Moscow (CNSNews.com) – Lithuania is accusing Belarus of sending thousands of illegal migrants from the Middle East and Africa across its border in what critics view as a deliberate attempt by the Lukashenko regime to destabilize the European Union.
Lithuania’s Interior Ministry posted a video on Facebook on Tuesday purportedly showing Belarusian border patrol vehicles escorting a group of illegal migrants to the border between the two countries.
“We have likely proof that Belarusian officials are taking part in the organization of irregular migration,” the ministry said.
Over the past seven months, Lithuanian authorities have stopped more than 4,000 migrants on the border with Belarus, compared to 81 for all of 2020. The bulk of this surge has come in recent weeks, with 2,884 people apprehended in July alone.
Most of the migrants were from Iraq, but those detained also include large numbers of Congolese, Cameroonian, and Syrian nationals.
Officials say the current situation on the border is unprecedented for Lithuania, a small E.U. and NATO member state.
“This is a threat to our migration system, because we have never really faced such huge flows,” Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne Bilotait told local news portal Delfi earlier this summer.
“Comparing this year to last year, the number of illegal migrants has increased at least five times.”
Bilotait added that the crisis could soon spill over into the rest of the E.U. since most of those detained said they had intended to move from Lithuania to other countries in the bloc.
Lithuania’s border guard service told the Associated Press this week it had run out of facilities for housing illegal migrants detained at the border.
“We have managed this until now, but I must admit we have reached the limit of our possibilities,” said the director of the service, Rustamas Liubajevas.
Lithuanian officials blame President Alexander Lukashenko personally for the influx, arguing that Belarus’ authoritarian ruler is waging “hybrid warfare” against their country. The neighbors have had a highly contentious relationship ever since mass protests broke out in Belarus last year, following a widely disputed presidential election that saw Lukashenko declared the winner.
Lithuania became one of Lukashenko’s most vocal international critics, lobbying the E.U. to adopt sanctions against the regime and offering asylum to Belarusian opposition leaders.
Responding angrily, Lukashenko in late May threatened to flood Europe with “drugs and migrants” if Brussels imposed new sanctions.
Just over a month later, Lukashenko signed a presidential decree allowing citizens from 73 countries to visit and stay for up to five days without a visa. Although the stated reason behind the decree was to allow foreigners to visit the country to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, it served to encourage prospective migrants to use Belarus as a springboard to cross into Lithuania, and thus the E.U.
Lithuania declared a state of emergency in late June and allocated $17.7 million for the construction of a barbed-wire fence on its 220-mile-long border with Belarus.
On Monday, the E.U. announced that it would provide Lithuania with millions of euros to bolster its border security.
“This is a provocation of the Lukashenko regime,” E.U. home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson told a press conference in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. “We must show that there is no free access to E.U. territory.”
Lukashenko has shown no signs that he plans on changing course anytime soon, however. During a cabinet meeting last month he declared that his government “will not hold anyone back” on the border. “We are not their final destination after all,” he said. “They are headed to enlightened, warm, cozy Europe.”
Lukashenko is not the first autocrat in the region to use migration to exert political pressure on the E.U. Last March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to “open the gates” to Europe for millions of Syrian refugees, citing dissatisfaction with the E.U.’s implementation of a 2016 E.U.-Turkey migration deal.
Following Erdogan’s announcement, thousands of migrants headed to the Greek border, prompting violent confrontations with Greek border patrol and riot police.