Lithuania will build a barrier on its border with Belarus to deter migrants and refugees amid an influx of arrivals from its neighbor, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said Wednesday, climbing a line with Minsk.
The move comes amid growing allegations that Belarus has allowed passages in Lithuania in retaliation for European Union sanctions for its highly-criticized diversion of a passenger plane in May – and following the arrest of a dissident journalist on board.
Lithuania is a member of the 27-member bloc and the home of several figures of the Belarusian opposition in self-imposed exile.
“We will start building an additional physical barrier, which divides Lithuania and Belarus, which would be a certain sign and a certain deterrent for the organizers of illegal migration flows,” Simonyte said at a press conference, adding that the barrier would be patrolled by the army.
Since the beginning of June, more than 1,000 have been detected irregular crossings along the 680km (420-mile) border shared by Lithuania and Belarus, according to Simonyte.
In 2020, there were 81.
Simonyte said Belarus had offered flights to Minsk for migrants and refugees, citing evidence found about at least one person who had arrived in Lithuania.
“There are travel agencies, direct flights connecting Minsk with Baghdad for example, and there are agencies both in Belarus and in other countries that operate and attract” tourists “in Minsk,” Simonyte told Reuters.
1044 illegal migrants detained at the EU’s eastern border with Belarus since 1 June.
Appreciate #ME support so far.
More urgent actions are needed ahead. https://t.co/afthiDi38t
– Ingrida Šimonytė (@IngridaSimonyte) July 5, 2021
Last week, Lithuania declared a state of emergency because of the influx.
Authorities have set up tent camps to accommodate the growing number of arrivals, most of whom are from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Cameroon. The Baltic country will also send delegations to Turkey and Iraq later this month to discuss the matter with local governments.
Lukashenko prevents more crossings
Lithuania, which is strongly opposed to Belarus ’longtime president Alexander Lukashenko, has said it suspects its government will allow migrants and refugees to cross the border.
Lukashenko had previously announced that his country would no longer seek to curb a flow of illegal migrants and refugees from other countries to the EU, following a drop in relations between his government and the blockade caused by the forced landing of the Ryanair plane in Minsk.
On Tuesday, he repeated his warning.
“If some think 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 wrong, “Lukashenko said Tuesday during a government meeting.
“We will not take anyone, they will not come to us, but to an enlightened, warm and welcoming Europe,” he added jokingly.
The EU has sent guards from its border agency, Frontex, to the Lithuanian border in an attempt to deal with the migrant crisis.
During a visit to Medininkai, Lithuania’s border country, on Tuesday, European Council President Charles Michel promised that “we will do our best to provide more support so that the Lithuanian authorities can overcome these difficulties and find solutions “.
Simonyte, accompanying Michel, accused the Belarusian authorities of encouraging the flow of migrants as a “hybrid attack”.
“We are looking not only at Lithuania, but also at the EU’s external border,” he said.
The EU has imposed far-reaching economic sanctions on Belarus over the passenger plane crash and its response to mass anti-government protests last year fueled by Lukashenko’s re-election to a sixth term in a disputed August 2020 election.
Belarusian authorities responded to the protests with a crackdown that saw the arrest of thousands of people and declared police brutality. Most of Lukashenko’s opponents are now either in prison or have fled the country.