Barefoot migrants pushed by Belarus across Lithuanian border, says minister

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By Joshua Askew
A migrant with a child walks along the barbed wire fence as other gather at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021.
A migrant with a child walks along the barbed wire fence as other gather at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021.   -   Copyright  Oksana Manchuk/BelTA

Belarus is pushing migrants across the Lithuanian border barefoot in a bid to exert pressure on the country, Lithuania's government said on Wednesday. 

Interior Minister Agne Bilotaitė told reporters that nine people had been found without shoes, and without proper winter clothes, adding that two migrants were hospitalised. 

This follows reports that a Sri Lankan man lost his leg and five toes to frostbite after being trapped in no- man's land between Belarus and Lithuania earlier this month. 

Since 2021, Lithuania and Belarus have ping-ponged migrants back and forth across each other's borders, following geo-political tensions between the two.

Many of the migrants -- mostly from the Middle East and South East Asia -- were reportedly purposefully brought to Belarus, which the EU has accused of engineering the crisis in response to sanctions. 

'Serious concern'

In a statement, Bilotaitė said trying to cross the border barefoot would not be sufficient grounds for entry into Lithuania, or for asylum. 

"The fact that people arrive at the border barefoot will not be a reason to let them in," she said. 

"Our message is that such attempts will not be a reason to enter Lithuania."

Four of the nine individuals taken to hospital were offered the chance to apply for asylum. 

Lithuanian border forces have been accused of repeatedly pushing back migrants trying to cross its border with Belarus, often violently. 

Once on the other side, Belarussian authorities typically force them back again. 

Hundreds of people are thought to be currently trapped between the two countries and have set up camp in sub-zero temperatures. 

Thousands of migrants have been affected, aid groups say. 

"They are deliberately kept there, not released. They are not provided with [warm clothes], they are not accustomed to winter conditions," said Bilotaitė. 

Critics of the Lithuanian government have urged the country to take in some of those stuck at the border and view their asylum claims. 

Other migrants are stuck between Belarus's borders with Latvia and Poland, where several are reported to have died. 

No deaths have been recorded in Lithuania or Latvia. 

Belarus has 'actively damaged' the border

A high number of Belarusian border officers have been observed at the border, said Lithuania's interior minister. 

Bilotaitė accused Belarus of sabotaging the Lithuanian border in its bid to aid those sneaking through the border.

“They not only continue to push migrants into Lithuania but also actively damage the physical barrier, particularly where border monitoring systems have not yet been installed," she said. 

"Illegal migrants also try to damage the physical barrier on their own. In total, the number of physical barriers damaged is 433 times.”

Social media videos purportedly show Belarusian border guards cutting fences and escorting migrants through Lithuania's border fence. 

She stressed that officials on the border were taking all the needed measures to avoid humanitarian issues on the border, alongside providing aid. 

According to the figures provided by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a total of 10,549 illegal migrants were detained on their way entering illegally to Lithuania. 

Earlier this year, the country installed a metal fence which explains the length of 550 km of the border with Belarus. 

Lithuania announced that by the end of 2022 it will complete the installation of high-tech monitoring systems.