Lithuania says Lukashenka is flooding the Baltic state’s border with migrants

Lithuania says migrants from Belarus have poured across the border in recent weeks, accusing authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka of organizing the influx, claiming that many were lured out of Iraq by a surge in flights from Baghdad to Minsk.

From the Belarusian capital Vilnius, the migrants are brought to the border with Lithuania, where Belarusian border guards turn a blind eye when entering the EU member state.

Vilnius has been one of Lukashenka’s loudest critics, and has stood up for its opponents since Belarus was upset last August when the 66-year-old strong man was rigged in his favor, a sixth, in an election many voters believe Tenure called for unprecedented protests.

Lithuania offered refuge to Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who, according to supporters, was the real winner of the vote, and to many others who were victims of violence. Vilnius has become a center for Belarusians in exile, and the two countries have expelled a number of diplomats as relations have deteriorated in recent weeks.

With the number of migrants stuck at the Lithuanian border rapidly increasing, Vilnius has turned to the EU border guard Frontex for help.

“The Lithuanian authorities have asked Frontex for assistance at the external border. The agency is currently working closely with the national authorities to determine the scope of their aid, ”said the Frontex press office RFE / RL in e-mail comments.

Belarus and Lithuania share an almost 680 kilometer long border, the serves as the external border of the EU, less than 40 percent of it monitored by electronic surveillance.

Lithuania is also calling on officials in Iraq and Turkey, who officials also see as the starting point of the suspected chain of migrants to Belarus, to do a more thorough screening of those traveling to Minsk.

“We have asked the Iraqi government, the Turkish government to step up controls on people who fly through airports. We know the specific flights and have therefore asked for measures, ”said Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said the Baltic News Service (BNS) on June 17th.

A group of migrants who illegally crossed the Belarusian-Lithuanian border on May 18.

According to the Lithuanian State Border Guard, 397 people were arrested after crossing from Belarus this year, according to the BNS. In comparison, 81 people were arrested throughout 2020, 46 in 2019 and 104 in 2018, BNS said.

“It is evident that a hybrid war is being waged against Lithuania and illegal migration flows are one of the means,” Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite said on June 7th.

Lithuania said Belarusian border guards had covered the migrants’ tracks, and Bilotaite claimed this “shows that the officers themselves may be cooperating”. She said the Interior Ministry had consulted with the Lithuanian Armed Forces on how to deal with the migration situation.

The newly installed tents in the Lithuanian Center for Migrant Processing in Pabrade on June 15th.

The newly installed tents in the Lithuanian Center for Migrant Processing in Pabrade on June 15th.

To cope with the rising numbers, Lithuania has set up a makeshift warehouse Lithuanian media reported in Pabrade, northeast of Vilnius and near the border with Belarus, to accommodate and dispatch those arriving.

Officials in Belarus, Iraq and Turkey have not commented publicly on the allegations. The Lukashenka administration and the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to emails from RFE / RL posted on Jan.

“Migrants and Drugs”

According to the EU’s European Asylum Support Office (EASO), the increasing number of migrants arriving in Lithuania does not seem to have led to an increase in asylum applications so far.

“The latest data on asylum applications (up to June 6th) show no significant increase in asylum applications in Lithuania. This does not, of course, mean that there has been no increase in immigration of migrants, but that if it does, it means that they did not apply for international protection by June 6th. It could also be that the dates have changed since June 6th, “Anis Cassar, an EASO spokesman, said in email comments to RFE / RL.

Lukashenka pledged to release “migrants and drugs” amid renewed outrage and calls for further penalties and sanctions after his government forced a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to divert to Minsk on May 23, citing a widely accepted bomb threat, and arrested the Belarusian blogger and journalist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Russian citizen Sofia Sapega.

Belarusian President Alzaksandr Lukashenka speaks in front of his country's parliament in Minsk on May 26.  (File photo)

Belarusian President Alzaksandr Lukashenka speaks in front of his country’s parliament in Minsk on May 26. (File photo)

After the incident, Brussels on June 4th banned Belarusian airlines to fly in EU airspace and use its airports.

Before the ban, the Belarusian national airline Belavia operated flights connecting Belarus to around 20 airports in Europe, including Paris and Berlin.

