Lithuania appears to have stemmed the recent surge in irregular crossings by migrants cynically being sent to the border by Belarus as part of its hybrid war with the West. The problem is far from over.
Lithuania, subjected to a deliberate and vengeful influx of irregular migrants coming across the border from Belarus, might have temporarily slowed the flow with its new border-crossing control measures.
However, the Baltic country could face an even more dangerous and volatile game of “human ping-pong” in the border zone, with the main victims being the hundreds of migrants deceptively lured to Belarus as a gateway to Western Europe by Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko in what has been called a form of hybrid warfare.
Rokas Pukinskas, a spokesman for Lithuania’s State Border Guard Service (SBGS) said only two persons – a woman and child – had been detained on August 6, while around 100 persons trying to cross the border were turned back and told to go to an official border crossing to apply for asylum. As yet, no one has appeared at the official border points, he noted.
The drop in irregular crossings from Belarus, following a surge in arrivals in recent months, appears to be the result of Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite on August 2 ordering the SGBS to turn away irregular migrants attempting to cross into Lithuania anywhere outside official border crossings.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, speaking on August 4 in Vilnius, said that the new measures were “strictly in line with our international obligations and rulings of the European Court of Human Rights.”
The news of a drop in crossings came as Prime Minister Simonyte met by video conference on August 6 with her Baltic counterparts – Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas – following which they issued a joint statement condemning “all attempts to instrumentalise irregular migration with a view of exerting political pressure on the EU and its Member States.”
The three Baltic leaders expressed “grave concern regarding the ongoing hybrid attack by the Lukashenko regime against the integrity of the EU external border.”
Observers on the ground, such as the Lithuanian parliament’s human rights monitor Vytautas Valentinavicius, told local media that dozens of migrants appeared to be trapped between Lithuanian border guards pushing them back into Belarus, and Belarus security forces pushing them toward Lithuania at night with flares to light the way and gunfire in the air to intimidate them.
However, Pukinskas of the SBGS said that the gunfire was more likely related to Belarusian military exercises in the area.
Cynically creating a crisis
According to official statistics published on August 6, irregular migrants totalling 4,112 had crossed into Lithuania in recent weeks as part of Lukashenko’s policy of encouraging people from the Middle East to travel to Belarus and then attempt to cross the Lithuanian border. Last year, fewer than 100 were recorded.
Given Lukashenko’s previous statements, EU officials say Belarus’s policy is clearly designed to create a “migrant crisis” in retaliation for Lithuania and the EU’s support of the Belarus opposition and sanctions against his regime. These have been stepped up in the past year, since a rigged election in August 2020 kept Lukashenko in power and triggered mass street protests, which the regime has violently suppressed.
Lithuania’s granting of asylum and later diplomatic status to Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and its firm response to May’s diversion to Minsk of a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius in order to arrest a dissident journalist has apparently angered Lukashenko, leading him to make good on his threat to flood the West with migrants and drugs.
According to some reports, Iraq may have bowed to pressure from the EU and temporarily suspended the Iraqi Airlines flights from several cities that were bringing jumbo jet loads of potential migrants to the Belarus capital Minsk, where they could freely travel to the border with Lithuania and attempt to cross into a Schengen zone country.
The Lithuanian government is now discussing and pushing ahead with building a substantial border barrier consisting of a fence and sensors to deter crossings outside official border control points. The cost of this is estimated at well over 100 million euros, and Lithuanian officials say they will pay for it from the national budget even while asking for EU help in strengthening the area’s outer border.
There are few parts of the Lithuanian-Belarus border that have natural or man-made fences or barriers, so it is easy to avoid border patrols or detection. However, the Lithuanian side is increasingly using drones and helicopters with infrared detection devices that can spot people in vegetation or forest. Local media also published videos and photographs of Lithuanian soldiers laying concertina barbed wired along the border to further discourage irregular crossing.
The Lithuania authorities were also continuing efforts to provide temporary housing for the migrants who were detained over the last few days while crossing the border before the new rules took effect. Local media reported that in one location, tents were being replaced by quickly-assembled huts for housing woman, children and other vulnerable persons should the weather change.
This reporter also observed that the Lithuanian authorities were making efforts to protect the privacy of migrants and to discourage gatherings by the media at their camps. A member of the Public Security Service guarding the migrant camp on the outskirts of Pabrade near Vilnius warned against taking photos closer than from across a major highway. The fence around the camp facing the public road was also covered with large sheets of paper to block the view of the tents and residents walking about inside.
At another hastily built tent camp near the village of Rudinikai, residents swarmed to the gate of the facility when a mobile store that usually makes the rounds of small farm communities attempted to open a new market among the hundreds of irregular migrants housed in tents in a Public Security Service facility. The effort ended with the middle-aged Lithuanians gesturing and saying “no English” while the migrants tried to communicate in various languages and with gestures.
Many of those in the Rudinikai facility appeared to be brown-skinned men from South Asia, who, barring credible individual stories of persecution, would probably not get asylum. One man, asked where he was from, answered “India” and then requested cigarettes. Another man, further away and oblivious to the activity around the vendors at the gate, was seen cutting the hair of another migrant.
The Rudinikai camp was set up after protests by local residents who blocked trucks carrying tents and equipment to the Public Security Service training area-turned-migrant camp. They were dispersed by officers in riot gear from the same service – a kind of national gendarmerie that supplements ordinary police at large public events ir un case of disorder.
Later, on August 2, the Public Security Service dispersed a migrant protest at the camp over food and accommodation issues; it had rained and turned chilly.
Like Lithuania, Latvia also shares a common border with Belarus. Kristine Petersone, a major in the Latvian Border Guard Service and a public affairs spokesperson, said that as of August 6, nothing unusual had happened on the Latvian-Belarus border. So far this year, 27 border crossers have been detained, most of them saying they are from Iraq.
Estonia, which has no common border with Lithuania, has sent supplies of concertina wire and electronic equipment to Lithuania, while Latvia has provided tents.
As fall approaches and if migrants from third countries continue to make their way to Belarus, the “not quite no-man’s land” along the Belarus-Lithuanian border could become a place of human suffering and possibly low-level armed confrontation between the Lithuanian and Belarusian forces, neither of which want to be stuck with the growing migrant problem along their borders.