By Andrius Sytas
KALVIAI, Lithuania (Reuters) – Lithuania on Wednesday accused Belarus of flying in migrants from abroad to send to the European Union and said it would build a barrier on the border and deploy troops to prevent them crossing illegally into its territory.
Belarus decided to allow migrants to cross into EU member Lithuania in response to sanctions imposed by the bloc after Minsk forced a Ryanair flight to land on its soil and arrested a dissident blogger who was on board.
Hundreds have been making the crossing in recent days, many of them originating in Turkey, Lithuania said. The foreign ministry summoned the head of the Belarus embassy on Wednesday to demand that Minsk end the flow of illegal migrants.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said Belarus had been offering migrants flights to Minsk, citing documents found on at least one migrant who had reached Lithuania.
“There are travel agencies, direct flights that connect Minsk with Baghdad for example, and there are agencies both in Belarus and other countries that operate and attract ‘tourists’ to Minsk,” Simonyte told Reuters in Vilnius.
She said the main airport from where people flew into Belarus was Baghdad, and her foreign minister said people were also coming from Turkey.
The documents, copies of which were sent to Reuters by a Lithuanian government official, include applications from Minsk-based agencies called UmnoTury and Tsentrkurort, dated May 27 and June 7, asking the Belarusian Foreign Ministry for visas for three Iraqi citizens.
The official also sent copies of four boarding passes for a flight with Belarusian national carrier Belavia from Istanbul to Minsk on May 27, found on a migrant.
Turkey’s foreign ministry did not immediately comment.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on May 26 that his country would no longer prevent migrants from crossing its western border into the EU.
Lithuania is working to organise visits by foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis to Baghdad and Ankara next week to discuss migration.
“A large part of the people (coming into Lithuania from Belarus) arrive there from Turkey, on Turkish airlines. We believe that Turkey knows their identities,” he told reporters in Vilnius.
“In cooperation with Turkey, we can easily determine their identities and demand they are accepted by the states they originate from.”
Simonyte said Lithuania would take action to stop migrants crossing the border by increasing patrols and building a barrier. It would also build a camp for those who had already arrived.
“We will begin building an additional physical barrier, which divides Lithuania and Belarus, which would be a certain sign and a certain deterrent to organisers of the illegal migration flows,” she told a news conference.
She also said the country, a Schengen free travel area member, was considering imposing border controls with neighbouring EU countries to stop migrants travelling to Western countries in the bloc.
EU foreign ministers will debate the next steps at a scheduled meeting on Monday after Lithuania requested a discussion, an EU official said.
However, the official cautioned that “the EU is against fences in general” and so Brussels is unlikely to publicly back Lithuania on the border barrier.
Earlier on Wednesday, three Lithuanian border guards had struggled to communicate with four visibly tired people at a bus stop in a village near the border. None spoke English.
They identified as Iraqis with no passports, and were questioned, without a translator, at the border guards’ headquarters.
“We were used to dealing mostly with cigarette smuggling from Belarus. This is all new to us,” said Povilas Vitkus, a border guard.
Less than a dozen officers patrol the 64 km stretch assigned to Vitkus’ border post and they rely on villagers to report illegal crossings.
A total of 779 illegal migrants crossed the Belarus-Lithuanian border in the first seven days of July, compared with 636 during the first six month of the year, according to the border guards’ office. Lithuania received no more than 104 migrants annually during 2018-2020.
“If people continue to come in such numbers, in hundreds per day, it will get serious for sure – it will be challenging to find proper accommodation, to ensure humanitarian needs and proper services for those people”, Egle Samuchovaite from Lithuanian Red Cross told Reuters.
In Kalviai village, groups of migrants crossing fields or streets have become an everyday sight this week.
“I gave them water as they passed”, said villager Valentinas Margevicius, 54. “They must be really hard-up, if they decided to drop everything and travel to an unknown land.”
(Reporting by Andrius Sytas; Additional reporting by Robin Emmott; Writing by Alan Charlish and Andrius Sytas; Editing by Jon Boyle and Giles Elgood)