The number of people who illegally crossed into Lithuania from Belarus shot up in June following condemnation over the forced landing of a Ryanair flight to arrest a journalist.
More than 410 people illegally crossed the Belarus-Lithuania border in June — more than has been recorded in the previous four years combined.
Lithuania's Interior Ministry has accused Belarusian officials of not only avoiding collaboration but actually helping migrants cross the border.
“Belarusian border guards do not make working contact with us,” Rokas Pukinskas, the head of the communication division of the Lithuanian State Border Guard Service, told Euronews. "We send requests, but we do not receive answers, although all violations at the border must be investigated with the help of a second party."
The Belarusian government however has denied the accusation, arguing that the increase in illegal crossings is due to countries worldwide easing their COVID-19 border restrictions.
The vast majority of the migrants who have crossed the border into Lithuania over the past six months are from the Middle East, with Iraqi nationals accounting for two-thirds of them. They are followed by Iranians and Syrians. They cross in groups, and a quarter of them are children.
"The majority cross the border without documents, or the documents are damaged. They only speak Kurdish. There are translators, but not enough,” Pukinskas explained. “So, we need to collect information about who these people are.”
Only 43 out of the 600 migrants who crossed into Lithuania so far this year are Belarusians, which is more than double the 18 and 14 registered in 2020 and 2019 respectively.
“Belarusians come separately and only in groups of 2-3 people,” Pukinskas noted. “All of them ask for temporary territorial asylum.”
According to the State Border Guard Service of Lithuania, Middle Eastern migrants fly from Istanbul and Baghdad to Minsk, and then from there they can reach the Lithuanian border, where Lithuanian border guards detain them.
‘Dictator's actions are unpredictable’
A sharp increase in illegal crossings was already observed in April and May, when 70 and 77 people crossed the Lithuanian border.
“One can never know when the chronic issue will become acute. Lithuania's neighbour is a state whose dictator's actions are unpredictable,” Lina Laurinaityte-Grigiene, adviser to Lithuania’s Interior Minister, told Euronews.
The flow of illegal migrants from Belarus grew significantly after the May 23 forced landing in Minsk of a Ryanair plane carrying journalist Roman Protasevich. During the first four weeks of June, the number of illegal migrants from Belarus reached a 2021 total so far of 412.
New European Union sanctions angered President Alexander Lukashenko, prompting him to threaten to weaken control over the Belarusian border with the 27-nation bloc of which Lithuania is a member.
“Before, we stopped drugs and migrants – now you will eat this and catch them yourself,” Lukashenko said.
A video released earlier this month by the State Border Guard Service purports to show Belarusian border guards attempting to remove evidence that they had facilitated border crossings.
Pavel Latushko, one of the most prominent opposition figures, said that he has "almost no doubts that it was organised by the state."
"Lukashenko almost publicly gave instructions to the head of the border services of Belarus. He is the one who coordinates and implements this plan," he added.
According to Lithuania's interior ministry, they have data showing that these migrants are flown to Belarus with the Belarusian state airline Belavia. Later, they cross the Lithuanian border illegally, and after arriving at the Foreigner’s Registration Center, they hasten to disappear.
“We see that Iraqi citizens arrive in Lithuania on certain days, which coincides with flights from Baghdad to Minsk,” Laurinaityte-Grigiene explained.
“Therefore, we have reasonable assumptions that these influxes of migrants are intended, possibly with the awareness of Belarusian officials."
According to Latushko, migrants pay for transfer to borders with the EU.
“The situation at the borders with Lithuania and Poland is a challenge to Europe and regional security,” Latushko said. “The dictator not only opened the border for illegal migrants, but instructed them to be taken to Belarus, issue them tourist vouchers and visas, and then deliver them to the border and facilitate their passage to the EU.”
'Fantasies of some politicians'
A representative from the Belarusian State Border Committee, Anton Bychkovsky, confirmed to Euronews that there has been an increase in illegal crossing attempts in recent months, but denied any involvement from the government.
"Stimulation of illegal migration processes was largely facilitated by the opening of borders by some countries of origin of migrants against the background of weakening of quarantine measures to counter the spread of coronavirus infection. This is a general trend in the region, including neighbouring states," he said.
He also said that Belarusian authorities had detained 320 foreign citizens who attempted to cross into the EU since the beginning of the year.
"Specifically, 234 foreigners were identified on the way to Lithuania, which is almost 14 times higher than the same period last year," he noted.
He also dismissed the video released by the Lithuanian authorities.
"What did the Lithuanian side provide from the evidence? The video on how Belarusian border guards are working on the clearance strip. The fantasies of some politicians that the Belarusian services are involved in illegal migration and state organisations purposefully bring thousands of illegal migrants to the country by air. Well, yes, it was promoted through many media. But what is provided? Nothing," he said.
‘The number can exceed our capabilities’
Some of the migrants who crossed the border illegally are seeking asylum, but so far no one has been granted the status as they are not eligible for international protection. “What is more, some of them have left the Foreigner's Registration Centre without any procedures,” Laurinaityte-Grigiene noted.
All migrants were accommodated in the Aliens Registration Centre or the Border Guard School. When places ran out, two camps with tents were built near the Foreigner’s Registration Centre.
Since June 14, there are 60 places for quarantine and 290 places for accommodation in those camps.
“At the moment, it seems that we have enough capacity to receive illegal migrants, but the number of arrivals is growing every day and can exceed our capabilities at any time,” Laurinaityte-Grigiene stressed.
Latushko, in response to the aforementioned quote from the Belarusian president, believes that illegal migration is not the only threat to the EU from Lukashenko.
“The next thing that can be expected based on Lukashenko's statements and the information we have is the organisation of drug trafficking into the EU,” he explained. “From the next stage, Lukashenko will begin to threaten with the built nuclear power plant located near the border with Lithuania. We are dealing with an international criminal."
“Only an international court, international criminal prosecution can stop the dictator," he said.
‘This is a pathetic revenge policy’
Lithuania is planning to improve protection on the border and all state institutions and services are being mobilised. Officials of the Public Security Service and members of the Lithuanian Riflemen's Union — a paramilitary non-profit organisation supported by the State — joined the State Border Guard Service. Police forces have also started working in the Dieveniskes loop, surrounded by the territory of Belarus.
Lithuania intends to install the necessary equipment to prevent illegal migration.
“It should be a comprehensive solution. For example, a fence, seismic cable and cameras. Also, Frontex will send reinforcements in July,” Pukinskas said.
“After the forced landing of the aircraft in order to arrest the opposition activist, and after sanctions were imposed on Belarus, the dictator openly threatened to allow migrants and drugs to flood into the EU,” Laurinaityte-Grigiene said.
“At the same time, the regime step by step shuts the humanitarian corridors. This is a pathetic revenge policy both in relation to his own nation and to countries that support the opposition and the democratic changes in Belarus," she concluded.
Euronews called Belarus' interior ministry, but they did not comment.