On May 26, Lukashenka defended what many in the West have called “state kidnapping”. In a lengthy speech in front of the Stamp Parliament and members of his closest circle, Lukashenka said: “We stopped drugs and migrants. Now you will eat them and catch them yourself.”

From Baghdad to Minsk

Belarus has never been a major travel destination and the current situation has further damaged its reputation. Since his arrest after the Ryanair incident, Pratasevich has been shown on state television with spots on his face and wrists, making a forced confession and praising Lukashenka.

While flights to and from Minsk International Airport have been canceled, more planes from Baghdad have arrived in Minsk in recent weeks.

Travelers from Iraq are supposed to in several hotels all over Minsk. brought on June 16, according to popular Telegram channel Motolko Pomogi.

On the same day, the Belarus Service from RFE / RL was on site when around 100 people got off the plane on June 16 after a regular scheduled flight from Iraqi Airways to the Belarusian capital. The travelers, all male, were assisted on arrival at a kiosk at the terminal by staff from the two travel agencies Oscartur and JoodLand.

After Oscarturs Instagram and Facebook The agency organizes tours from Iraq to Belarus with accounts with around 300 or 3,800 subscribers.

Most of the 28 posts on the Instagram account are from 2017. The contact details are poor, only a Russian email address and a Belarusian cell phone number are offered.

The RFE / RL Belarus service contacted Oscartur by phone to comment and was told, “Don’t call here again!” in an expressive answer.

Joodland has a greater presence on social media and offices in Baghdad. It says it organizes tours to a wider range of countries, including Russia.

The economic relations between Iraq and Belarus are not extensive, the bilateral trade is so small that the figures are not included in the annual figures of the Belarusian State Statistics Service.

Iraqi Airways has been flying from Baghdad to Minsk since 2017. according to the state news agency Belta, with flights now on Mondays and Fridays.

On April 26, Minsk National Airport announced that the airline Fly Baghdad would also fly to Minsk with Boeing 737-800 flights between the two capitals on Mondays and Thursdays.

Fly Baghdad website states that it flies to five cargo countries: Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Belarus.

According to Lithuanian Deputy Interior Minister Arnoldas Abramavicius, many of the migrants who were stopped by Lithuanian border guards claim not to have documents. “They say they are mainly from Iraq,” as well as Syria, Iran and Afghanistan, he told RFE / RL.

“The main route they use is Baghdad to Minsk. A plane ticket costs only $ 400. Some also come from Istanbul,” Abramavicius said. Vilnius had sent an official request for help and information to the Iraqi embassy in Warsaw because Iraq did not have a diplomatic mission in Lithuania, but had not received a response.

Kremlin Playbook?

The Lithuanian authorities say they suspect this is part of a coordinated campaign orchestrated by Lukashenka, based on what is believed to be a recent Russian strategy.

The Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas compared the current situation in his country with 2015-16, when the suspicion arose that it was Russia Directing refugees from Central Asia to Finland and Norway through the so-called “Arctic Road.”

“Dozens of illegal immigrants are currently pouring into Lithuania from Belarus. They claim they come from places like Iraq, Iran, Syria. Belarus is using hybrid means to give this asymmetrical reaction to the European Union’s sanctions, ”Anusauskas said at a virtual meeting of defense ministers of the Northern Group – an informal grouping of countries on the Baltic and North Seas, on June 9th.

“We saw a similar scenario in Finland and Norway in 2015-2016 when Russia tried to destabilize the EU. Belarus is repeating it. The method and principles are the same,” he said.

A day after a cabinet meeting on June 13, Lithuanian Interior Minister Bilotaite said the government had agreed on “joint coordinated action and mutual support, as well as an assessment of the capabilities of our institutions.

“Against this background and the planned help from international partners, there is no need to declare a state of emergency,” she said in a comment to BNS.

Foreign Minister Landsbergis said on June 17 that he would seek a meeting with counterparts from Iraq and Turkey later in June when Italy hosts a ministerial meeting of the global coalition to crack down on the Islamic State.

Landsbergis said Lithuania would discuss with Turkey and Iraq the possibility of stepping up security checks on passengers leaving for Belarus and returning undocumented migrants who land in Lithuania.

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