Brussels and Vilnius accuse the regime of autocratic Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko of “weaponising” migration to destabilise Lithuania and punish it for providing refuge to some of his most prominent critics, including exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
More than 3,000 migrants from the Middle East and Africa have been caught entering Lithuania so far this year – compared to just 80 during the whole of 2020 – as the country’s already tense relations with Belarus collapsed after Mr Lukashenko launched a brutal crackdown on protesters following disputed elections.
The EU, fellow member states and the bloc’s border force Frontex are helping Lithuania cope with the influx, but it has already become a major domestic political issue and sparked protests in areas where migrants could be accommodated.
“If Belarus continues to encourage human smuggling, Lithuania will raise the issue of additional sanctions against Belarus in Brussels,” the country’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said on Friday.
“No sanctions are currently in place against Belarus for organising illegal migration. They have been proposed, but they would be meaningless if Minsk stopped this activity.”
Mr Lukashenko, ruler of Belarus since 1994, publicly threatened in May to let drugs and migrants flow through his country to Lithuania when the EU imposed sanctions on his regime for forcing a Ryanair jet flying from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk, so that an opposition activist on board could be arrested.
Brussels and Vilnius says the Belarusian authorities are facilitating the arrival of migrants on planes from Turkey and Iraq and on their onward journey to the Lithuanian border. Top EU and Lithuanian diplomats have asked Ankara and Baghdad to tackle the issue.
Lithuanian interior minister Agne Bilotaite has sought an extraordinary meeting of her EU counterparts to co-ordinate a response to the deteriorating situation.
“Only two weeks have passed since the last meeting of EU interior ministers, and the number of illegal migrants has almost doubled over that time. This situation needs urgent action and decisions,” she said.
Ms Bilotaite also revealed that Lithuania’s cyber security centre is investigating an apparent campaign to whip up fear and anger over the issue online.
“I have information about cyber attacks trying to spread disinformation about plans to set up accommodation centres in some municipalities...to further escalate the situation,” she said. “This shows that we’re facing hybrid warfare.”
EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson is expected to spend Sunday and Monday in Lithuania.
“The unacceptable instrumentalisation of people for political purposes must stop,” she wrote to all EU interior ministers this week. “Our first priority must be to assist Lithuania in securing its border with Belarus.”