This month, Lithuania has experienced a sudden influx of non-European refugees and migrants entering via its 670-kilometer border with Belarus.
On July 19, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that more than 2,000 migrants had crossed into the small Baltic country, 1,400 of them just in the past month. The Associated Press reported 1,700 for the same period, noting that the figure for all of 2020 had been 80.
Lithuanian authorities accused Belarus’ government of encouraging the migrant flow, possibly in retaliation for Lithuanian and European Union sanctions on the regime of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.
The sanctions were levied against the Lukashenko regime in June after Belarus forced a RyanAir flight to land in Minsk in order to arrest opposition Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich, a passenger who was returning to Vilnius from Athens.
On July 20, the Belarusian state news agency Belta published an article that quoted Andrei Savinykh, chairman of the Belarus House of Representatives’ Standing Commission on International Affairs, as denying that Belarus was behind the influx of migrants.
“Accusing Belarus of organizing migrant smuggling into Lithuania is a vivid example of political slander and unfounded allegations,” he was quoted as saying.
Savinykh claimed that Belarus has had to redirect attention to its southern border with Ukraine to prevent the smuggling of goods.
“Today we are forced to pay more attention to the border with Ukraine to prevent the attempts to smuggle goods in here,” he said. “In a certain sense, the flow [of migrants] might have increased. But this is the problem of the European Union. It's time for them to wake up and start protecting their own borders in a normal way.”
Savinykh’s denial of Belarus involvement is false based on evidence from Lithuania. The claim is further undermined by none other than Lukashenko, who said earlier this month:
“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. We won’t hold anyone. They are coming not to us but to enlightened, warm and cozy Europe.”
The Washington Post reported that Lukashenko had made similar comments in a June 22 speech.
“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 at a ceremony covered by the state-owned Belta news agency.
“You are waging a hybrid war against us and demand that we help you as we did before? You are strangling us, systematically and collectively, ruining us, trying to kill our economy and expect us to spend hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars, as before, to protect your geopolitical interests?”
But after Belarus was accused of facilitating migrant flows into Lithuania, Lukashenko changed tack, echoing Savinykh’s claims that Belarus had to redeploy law enforcement and border guard personnel to the border with Ukraine. He also accused Lithuania and the West of appealing to migrants and destroying their home countries, such as Libya and Afghanistan.
“You've summoned them,” Lukashenko said, blaming Europe. “Now you have to provide them with everything they need and treat them equally with your own citizens.”
Lukashenko admitted that the inflow of migrants had increased, but attempted to deflect blame by conflating the issue in Lithuania with the European Union as a whole.
“It is understandable that the number of migrants coming via Belarus has increased,” he said. “They should calculate how many are coming via Ukraine and other countries. Many are trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea and die in their hundreds and thousands.”
Lithuania does not share a border with Ukraine and is not near the Mediterranean Sea. The migrants entering Lithuania have walked across the border.
Earlier in July, Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingride Simonyte accused Belarus of flying migrants to Minsk, potentially for the purpose of crossing into Lithuania. According to her, Lithuanian authorities found documents on one of the migrants that linked to a travel agency in Baghdad offering flights to Minsk for “tourists.”
Meanwhile, an Iraqi refugee told The Associated Press he’d paid $1,400 for the trip, which included a “shortcut by plane to Minsk.”
Lithuanian Deputy Interior Minister Arnoldas Abramavicius told The Washington Post that migrants reported being driven to the Lithuanian border after arriving by plane in Minsk.
The influx of migrants into Belarus has taken place as Belarusian citizens find themselves increasingly restricted from leaving the country.
In May, Deutsche Welle reported that Belarus was preventing citizens from traveling abroad unless they had permanent residency status in the destination country. In June, citing unsubstantiated claims of a coup attempt against Lukashenko, Belarus closed its border with Ukraine.
Last year, Belarus closed its border with Poland, citing COVID-19 – an explanation that was met with skepticism given what critics says was Lukashenko’s lax response to the pandemic throughout much of 2020.