Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, is to deploy about 60 agents to the boundary between Lithuania, an EU member state, and Belarus this week. This has been an unusually high number of crossings at this border recently, with more than 2,000 migrants travelling across so far this year, up from around 80 in 2020. Some 800 migrants entered in the first week of July alone, according to Frontex.
Those crossing are not Belarusians – many of whom are effectively banned from leaving the country – but rather migrants from countries such as Syria, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some also travel to Poland, another EU member state with which Belarus shares a border, but the majority are reported to be crossing into Lithuania.
Ylva Johansson, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, has said that it appears many migrants fly into Minsk, the Belarusian capital, on direct flights from Istanbul and Baghdad. Some are granted tourist visas on arrival. Others do not need a visa at all, following a presidential decree issued in July, which grants citizens of 73 countries the right to stay in Belarus for five days (nominally so that they can be vaccinated against Covid-19). From the capital, migrants head to the border, where they can cross into Lithuania and apply for asylum or attempt to make their way to other parts of Europe.
The Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has repeatedly said that his border authorities would no longer prevent migrants from crossing into the EU. “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,” he warned earlier this month.
Johansson, meanwhile, has said that the Belarusian government appears to be facilitating illegal migration into Lithuania after the Lithuanian government gave its support to the democratic opposition in Belarus and in order to pressure the EU to lift sanctions on the country. Belarusian border guards have reported being given orders from superiors to turn a blind eye to migrants.
The EU imposed sanctions on the Lukashenko regime following elections widely viewed as fraudulent a year ago. Those sanctions were reinforced by further measures, including banning Belarusian airliners from EU airspace, following the May kidnapping of Roman Protasevich, a dissident Belarusian journalist.
In response to the spike in migration, Lithuania has begun building a wall on its border and has approved a new law to speed up the processing of asylum applications. It may be the first time in decades that there has been a significant physical barrier between the two countries, both former Soviet republics. Lithuanian officials have said the barrier could come down if Belarus is democratised.
But Belarusian dissidents have warned that the wall will help the Lukashenko regime crack down on political opponents – some of whom flee repression in Belarus via similar routes into the EU that migrants from other countries take.
It comes after Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened last year to allow “millions” of migrants into the EU, including by bussing some to the Greek border, in an apparent effort to push European governments into supporting Ankara’s policy in Syria.
This influx is migration is a new development for the EU’s north-eastern border. Most migrants illegally entering the EU do so from the south, crossing the Mediterranean or going through the Balkans. Indeed, the current Frontex deployment is the first to the border with Belarus.
“When migration is treated as a threat by politicians who are focused on stopping people from entering the EU, they give power to undemocratic regimes – whether in Belarus, Turkey or Libya – who use migration as a blackmail tactic in their negotiations with the EU,” says Zoe Gardner, a policy adviser at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, a charity campaigning for migrant rights.
The numbers currently making the crossing from Belarus remain manageable: around 2,000 people is hardly a crisis, even for a small country such as Lithuania. Movement will probably remain relatively constrained by the need for prospective migrants to fly to Minsk. It is not, therefore, a repeat of 2015, when over a million people arrived in Europe from countries such as Syria.
Still, this episode demonstrates how few scruples the Lukashenko regime has as it wages what the Lithuanian interior minister Agnė Bilotaitė has termed “hybrid warfare” against the EU. It is another illustration of the dangers posed by a rogue state on Europe’s periphery.