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9th Dec 2022

Belarus using migrants to counter-attack EU

  • Vilnius: People from Iraq and Syria with no papers turning up in record numbers to claim asylum (Photo: FromTheNorth)

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.

The number of migrants crossing to Lithuania jumped eight-fold in the first half of this year, with some 600 cases recorded so far in 2021 and 412 cases in June alone.

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By comparison, there were 74 in 2020 and just 37 in 2019.

Most migrants were originally from Iraq, but there were also increasing numbers from Syria, The Gambia, Guinea, and India, Lithuania said.

They were being brought in on flights from Baghdad and Istanbul, Lithuania noted, suggesting an orchestrated campaign.

There were nine flights from Baghdad to Minsk in the 1 to 19 June period, Lithuania said, compared to no regular flights before, and 63 flights from Istanbul (double the amount last year), Lithuanian data showed.

The developments come after the EU imposed sanctions on Belarus president Aleksander Lukashenko, including a flight ban in May, when he hijacked a passenger airliner to snatch an opposition activist living in Lithuania.

And the situation is likely to keep getting worse after Lukashenko threatened to stop cooperation on immigration and organised crime in June in reaction to new EU economic sanctions.

Lithuania has a 678-km land border with Belarus with no natural boundaries and just 38 percent of it has monitoring technology.

"Lithuanian authorities have set up a tent camp, but accommodation facilities are very limited. Emotions and tensions in ... detention facilities are increasing, incidents are occurring," Lithuania said in a statement on Tuesday (29 June).

"The pattern used in Lithuania, if not tackled in a timely way, might be used in Estonia, Latvia, [and] Poland ... making the EU eastern border even more vulnerable," it said.

And numbers in Poland were also shooting up, according to Anatoly Kotov, a Lithuanian opposition leader living in exile in Warsaw.

Lukashenko's move recalled similar tactics to pressure the EU by Morocco in the Spanish exclave of Ceuta and by Turkey in Greece in recent times.

The EU's border-control agency, Frontex, in Warsaw, is to send 30 extra officers to Lithuania in July to help and the European Asylum Support Office (Easo), another EU agency in Malta, is sending a fact-finding mission.

Looking at broader trends, Easo said, also on Tuesday, that 2020 saw the lowest number of asylum applications in the EU since 2013, at just 485,000, compared to 716,000 in 2019.

But this was mostly due to the pandemic and numbers were expected to rebound, it said, while Romania (up 138 percent on 2019) and Bulgaria (up 64 percent) were already seeing sharp increases.

Meanwhile, EU states, this week, agreed to upgrade Easo, renaming it the European Union Agency for Asylum, and creating "a mandatory reserve pool of 500 member-state experts to be available in the case of disproportionate pressures", they said.

The move would make the agency more "operational" in future, its director, Nina Gregori, noted.

But the Easo upgrade was about the only accord the EU-27 were able to clinch in the sensitive area of migration in several years.

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