The European Union has urged Belarus to stop facilitating illegal migration from the Middle East to Lithuania, which says it is under “hybrid attack” from Minsk because of its support for opponents of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
The Baltic state has detained more than 4,000 migrants at its eastern border with Belarus this year – compared with just 80 during the whole of 2020 – and is struggling to accommodate them amid rising domestic tension over the issue.
Vilnius and Brussels accuse Belarusian state agencies of overseeing an increase in flights from Iraq and Turkey to Minsk and ensuring that migrants move unhindered from the Belarusian capital to the Lithuanian frontier.
EU spokeswoman Nabila Massrali said on Thursday that Belarus’s envoy in Brussels had been informed of “the EU’s strong concerns and clear position that the instrumentalisation of migrants and refugees is utterly unacceptable”.
“These practices must stop and Belarus must respect its international commitment in combating irregular migration and human trafficking and migrant smuggling.”
Most of the migrants now arriving in Lithuania are from Iraq, but the Baltic state’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said Belarus may want to attract flights from other parts of the Middle East and from North Africa.
“It’s probably either an attempt to increase the migrant flow, which is dangerous for both Lithuania and the EU, or they are looking how to replace the Iraqi route if the EU manages to close it,” he said.
Lithuania says it has pushed back hundreds of migrants into Belarus this week after announcing it would use force if necessary to tighten the border – an approach watchdogs say threatens the rights and safety of asylum seekers.
Belarus claimed on Wednesday that an Iraqi man died after being forced back from the frontier – a report that Vilnius dismissed as a “fairy tale”.
“Lithuania is under hybrid attack and spreading such information is a classic example of this process,” said the nation’s defence minister Arvydas Anusauskas.
Mr Lukashenko compared Lithuanians to “Nazis” for “killing people and throwing half-dead people on to our territory”, and told his officials that “from now on, not a single foot should step onto the territory of Belarus from the adjacent side [of the border] whether from the south or the west”.
Lithuania has been a fierce critic of Mr Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on critics and has provided refuge to leading opposition figures.
Belarusian Olympian Krystsina Tsimanouskaya said she was “happy to be in safety” in Poland on Thursday, after refusing to go home due to fears that she would be punished there for criticising the country’s sports officials.
“I would want to return to Belarus,” she told Reuters news agency. “I love my country. I did not betray it and I hope I will be able to return.”