The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why are so many migrants coming to one of Europe’s smallest countries? Blame Belarus, officials say.

An immigrant from Iraq stands in a makeshift camp at a school in Verebiejai, Lithuania. (Mindaugas Kulbis/AP)

BRUSSELS — Europe’s newest migration crisis is unfolding in one of its most unlikely places.

Lithuania, a Baltic nation roughly the size of West Virginia with fewer than 3 million residents, hasn’t been known as a destination for undocumented immigrants: Each year, the country sees roughly 70 people unlawfully cross its border with Belarus.

But in June, authorities apprehended more than 470 people along the 420-mile border. In July, the number skyrocketed to more than 2,600, consisting mostly of immigrants from Iraq and sub-Saharan Africa. Officials expect the numbers to grow in the coming weeks.

This new flow of people did not begin organically, Lithuanian and European Union officials say. Instead, they say, it is the result of an audacious plan by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to weaponize migration in response to E.U. sanctions.

“The growing number of illegal migrants crossing the border between Lithuania/E.U. and Belarus is a hybrid attack orchestrated by the Lukashenko regime,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda told The Washington Post in a statement. “The regime is using the illegal migration as a state-sponsored weapon in retaliation to Lithuanian/E.U. policy.”

In isolated Belarus, everything is being weaponized to keep Lukashenko in power. That includes migrants.

In June, Lukashenko threatened to allow human traffickers and drug smugglers to stream into Europe. E.U. officials say they have evidence that his government is also encouraging immigrants to travel there: coordinating with a Belarusian travel agency to offer tourist visas, setting up flights and then transporting people from Minsk to the Lithuanian border.

Belarus denies that it instigated the new flow of migrants. Andrei Lozovik, the country’s representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Thursday that the increased numbers were due to relaxed pandemic restrictions, seasonality and tensions in migrants’ home countries, state news agency BelTA reported. He also blamed “the lack of genuine cooperation” from Europe and accused Lithuania of politicizing the issue.

This burgeoning conflict is far from the scale of the international emergency in 2015 and 2016, when 1.4 million migrants arrived in Europe irregularly. Nevertheless, it represents a pressing challenge at the E.U.’s external border with an increasingly aggressive neighbor, who just two months ago forced down a civilian jet and pulled off a dissident journalist. And it highlights the bloc’s lack of a coherent migration and asylum policy, which even its own officials acknowledge as a weakness.

Belarus forces down commercial airliner, arrests dissident journalist on board

E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said it “is an issue of concern not only for one member State but for the entire E.U.” And the European Commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, said protecting the border with Belarus is the E.U.'s “most important” task.

“This is an act of strong aggression from Lukashenko and Belarus,” Johansson said in a July 28 interview with Lithuanian public television. “He is using people in an act of aggression towards Lithuania, and this is totally unacceptable and this calls for strong solidarity among all the E.U. member states and the commission.”

A spokesperson for the E.U.’s office of Foreign Affairs and Security Policy told The Post that the bloc would “add new restrictive measures against the Lukashenko regime and those that support it or benefit from it” if the situation does not improve. The spokesperson declined to say what those measures would include.

E.U. leaders have deployed border patrol agents and pledged more assistance for one of the 27-member bloc’s smallest countries.

Lithuania, which has virtually no experience with large numbers of immigrants, has scrambled to construct a barbed wire fence along the border. Its parliament also passed a new law that fast-tracks the asylum process and allows authorities to detain migrants for as long as six months without a court order.

Advocates said the new legislation could violate human rights law and the country’s constitution, but Lithuanian policymakers said it was the only way to deal with such a large influx of people, and they have defended their treatment of migrants as humane.

Lithuanian authorities are housing, feeding and caring for the migrants in hastily-constructed camps that a senior official described as “absolutely adequate” but “not comfortable.”

“They are tents,” Lithuania’s vice minister for foreign affairs, Mantas Adomėnas, said in an interview. “They are not five-star hotel conditions.”

