Latvia and Lithuania act to counter migrants crossing Belarus border

Along with Poland, the two Baltic states accuse Alexander Lukashenko of ‘hybrid warfare’

Latvia has declared a state of emergency and Lithuania is mulling a razor-wire fence to stop record numbers of migrants crossing their borders from Belarus, amid claims Minsk is using the arrivals as leverage on EU states to reverse sanctions.

Authorities in the two Baltic states and Poland have faced increases in illegal migration so severe they have appealed to Brussels for help, accusing the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, of orchestrating the crossings in a form of “hybrid warfare”.

Vilnius, Riga and Warsaw believe Lukashenko is using the migrants, mainly from Iraq, to pressure the bloc into lifting sanctions imposed over his ferocious crackdown on opponents after last year’s disputed elections, widely seen as rigged.

Tensions between the three and Belarus’s autocratic leader are already high, with Lithuania hosting many of Lukashenko’s pro-democratic rivals while Poland has given refuge to the Belarusian Olympic athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya.

During an eight-and-a-half-hour press conference on Monday, Lukashenko denied Belarus was “blackmailing” Europe with a migrant crisis, but said it was reacting to foreign pressure “according to its capabilities.”

“We are not blackmailing anyone with illegal immigration,” he told journalists in Minsk’s Independence Palace. “We’re not threatening anyone. But you have put us in such circumstances that we are forced to react. And we’re reacting.”

EU pressure last week persuaded Iraq, which in early August added direct daily routes from Sulaymaniyah and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan as well as Basra, to pause flights to Belarus, sharply reducing the number of migrants arriving in Lithuania.

Migrants preparing food last week at a newly built refugee camp in the Rudninkai military training ground, about 23 miles south of Vilnius in Lithuania.
Migrants preparing food last week at a newly built refugee camp in the Rudninkai military training ground, about 23 miles south of Vilnius in Lithuania. Photograph: Mindaugas Kulbis/AP

But flight records showed one Iraqi Airways flight from Baghdad landed in Minsk on Tuesday, and the fall in Lithuanian arrivals has been offset by an exponential increase in migrants from Belarus crossing into Latvia and Poland.

There is little doubt Belarusian officials have been involved in the scheme. Lithuania has published video shot by Frontex, the EU border agency, showing vehicles likely used by the Belarusian border guard escorting migrants to the border with the EU.

One leaked video showed migrants being released from a van near the border and told, first in Russian and then in English, which direction to walk. Another showed Belarusian riot police in helmets telling a group of people, many carrying heavy bags, to “walk” toward the EU border.

While no direct flights currently operate from Kabul or other Afghan cities, observers now suspect Belarus will try to bring in more refugees from Afghanistan. Lukashenko last week also told officials to tighten the country’s border, effectively trapping the migrants in a no-man’s land once they’re turned back from the EU.

Arrivals in Lithuania have slowed dramatically following EU pressure on Iraq, with 271 migrants crossing the border from Belarus last week compared with 1,106 the previous week. But the country must now process 4,110 irregular migrants, from Iraq, Congo-Brazzaville, Cameroon, Syria, Iran and Russia, 50 times the 2020 total.

MPs in the Baltic state on Tuesday debated whether to build a 4-metre-high metal fence topped with razor wire along about 315 miles (508km) of its 420-mile border with Belarus, as well as allowing the army to patrol the border. Border guards last week pushed about 700 people back into Belarus, allowing only women with children to stay.

“Lukashenko is using migration as a weapon,” the Lithuanian president, Gitanas Nausėda, said over the weekend. “This is a hybrid campaign by Lukashenko against the EU and the integrity of its eastern border.”

The Belarusian leader is not the first to be accused of using migrants to pressure the EU. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has previously been open in demanding cash to prevent tens of thousands of refugees trying to reach Europe.

After a fivefold week-on-week increase in arrivals, the Latvian government on Tuesday declared a state of emergency lasting until 10 November in its border areas, allowing the army, police and border guards to order illegal migrants to return to the country they came from, using force if necessary.

Latvia has detained 283 individuals for illegally crossing from Belarus since 6 August, authorities said, bringing the total for the year to 343. The state border guard chief, Guntis Pujāts, said 65 had been detained on Monday night alone, arriving “in large groups, in an organised flow”.

Poland, meanwhile, recorded 491 asylum seekers from Belarus in the first week of August, nine times more than the previous week, after it gave refuge to Tsimanouskaya, who refused to return home from the Tokyo Games.

Authorities said on Monday they had detained 349 migrants crossing from Belarus since Friday. The Polish border guard said the detained migrants were mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan, adding that 871 illegal immigrants had been detained on the Belarus border so far this year, compared to 122 in the whole of last year.

Visiting the Belarusian-Lithuanian border last week, the EU home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, accused Lukashenko of “a very severe aggressive act” that was intended to provoke.

Slovenia, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, is due to host a meeting of the bloc’s justice and home affairs ministers on 18 August to discuss unlawful migration from Belarus and the Lithuanian border situation.

The Lithuania-Belarus frontier poses a “serious security threat” for the 27-nation bloc, which has become a “witness to state-sponsored weaponisation of illegal migration” from Belarus, Slovenia said in a letter sent to EU diplomats.

The European commission is poised to release €36m (£30m) in aid to help Lithuania provide shelter, interpreters and other facilities for asylum seekers. More money is expected to be released to boost border control, although the commission has insisted it will not fund walls or fences.

“Our support is there to support integrated border management solutions that ensure that irregular border crossings do not go undetected and are then linked to an effective and speedy migration management system,” a spokesperson said.

On Monday, Lukashenko also hinted at other hybrid weapons he could unleash on Europe, in particular threatening to cut off cooperation with the US on fighting smuggling of radioactive materials.


Jon Henley, Andrew Roth in Moscow and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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