Belarus' president Alexander Lukashenko is using migration to put political pressure on the European Union, it's been claimed.
It comes after Euronews reported migrant crossings on the Lithuania-Belarus border have soared this year. More than 1,500 illegal crossings have been registered in 2021, compared with just 81 for the whole of 2020.
The Lithuanian government has declared a state of emergency to address the sharp rise in migration, which it says Belarusian authorities are encouraging. Belarus denies the allegations.
Last week, Vilnius began building a fence along its border to deter migrants from entering. The fence could cost up to €41 million.
Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for home affairs, who's in charge of the EU's migration policy, says the situation is "very concerning" and "very serious" and called on Minsk to stop the illegal crossings.
"As I see it, the Lukashenko regime is using migrants in [an] instrumentalist way to put political pressure and they are actually facilitating them to cross into the Lithuanian border," Johansson told Euronews on Monday.
"It's absolutely unacceptable to use human beings in this instrumentalist way of putting political pressure. So this has to be avoided with all means."
The crisis has been compared to the recent dispute between Morocco and Spain and long-standing tensions between Turkey and Greece.
Both Rabat and Ankara have been accused of encouraging illegal crossings as a means of blackmailing the European Union, which still lacks a unified strategy to manage migration.
"The situation that we are seeing now with how Lukashenko regime is using migrants to put pressure is a different one, what we have seen earlier from other third countries," Johansson said.
"It's important to see that every situation is unique in one way. So we have to address them in a tailored way. But we can also see a pattern that is absolutely unacceptable."
According to preliminary assessments conducted by the Lithuanian authorities and quoted by Johansson, a majority, or at least half, of those who have crossed the Lithuanian border are Iraqi nationals. Residents from Congo and Cameroon also featured prominently.
"It seems like people are flying into Minsk from Baghdad and Ankara, and then it seems like they are being facilitated or even bussed towards the border with Lithuania and then they are crossing. Of course, this is nothing 100% sure. This is actually how we understand the situation right now, " Johansson said.
Retaliation against EU sanctions
The sudden migrant crisis has been linked with the new raft of EU sanctions against Belarus, agreed in mid-June in coordination with the UK, the US and Canada.
The measures were introduced in response to the hijacking of a Ryanair flight and the subsequent arrest of journalist Roman Pratasevich and his girlfriend.
Critics say Pratasevich's arrest is part of a crackdown on opposition figures in Belarus after protests following the disputed presidential election last August.
The bloc's new sanctions target 78 Belarusian individuals, including several prominent businessmen and CEOs who are said to have close links to President Lukashenko, together with an array of judges, prosecutors, rectors, lawmakers, propagandists and public directors. Viktor Lukashenko, the president's 45-year-old son and his wife Liliya, were also penalised.
Also blacklisted were eight entities involved in the export of products such as trucks, automobiles, flowers and oil. Some of these businesses are among the country's largest state-owned companies.
In response to the sanctions, Lukashenko said his country would halt migration cooperation with the EU and would not let his country "become a camp".
"We won’t hold anyone," he stated. "They are coming not to us but to the enlightened, warm and cosy Europe."
Johansson thinks that there is indeed a cause-effect link between the migrant crisis and the sanctions.
"Of course there is a connection with [the sanctions]. The [EU-Belarus] relation has been deteriorating since we saw that a lot of Belarusian citizens asked for democratic reforms and we saw an election that was neither free nor fair, and we saw unprecedented and dangerous and unacceptable violence towards those that took part in demonstrations."
The EU has mobilised the bloc's border control agency, Frontex, to assist the Lithuanian government during the crisis.
Lithuania President Gitanas Nauseda held a video conference over the weekend with the agency's Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri where Frontex agreed to send border guards and patrols, interpreters and helicopters.
According to Johansson, there are currently six Frontex officials inside the Baltic country.
"There is clearly a need to step up quickly. So I do hope that Frontex will be able to, as soon as possible, send more border guards and officials to help out at the Lithuanian borders, to send patrol cars, to send a helicopter and other kinds of support that is needed now at the border."