‘Flawed from a human rights perspective’ Lithuania is seeing a massive increase in illegal crossings from Belarus. What’s fueling this crisis? And what’s Lukashenko getting out of it?
Since the spring, hundreds of people from the Middle East and Africa have been entering Lithuania — all of them through Belarus. In fact, illegal border crossings have increased by a factor of 39 since last year. The Lithuanian government has toughened its residency laws, started constructing a new border fence, and accused Belarus of encouraging illegal migration; meanwhile, Alexander Lukashenko has tried to pin the blame on Western sanctions. Several media outlets — including the Lithuanian news sites 15min and LRT, as well as the Belarusian outlets Reform.by and Mediazona Belarus — have published in-depth reporting on the crisis, revealing how migrants get to Lithuania, who’s helping them, and how much they pay for it. Meduza summarizes the findings of these investigations here.
Lithuania’s migration crisis
Back in the summer of 2020, Lithuania, like many other EU member states, refused to recognize Alexander Lukashenko’s victory in Belarus’s 2020 presidential election. Vilnius imposed sanctions against Lukashenko and granted asylum to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya), the leader of the Belarusian opposition movement and Lukashenko’s main opponent in the election. Many Belarusian citizens also relocated to Lithuania in the aftermath of the election for political reasons.
In spring 2021, as relations with Belarus deteriorated, Lithuania expressed concern about a growing stream of people illegally crossing the border between the two countries. In the entirety of 2020, 81 migrants were detained in Lithuania. By the beginning of April 2021, that number was 90, and by the start of July, it had jumped to 800. As of July 28, 3,145 people had been detained while trying to cross from Belarus to Lithuania. It’s unclear how many have made it across successfully.
In response to the migration crisis, Lithuania has declared a state of emergency, requested support from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), and decided to build an additional barrier on the border with Belarus (this border is 679 kilometers long, or 422 miles). They’ve already begun erecting a barbed wire fence, but they ran out of barbed wire. Estonia and Ukraine have volunteered to help supply more.
What Lithuania and Belarus are saying
The Lithuanian government has accused Minsk of organizing the stream of illegal crossings. According to Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, the Belarusian authorities are deliberately sending foreigners toward the Lithuanian border using a state-owned travel agency. Meanwhile, interior minister Agne Bilotaite has called the rise in illegal immigration an “element of hybrid warfare.”
The Belarusian government has denied the accusations, claiming that they’re doing everything in their power to stop the flow and always have. According to Sergey Rachkov, head of the Belarusian Senate’s Permanent Commission on International Affairs and National Security, the increase in migration is due to the pandemic and its exacerbating effects on the Middle Eastern and African economies.
But Lukashenko’s rhetoric differs somewhat from that of other Belarusian officials. He has openly stated that the Belarusian authorities have chosen not to prevent people from crossing the border, and spoke about it in terms of war. “We did our part to stop drugs and migrants — now you can take them and catch them yourselves,” he said in May, after the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk led the EU to ban flights to Belarus.
“Today, they [the West] started whining. Oh no, Belarus isn’t protecting them. Thousands and thousands of illegal migrants are streaming into Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. [...] It just makes me want to ask, have you guys lost your minds? You launched a hybrid war against us, but you’re still demanding we keep on protecting you?” Lukashenko said in June, not long before the EU introduced sanctions against Belarus.
In response to the sanctions, Belarus suspended a readmission agreement it had with the EU. As a result, migrants from third-party countries who entered Lithuania from Belarus can no longer be returned to Belarusian territory, and can only be deported to their country of citizenship. Most of the migrants currently being detained en masse in Lithuania are citizens of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and African countries.
How do migrants get to Belarus, and what does it cost them?
Most of the migrants who get detained on the Belarus-Lithuania border are Kurds from Iraq. The majority of them travel from Iraq to Belarus by plane as tourists; the first direct flights from Baghdad to Minsk began in 2017. In May 2021, the number of flights increased from two to four per week. Each one can transport as many as 200-300 people.
According to Lithuanian news site 15min, entering Lithuania from Belarus is currently considered the safest and quickest route to the EU among Iraqis. Smugglers generally charge between $5,000 and $15,000 to transport people across the Belarus-Lithuania border (though some have charged up to $85,000). For comparison, illegal entry into Europe by means of the Aegean Sea costs 8,000 to 9,000 euros (approximately $9,500 to $10,700); entry through the Balkans costs 8,000 euros; and entry through the Mediterranean costs between 3,000 and 5,000 euros (about $3,560 to $6,000).
According to the smugglers themselves, these “package deals” generally include a Belarusian tourist visa, a plane ticket from Iraq to Belarus, several nights in a Minsk hotel, and even sightseeing tours. Customers are then transported to the Belarus-Lithuania border, and then from Lithuania to Germany, where most migrants seek to settle.
