Press Play to listen to this article
The EU’s border guard said Monday it was mobilizing a rapid reaction force into Lithuania, where the government is accusing neighboring Belarus of allowing hundreds of migrants to enter the country illegally.
The allegations that Belarus are “arming” migrants in retaliation for EU sanctions and supporting political opponents of long-time head of state Alexander Lukashenko were discussed in the European Parliament and the EU Foreign Council on Monday.
“It seems that the Belarusian authorities are now facilitating irregular migration, possibly in retaliation for EU restrictive measures and in response to Lithuanian support to civil society in Belarus,” EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said during a joint hearing by the parliamentary committees on home affairs and foreign affairs.
Johansson said the mode of arrival is still being investigated but it appears that several flights a day land in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, transporting migrants from Istanbul and Baghdad. Officials said at least 60 EU border guards would be arriving in Lithuania in the coming days.
While many of the migrants who entered Lithuania appear to be Iraqi or Syrian origins, there have also been migrants from African countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said his country is struggling to bring migrants back to their home countries. He added that the Baltic nation is now facing challenges that are more common in EU frontline countries such as Greece and Spain, which face a constant influx of migrants across the Mediterranean and similar pressures from arrivals from Turkey and Morocco .
“The European Union should have a common strategy to deal with this type of political or hybrid threat”, Landsbergis said. “We need a readmission strategy because one country – be it Lithuania, be it Greece or Spain – has a pretty difficult road ahead of it when it comes to sending back illegally entered people. Second, we have to be very strict with the regimes that use this type of weapon. “
Landsbergis called for additional sanctions against Belarus, saying other countries using such tactics should face similar penalties.
To deal with the crisis, the Lithuanian parliament will hold a special session on Tuesday to pass amendments to national asylum laws with the aim of reducing the time it takes to consider applications for protection status.
When asked whether the situation in Lithuania added urgency to the EU’s longstanding struggle for a new migration pact, the bloc’s high representative for foreign affairs Josep Borrell said it was up to Frontex to help manage the situation.
“That is why we founded Frontex to help member states cope with migration crises,” Borrell said at a press conference after the meeting.
“High pressure” situation
Fabrice Leggeri, the executive director of Frontex, said his agency had foreseen Belarus trying to use flows of irregular migrants as a political weapon and has been monitoring the country’s borders since last fall. Leggeri testified at the parliamentary hearing that there have been more than 1,600 irregular border crossings into Lithuania from Belarus since January 1 of this year, but about half of them, about 800, occurred in the first week of July.
“That was clearly the sign that something was happening with more intensity,” said Leggeri and added: “We can see that there is a lot of pressure that could increase in the next few days.”
Leggeri told parliament that the first arrivals were mostly from Iraq, Syria and Iran, but this month there has been a shift towards African citizens, including migrants from Congo, Gambia, Guinea, Mali and Senegal. He said Lukashenko’s government is encouraging the influx by inviting citizens to travel to Belarus without a visa on the pretext of receiving coronavirus vaccines.
“Belarus has announced that 73 countries will be encouraged to enter Belarus without a visa and stay up to five days to get vaccinations against COVID,” he said.
Lukashenko also denies using migrants for political pressure, but also warns that Belarus has no intention of stopping the flow of refugees. He effectively mocked the EU and said last week: “We are not going to hold anyone back. We are not their ultimate destination, after all. You are heading for enlightened, warm, cozy Europe. “
According to statistics from the Lithuanian Border Guard, a total of 1,714 irregular migrants crossed the Lithuanian border in 2021, compared to only 74 in 2020. Of these, 1,676 came from Belarus. According to statistics, around 1,000 irregular migrants were detained between July 1 and 11, including 377 from Iraq; 194 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; 118 from Cameroon; 67 from Guinea; 23 from Afghanistan; 22 from Togo; and 20 from Nigeria.
The bizarre situation of Middle East and African migrants arriving in the Baltic States was part of a busy Foreign Affairs Council meeting that included a lunch discussion with the new Israeli Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid.
Ministers also discussed the worsening situation in Afghanistan, which Borrell admitted was a direct result of the withdrawal of Western troops ordered by US President Joe Biden. Borrell said a new international task force may be needed to try to stabilize the country and, in particular, protect the rights of women and girls, but he gave no indication of how such a task force would function without military support.
Ministers also discussed the ongoing threat of famine in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Borrell said the EU is trying to mobilize aid but it is impossible for the EU alone to address food shortages for an estimated 850,000 people.