Symbolic image: Migrants walking on road | Photo: Reza Shirmohammadi/DW
Symbolic image: Migrants walking on road | Photo: Reza Shirmohammadi/DW

The Iraqi government says it will probe the smuggling of migrants after more than 1,500 mainly Iraqi nationals have crossed into Lithuania from Belarus over the past two months. Moreover, the Greek government plans to provide Lithuania with expertise and technical support.

On Thursday (July 15), Iraq's Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said his government would investigate smuggling networks believed to be responsible for bringing hundreds of Iraqis into Europe, with a focus on the route via Belarus to Lithuania.

Hussein made the promise after a meeting in the capital Baghdad with his Lithuanian counterpart, Gabrielius Landsbergis. EU member state Lithuania had "appealed to Iraq to act in the matter," the Associated Press (AP) news agency reported Thursday.

Speaking to reporters at a joint press conference with Landsbergis, Hussein said Iraq will form a committee with representatives from the foreign ministry, the migration ministry as well as intelligence and aviation authorities to clamp down on the smuggling networks, according to the AP.

At the press conference, Landsbergis called disrupting smuggling networks from Iraq into Europe a "mutual need'' as it was being perpetrated by "malign actors'' using criminal elements.

The Lithuanian foreign minister blames neighboring Belarus for encouraging migration into Lithuania. Earlier this week, he accused Belarus of using migrants as a "hybrid weapon against the European Union" to force the bloc to change its policy toward Belarus.

In the past two months, more than 1,500 people have crossed into Lithuania -- 20 times more than in the whole of 2020. In response, Vilnius declared a state of emergency and accused Belarus of organizing border crossings by people, mainly from Iraq.

Support from Greece

During a meeting on Thursday between Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the latter said Greece plans to provide Lithuania with expertise and technical support.

On Twitter, Simonyte said that her country has been providing "personnel and technical support" to Greece since 2015.

In keeping with European policymakers' more aggressive migration strategy over the past five years, Greece maintains tight controls over its sea and land borders with Turkey. Any migrants seeking to reach the Greek Aegean Islands are stopped and their boats forced to turn around. Recently, authorities started using digital technologies such as drones, sound cannons and AI-powered lie detectors to detect and deter migrants, prompting concerns over human rights.

In February 2020, Greece and the European Union faced a sharp rise in migrant arrivals from Turkey after Turkish President Recep Tayyip said he would not stop refugees who want to go to Europe. Thousands of migrants from Turkey headed for Europe, but officials from EU border agency Frontex and Greek security forces prevented most from entering the bloc. 

"We want to learn from Greece's experience," Simonyte said on Greek television on Thursday.

Rising tensions between Lithuania and Belarus

"We feel Iraqi people are becoming a victim of the Belarussian regime,'' Landsbergis said at the press conference.

He said he had recounted to his Iraqi counterpart Hussein some of the testimony collected by Lithuanian authorities from 800 Iraqi migrants about how they were smuggled into Lithuania.

"Iraqi people are being promised an easy trip to Europe, a European paradise of sorts, but the problem is, they end up in a Lithuanian forest in a refugee camp," Landsbergis said. "We think those people were lied to, they had to pay a lot of a money to get to the border.''

Lithuania has registered a huge spike in illegal migration as Minsk retaliates against EU sanctions | Photo: Paulius Pelecki/Getty Images (via DW)
Lithuania has registered a huge spike in illegal migration as Minsk retaliates against EU sanctions | Photo: Paulius Pelecki/Getty Images (via DW)


Migrants in Verebiejai, Lithuania, told the AP earlier this week that they came to Minsk from Baghdad.

"I gave somebody $1,400 [€1,186] to bring me to the woods. I think it was the border. They showed me the way. They told me: go this way. Then I walked,'' an unnamed migrant said. Another told the same story and added that he booked a hotel in Minsk and after that, "started trying" to cross the border into Lithuania.

On May 26, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had 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 used to catch migrants in droves here -- now, forget it, you will be catching them yourselves," he said.

The announcement came after the EU imposed sanctions on the non-EU country following the forced diversion of a passenger jet en route to Vilnius to arrest a Belarusian dissident.

The Baltic country of 2.8 million people, which also borders Poland, Latvia and the Russian Kaliningrad enclave, has been critical of Belarus following the brutal crackdown after a presidential election there last year that President Alexander Lukashenko claimed he won after 26 years of authoritarian rule but the opposition says was rigged. 

Spike in arrivals continues

This week, more migrants crossed the 679-kilometer border from Belarus into Lithuania, which is also the European Union's external border.

"An unfriendly country to us, our neighbor, is using migrants, mostly Iraqi people, to pressure my country, to pressure the European Union in order for us to change our policy," Landsbergis said at the press conference.

Lithuania is reinforcing its border but says it is overwhelmed by the new migrants being helped across by Belarus | Photo: Janis Laizans/REUTERS
Lithuania is reinforcing its border but says it is overwhelmed by the new migrants being helped across by Belarus | Photo: Janis Laizans/REUTERS


Last week, Lithuania announced it would build a wall along its border with Belarus. German news website Zeit Online has reported that Lithuania wants to expand electronic surveillance with cameras at its border with Belarus from presently around 40% to 100% by the end of next year.

On Tuesday, Lithuania's Parliament approved a raft of new laws tightening the rules on migration and asylum. Among other things, the new laws allow for the detention of asylum seekers and curb migrants' right to appeal.

EU border agency Frontex on Saturday (July 9) said it would ramp up its support for Lithuania. The agency also plans to send border guards to Latvia, which also borders Belarus but hasn't seen an increase in irregular border crossings.

With AP, dpa

 

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