrant crossings.

779 illegal migrants crossed the Belarus-Lithuanian border in the seven days of July, compared with 636 migrants during the first six month of the year, according to the border guards’ office. The country received no more than 104 migrants annually during 2018-2020.

“If people continue to come in such numbers, in hundreds per day, it will get serious for sure – it will be challenging to find proper accommodation, to ensure humanitarian needs and proper services for those people”, Egle Samuchovaite from Lithuanian Red Cross told Reuters.

Lithuania’s migration authority says it has a growing backlog of asylum applications, and the court which reviews its decisions expects to be overwhelmed soon.

In Kalviai village on the Belarus border, large groups of migrants crossing the nearby fields or village streets have become an everyday sight this week.

“I gave them water as they passed”, said villager Valentinas Margevicius, 54. “They must be really hard-up, if they decided to drop everything and travel to an unknown land.”

Photo: The Hill of Three Crosses in Vilnius, Lithuania. Gediminas Castle and the Vilnius TV tower can be seen in the background. EC Audiovisual Service.