Liudas Dapkus and Yuras Karmanau, Associated Press, July 6, 2021
The European Union promised Tuesday to help bloc member Lithuania handle an influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, which the Baltic nation says is encouraged by authorities in neighboring Belarus as part of their standoff with the West.
During a visit to Lithuania’s border village of Medininkai, European Council President Charles Michel pledged that “we will do our utmost to provide more support so that the Lithuanian authorities can overcome these difficulties and find solutions.”
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, accompanying Michel, accused Belarusian authorities of encouraging the flow of migrants as a “hybrid attack.”
Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has announced that his country would halt cooperation with the EU on stemming illegal migration in retaliation for bruising economic sanctions the bloc slapped on Belarus over the diversion of a passenger jet to arrest a dissident journalist.
Last week, Lithuania declared a state of emergency due to an influx of migrants across the 679-kilometer (422-mile) border. More than 1,200 people were detained after entering from Belarus last month – twelve times more than in previous years. Another 131 were discovered walking in a border wood on Monday night.
Lithuania has set up tent camps to accommodate the growing number of migrants, most of them from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Cameroon. The Baltic country is sending delegations to Turkey and Iraq later this month to discuss the matter with local governments.
But Lukashenko reaffirmed his warning that Belarus will no longer try to stem the flow of migrants.
“If some think that we will close our borders with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine and become a camp for people fleeing Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Tunisia they are mistaken,” Lukashenko said Tuesday during a government meeting.
“We won’t hold anyone, they are coming not to us but to the enlightened, warm and cozy Europe,” he added mockingly.
The Belarusian Union of Journalists, a pro-government media organization, said in a statement that the number of migrants heading West via Belarus will top 5,000 this month and warned that flows might begin into Poland too.
Last week, Belarus said it would suspend a readmission agreement with the EU intended to stem illegal migration.
Pavel Latushka, a leading Belarusian opposition activist who was forced to leave the country last year under official pressure, said that Belarusian authorities have encouraged migratory flows to strike at the West.
He charged that Lukashenko’s decree issued last week, which offered visa-free entry for nationals of 73 countries who are willing to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in Belarus, opened the door to migrants.