Johansson, the E.U. commissioner, has sought to frame the situation as an example of Belarus’s geopolitical hostility, “not primarily a migrant crisis,” and she said she doubts that most of the people applying for asylum have a legitimate case.

However, reports have surfaced that Lithuania is the latest stop on a harrowing journey for a number of the immigrants, several of whom have identified themselves as members of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, who survived genocide by the Islamic State and battled displacement in the years since.

Of the 230 asylum applications processed so far, zero have been approved, Adomėnas said. In a Facebook post addressed to the border crossers, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis wrote that “because you were involved in a cunning crime, virtually no-one of you will receive an asylum.”

“You will have to live in the tent camp until we find a way to send you home,” he wrote.

In mid-July, Landsbergis traveled to Baghdad to meet with his Iraqi counterpart, part of a diplomatic effort that has also included top E.U. officials seeking to curb the migration. Publicly, the negotiators say talks are going well. But the flights from Iraq to Belarus continue.

Lithuanian leaders are advocating a new round of E.U. sanctions against Belarus to deter Lukashenko, or any other leader, from using such tactics.

“We should make an example so that no state actors should use the plight of migrants for political aims,” Adomėnas said. “The E.U. has to realize that otherwise it remains vulnerable to rogue regimes such as that of Alexander Lukashenko.”

Relations between the E.U. and Belarus have deteriorated dramatically over the past year, reaching a nadir in May, when a Belarusian fighter jet forced the landing of a Ryanair flight to arrest journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. In an unusually fast response, the bloc’s member states agreed to impose tough sanctions on key sectors of the Belarus economy.

E.U. agrees to impose sanctions on Belarus, bars E.U. airlines from country’s airspace, after authorities forced down a Ryanair jet

The United States, Britain and Canada announced similar moves. The measures followed earlier sanctions over Lukashenko’s repression of opposition figures and activists after presidential elections last summer rejected by the opposition and Western leaders as a sham.

In late June, Lukashenko announced that Belarus would no longer prevent asylum seekers, drugs and even nuclear materials from entering the European Union.

“They demand that we protect them from smuggling and drug trafficking. Even across the Atlantic we hear the calls for help to detain nuclear materials so that they do not get to Europe,” he said then. “You are waging a hybrid war against us and demand that we help you as we did before?”

On Friday, Lukashenko said the sanctions were the toughest his country has faced.

“The main goal is to leave the people without pensions, salaries, benefits, education, medical services and cause discontent among Belarusians,” said Lukashenko, according to the state news agency.

Belarus is also angry that Lithuania has granted visas for hundreds of Belarusian journalists, students and activists, including opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who have fled the regime’s crackdown.

Lithuanian officials said they have documents, firsthand accounts, intelligence gathered from social media and other proof that points to the involvement of the Belarusian government and state-owned businesses in the transportation of migrants to the border. Analysts have agreed, characterizing the move as brazen and dangerous.

“These are 3,000 people who were flown from a country very far away and were just left on the border of the E.U. and that’s an entirely new phenomenon,” said Camino Mortera-Martinez, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform. “Flying people in is a complete other level of aggression and retaliation.”

It should further test the mettle of the E.U., she said, and force the bloc to respond with force or allow itself to appear weak.

“As a foreign policy power, you are going to have to face situations like this,” Mortera-Martinez said. “You are going to have to decide if you want to deal with it.”

Former British ambassador to Belarus Nigel Gould-Davies said Belarus’s actions on the Lithuanian border should be seen as an extension of actions like the downing of the Ryanair flight.

“Belarus was once the last dictatorship in Europe, and now it’s becoming the pariah of Europe,” said Gould-Davies, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

“It’s a new phase,” he added. “It’s not only in its domestic behavior exceptionally bad, it’s also exceptionally bad in its international behavior. There’s no longer any effort to try to restore any semblance of good relations with Europe.”

Dixon reported from Moscow.

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