21st Sep 2023

Telegram groups lure migrant hopefuls to Lithuania

  • Ylva Johansson (r) talking with irregular arrivals from Belarus at the Lithuanian border crossing point Padvarionys (Photo: European Union)

Young Iraqi asylum hopefuls are being baited online to Lithuania in what appears to be an organised network of Telegram encrypted messaging accounts.

A handful of these Telegram channels, subscribed to and seen by EUobserver, are luring people with false hope - given most will likely end up detained and possibly returned. One account with almost 26,000 members includes contacts for those who want to inquire about getting to Austria, Germany, Italy and Lithuania.

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  • Young people are posting links and screen captures of their trips towards Lithuania (Photo: EUobserver)

Another with more than 2,500 members includes the name and address of an Egyptian tourist agency with branches in the Zayouna neighbourhood of east Baghdad. It says the agency charges $200 [€168] for infants, $550 for children between the ages of 2 and 8, and $750 for adults to get to Belarus.

"Flight + approval for $750. Without insurance, and your passport is in your possession," it says.

"The European Union is waiting if the number reaches 10,000, it will distribute them among the countries," says another post in the messaging chat.

"Young people who have a beard, trim it, because they are afraid," says yet another.

Others offer links to private Facebook groups.

Not everyone on the channels are from Iraq. Some also appear to be Syrians, whose chances of asylum are likely greater. They can turn to another travel agency based out of Damascus, which has set up a site on Facebook, offering trips to Belarus.

Other posts warn against travel, noting Lithuania is not open and that Belarus is engaging in hybrid warfare against the EU. Images of people on their journeys, locations clipped from Google Maps, and videos also appear to be posted regularly.

Fortress Europe and Lithuania

Over 3,000 people have so far crossed into Lithuania from Belarus since the start of the year - compared with around 80 for the whole of 2020.

The issue has triggered a rash of EU and state level responses, including a promise by the Lithuanian government to finish erecting a barrier along its border.

The EU's border agency Frontex has dispatched around 100 officers, 30 patrol cars and two helicopters amid calls of greater financial support for Lithuania from the European Commission.

Work on a 550-km razor wire barrier on its frontier with Belarus had also started last month, as Lithuania's parliament approved a law for the mass detention of migrants.

On Monday (2 August), Lithuania's prime minister Ingrida Šimonytė said the barrier would first be installed at vulnerable points and then expanded to the "entire eastern border of the European Union." In terms of costs, she said it would exceed €100m, with or without EU support.

"Let me say very frankly and directly, the government is going to implement this project," she said, noting it was also an opportunity to discuss introducing similar walls elsewhere in Europe.

She then demanded the European Commission use its leverage against Iraq, in order to prevent further arrivals and to accept those returned. She also said almost everyone who entered Lithuania would not get asylum, blaming the regime under Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko for "weaponising" migrants.

Lukashenko has been Belarus president since 1994 and last year won a rigged election for another term, leading to widespread crackdown and jailing of the opposition.

In May, he forced the landing of a passenger flight from Athens to Vilnius to detain an opposition activist, leading to EU sanctions. His regime has since been accused of facilitating migrant entries into Lithuania with direct flights from Turkey and Iraq to Minsk.

Šimonytė made her comments alongside EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, on visit to Lithuania.

"What we are facing is an aggressive act from the Lukashenko regime. It is one that is designed to provoke," said Johansson. She said the commission has yet to deliver in its talks with Iraq in terms of getting them to cooperate on returns.

Instead, she said the immediate focus should be in preventing irregular arrivals and send those with no right to stay back to their countries of origin. "I think this is the most important thing to focus on right now," she said.

The European Commission can offer Lithuania up €12m in emergency funds. It will also next week send a delegation to Vilnius to discuss more funding needs.

Belarus using migrants to counter-attack EU

Lithuania has become a new "eastern front-line" for irregular migration, after Belarus began "weaponising" people in its clash with the EU, Lithuania's foreign ministry has said.

EU to wage economic war on Belarus dictator

EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell will announce sweeping economic sanctions on Belarus at Monday's foreign affairs meeting after Austria caved to pressure.

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