The number of people who have entered Lithuania from neighboring Belarus irregularly so far this year has more than tripled compared to all of 2020. Some Lithuanian politicians blame Belarussian President Lukashenko, who recently threatened to loosen border controls.
According to Lithuanian officials, nine Iraqi asylum seekers who had entered Lithuania from Belarus were detained in the Baltic country this week. The officials pointed a finger at Belarus for allegedly being involved in repeatedly sending groups of migrants into Lithuania.
"It is obvious that a hybrid war is being waged against Lithuania, and illegal migration flows are one of the means,'' Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite said on Monday (June 7). Her country has been critical of Belarus following the brutal crackdown after a presidential election there last year that the opposition claims was rigged.
Referring to Iraqis who fly to the capital of Belarus, Bilotaite said "Those flows of the illegal migrants who travel to Lithuania are not just random cases. These are well organized. There are flights from Baghdad and Istanbul to Minsk."
According to the Associated Press (AP), Lithuania accused Belarussian border guards of covering the tracks of the migrants. Bilotaite reportedly said this "shows that officials themselves might be cooperating.''
The nearly 680-kilometer-long Lithuanian-Belarussian border is also the European Union's external border. Both countries are former Soviet satellite states.
Read more: 'Disappeared, run away, dead': How gangs trade Vietnamese children, and people, as goods across Europe
According to the AP, Laurynas Kasciunas, a member of Lithuania's Parliament, on Monday traveled to the border with Belarus. The lawmaker claimed there is a direct link between certain international flights to Minsk and groups of immigrants trying to come to Lithuania.
''Migration waves correlate with them,'' he said. According to AP, the latest group that entered Lithuania arrived Sunday. Last week, Lithuanian border guards detained 52 Iraqi, Syrian, Belarussian and Russian migrants who sought asylum in the Baltic country of 2.8 million people.
So far this year, some 160 people, mostly from Iraq, have entered Lithuania from Belarus -- three times more than in all of 2020.
"Lithuania's support for the Belarus opposition is longstanding, and its capital, Vilnius, has become a center for Belarusians in exile," AP reported. In 2020, the EU and NATO member gave shelter to opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. She was the main challenger in Belarus' contested election that President Alexander Lukashenko claimed he won after 26 years of authoritarian rule.
A number of Belarusian non-governmental organizations also have relocated to Vilnius, which hosts a university that Lukashenko banned. In March, the Baltic nation publicly rebuffed a request from Belarus to extradite Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to the country after the government crackdown.
Also read: Refugees in Lithuania: Building cultural bridges through food
Threats by Lukashenko
"In recent weeks, the two countries have expelled a number of diplomats. Last month, the EU imposed sanctions on Belarus, including banning its airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc, amid fury over the forced diversion of a passenger jet en route to Vilnius to arrest Raman Pratasevich, an opponent to Lukashenko," the AP reported.
What's more, Lukashenko recently indicated that Belarus could retaliate against the latest EU sanctions by loosening border controls for irregular, western-bound migrants as well as drug trafficking.
"We were stopping migrants and drugs -- now you will catch them and eat them yourself,'' he said.
The European Commission (EC), the bloc's executive body, said the situation in Lithuania "shows the need for a European system to manage migration and asylum. Irregular migration as well as people arriving to Europe to flee war or persecution can happen at any of the EU's external borders.''
The EC, located in Brussels, added that it was ready to support Lithuania through the EU's agencies operationally. "But a structural response is needed,'' the EC said.
"The 27-nation bloc wants to reform its asylum system, hoping that its countries will finally share responsibility for people seeking sanctuary or better lives. The move comes after years of chaos and disputes among its members over the handling of migrants and refugees amid a recognition that the current EU system for deciding whether they should receive protection or be sent home has failed," the AP reported.
In a report about asylum trends in Europe published last November, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) highlighted a steep increase of asylum seekers from Belarus following months of political struggles in the Eastern European country.
According to the report, more Belarusians in September 2020 had "applied for international protection in the EU+ than in any month since at least the beginning of EU harmonised data collection on international protection in 2008."