Officials cite effort by Minsk to ‘weaponize’ irregular migration flows.
The EU’s border protection agency on Monday said it was mobilizing a rapid intervention force to Lithuania, where the government has accused neighboring Belarus of allowing hundreds of migrants to cross illegally into the country.
The allegations that Belarus is “weaponizing” migrants in retaliation for EU sanctions and support for political opponents of the country’s long-time leader, Alexander Lukashenko, were discussed Monday in the European Parliament and in the EU Foreign Affairs Council.
“It seems like the Belarusian authorities now facilitate irregular migration possibly in retaliation to EU restrictive measures and as a response to the Lithuanian support for the civil society in Belarus,” the EU’s commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, testified during a joint hearing of the Parliament’s home affairs and foreign affairs committees.
Johansson said that the method of arrivals was still under investigation, but that it appeared several flights per day were landing in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, carrying migrants from Istanbul and Baghdad. Officials said at least 60 EU border guards were expected to arrive in Lithuania in the coming days.
While many of the migrants that have crossed into Lithuania seem to be of Iraqi or Syrian origin, there have also been migrants from African countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon.
Arriving for Monday’s Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Brussels, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said his country was struggling to return migrants to their home countries. He added that the Baltic nation is now confronting challenges more commonly seen in frontline EU countries like Greece and Spain that face a constant influx of migrants across the Mediterranean, and have faced similar pressure of arrivals from Turkey and Morocco.
“The European Union should have a common strategy how to deal with these sort of political or hybrid threats,” Landsbergis said. “We need a strategy of readmission because a country — be it Lithuania, be it Greece or Spain — alone faces a rather challenging path when trying to return the people who illegally entered the country. Secondly, we need to be very strict with the regimes who are using these sorts of weapons.”
Landsbergis called for additional sanctions against Belarus and said other countries using such tactics should face similar punishment.
To help manage the crisis, the Lithuanian parliament will convene in a special session on Tuesday to adopt amendments to national asylum laws with an aim of reducing the time needed to evaluate applications for protected status.
Asked if the situation in Lithuania was adding new urgency to the EU’s years-long struggle to develop a new migration pact, the bloc’s high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, said it was up to the border protection agency, Frontex, to help manage the situation.
“That’s why we created Frontex, to help member states to face migration crises,” Borrell said at a news conference following the meeting.
‘High pressure’ situation
Fabrice Leggeri, the executive director of Frontex, said his agency had anticipated Belarus seeking to use flows of irregular migrants as a political weapon, and has been monitoring the country’s borders since last fall. Testifying in the parliamentary hearing, Leggeri said there had been more than 1,600 irregular border crossings to Lithuania from Belarus since January 1 of this year, but roughly half of those, some 800, occurred in the first week of July.
“This was clearly the sign that something was happening with more intensity,” Leggeri testified, adding: “We see that there is a high pressure that could even worsen in the next days.”
Leggeri told Parliament that while the initial arrivals had mostly come from Iraq, Syria and Iran, this month there was a shift toward African nationals, including migrants from Congo, Gambia, Guinea, Mali and Senegal. He said Lukashenko’s government was encouraging the influx by inviting citizens to travel to Belarus without visas under the guise of obtaining coronavirus vaccines.
“Belarus announced that 73 countries are encouraged to enter Belarus without a visa and to stay up to five days to get COVID vaccine shots,” he said.
Lukashenko has simultaneously denied using migrants for political pressure while also warning that Belarus has no intention of halting the flows. He has effectively mocked the EU, saying last week: “We will not hold anyone back. We are not their final destination after all. They are headed to enlightened, warm, cozy Europe.”
According to statistics from the Lithuanian Border Guard Service, a total of 1,714 irregular migrants crossed the Lithuanian border in 2021, compared to just 74 in 2020. Of these, 1,676 arrived from Belarus. According to the statistics, roughly 1,000 irregular migrants were detained between July 1 and July 11, including 377 from Iraq; 194 from the Democratic Republic of Congo; 118 from Cameroon; 67 from Guinea; 23 from Afghanistan; 22 from Togo; and 20 from Nigeria.
The bizarre situation of Middle Eastern and African migrants arriving in the Baltics was part of a busy Foreign Affairs Council meeting that included a discussion over lunch with the new Israeli foreign affairs minister, Yair Lapid.
Ministers also discussed the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which Borrell conceded was a direct consequence of the withdrawal of Western troops that was ordered by U.S. President Joe Biden. Borrell said a new international task force may be needed to try to stabilize the country and, especially, to protect the rights of women and girls, but he gave no indication of how such a task force would operate without military support.
Ministers also discussed the continuing risk of famine in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Borrell said the EU was trying to mobilize assistance but that it was impossible for the EU alone to address a shortage of food for an estimated 850,000 people.