How Belarus profits when Iraqis don’t return home
In a joint investigation, Mediazona Belarus and LRT wrote that Iraqi travel agencies collect a $3,000 deposit from each of their clients as a guarantee that they will return to Iraq. If a person fails to return, the agency pays the money to the Belarusian government as a “fine.”
Reform.by has partially confirmed this information. Zamir, an Iraqi citizen and an administrator for a social media group for migrants, said that several (but not all) Iraqi tourist agencies do ask for a deposit, but the sizes of the deposits vary — some are as low as $1,400. According to Zamir, sometimes tourists pay the deposit at the time of purchase, but sometimes travel agencies charge people’s families after they fail to return.
Head of investigations at LRT Indre Makaraityte said in an interview with RFE/RL’s Belarusian Service that Belarus receives money in exchange for tourists not returning through the Belarusian consulate in Baghdad.
“We’ve calculated that since there are already almost 900 illegal migrants from Iraq in Lithuania, the Belarusian government has received at least 2 million euros [$2.37 million] from this scheme,” she said.
Belarusian border guards turn a blind eye
Two Belarusian border guards spoke to Reform.by on condition of anonymity. Both of them talked about receiving unofficial instructions to turn a blind eye to illegal migrants heading towards Lithuania.
According to one of the sources, in the past, border guards would be awarded a bonus for detaining such people, but that’s no longer the case. In addition, illegal migrants used to be treated much more strictly: administrative reports were drawn up, and they were held in special detention facilities until they could be deported. Now they’re just let go. One of the sources who spoke to Reform.by claimed that the border guards generally aren’t fans of the new policies:
“Recently, the authorities have been instructing the border guards to set up our operations in a certain way. This means leaving specific windows for illegal immigrants to pass through. They don’t give us direct instructions, but when you tell our boss not to cover the right flank in the border zone, for example, he’ll just say, you know, no problem, and won’t take any measures [in that area]. […] Smuggling and illegal migration are clearly being prioritized. […] As a result, we have a high attrition rate. A lot of people aren’t renewing their contracts.”
Another source who spoke to Reform.by confirmed this account:
“There was a verbal order from the authorities: turn a blind eye to illegal immigrants, only detain them when they’re being completely unreasonable or trying to cross [too close to] a checkpoint. Regular border guards don’t like it at all, of course, and people still try to detain perpetrators. […] Now, instead of border guards, [special forces officers] are being put on guard and patrol on the border, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they show the migrants where to go themselves.”
15min also reported that the situation on the Polish border is completely different — there, Belarusian border guards detain illegal border crossers just like they always have.
They also noted that it used to be the KGB (the Belarusian security service) who oversaw the arrival of Iraqi tourists to Belarus; intelligence agents would receive their names and follow their movements around the country. But according to a source, this practice has stopped.
Lithuania tightens rules for migrants
In late July, the Lithuanian government passed a law limiting unauthorized migrants’ rights. Among other things, the law shortened the processing time for asylum applications and deprived migrants of the right to appeal the decision of the court of first instance.
Activists maintain that the law violates the migrants’ human rights. Lithuanian president Gitanas Nauseda agreed, calling the law “flawed from a human rights perspective.”
“However, it would be even more dangerous to have a flawed policy with respect to irregular migration. Right now, it’s better to have a law like this one than to have no regulation providing for measures to deal with the emergency situation on the Lithuania-Belarus border,” he said, asking the Seimas (Lithuania’s parliament) to correct the law’s shortcomings in the near future.
In fact, Lithuania is required to host any migrants who have entered the EU through Lithuanian territory and applied for asylum. The authorities must also provide migrants with housing and food.
If someone’s asylum request is denied, Lithuania is required to deport that person to the country from which he or she came. Deporting someone to a Middle Eastern or African country, however, is a long and arduous process, according to LRT investigations head Indre Makaraityte.
The result is that Lithuania has run out of resources for migrants detained after crossing the Belarus-Lithuania border. They’re currently being held in empty vacation homes, camp sites, schools, and tent cities.
Migrants have complained about the restriction of their freedom, poor living conditions, and a lack of medical care on the sites where they’re being held. “Everyone who’s being detained in this building is suffering psychologically,” Rian, who’s from Iraq, told Mediazona.
According to Rian, there have already been multiple suicide attempts among migrants (Reform.by has also reported on this). Elias, another Iraqi citizen, agreed that things are bleak. “I ran away so I wouldn’t be in Iraq, which is like a prison, but here it’s the same thing.”
Translation by Sam Breazeale