The Lithuanian government says it flew 98 people back to Iraq over the weekend. It was the first chartered flight to return migrants who had entered from Belarus.
The Lithuanian interior ministry said an airplane carrying 98 Iraqi nationals took off from Vilnius on Sunday (January 2) bound for the capital Baghdad and the city of Erbil in northern Iraq. The Iraqis had entered Lithuania illegally from neighboring Belarus, the ministry said. It added that the repatriation had proceeded with the consent of the Iraqis on board the flight.
According to a press release by the Interior Ministry from Monday (January 3), the chartered flight to return migrants to Iraq is the first of its kind. Speaking to local media, Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite described the event as "historic," while Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis thanked the European Union and Iraq for their contributions during the refugee crisis in Belarus.
Nearly 4,200 arrivals to Lithuania
In recent months, thousands of migrants, mainly from countries in the Middle East, have tried to reach EU countries Poland, Latvia and Lithuania by crossing the borders from Belarus.
Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko is accused of deliberately flying refugees to his country and encouraging them to cross the borders into the EU. Almost 4,200 refugees crossed the border into Lithuania this way to seek asylum. The authorities responded by increasing border security and erecting a border fence along hundreds of kilometers.
Those who made it across the border into Lithuania were initially detained in five reception camps, which are currently accommodating 3,166 people, news agency dpa reports. In early August, border guards started pushing migrants back at the border.
Others have been sent back to their countries of origin -- according to the aforementioned press release, a total of 537 migrants have been repatriated, 482 of them voluntarily. Lithuania is offering voluntary returnees a one-off payment of €1,000, but the offer lasts only until January 20. Additional charter flights are reportedly being planned.