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The migration crisis triggered by Belarus. Lukashenko is trying to harm Lithuania and Poland

przeczytanie zajmie 10 min
The migration crisis triggered by Belarus. Lukashenko is trying to harm Lithuania and Poland Source: jo.sau - flickr.com

So far, only a few dozen illegal migrants have been detained in Lithuania each year, while this summer this number could exceed 100 in just a single day. There are even concerns in the Lithuanian media that Lukashenko may be striving for provocation – an exchange of fire on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border or an attack on civilians. These concerns are aroused by the fact that a joint military exercise by Russia and Belarus, West 2021, will soon take place, which may be an occasion for violating Lithuanian territory. Over the past few days, a total of around 400 immigrants have been detained at the Polish-Belarusian border. The scenario that currently unfolding in Lithuania begins to repeat itself in Poland as well. Maciej Sobieraj talks to Dominik Wilczewski.

The Lithuanian-Belarusian border has been under siege in the last month. By July this year, over 4,000 immigrants had illegally crossed the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, including as many as 1,400 in July alone. For comparison, there were just over 80 in the whole of 2020. Where did this unprecedented border crisis come from?

The crisis has picked up the pace since mid-June. In previous years, only a few dozen migrants were detained in Lithuania each year, while this summer this number could exceed 100 in just a single day. The peculiarity of this immigration crisis is that Lithuania is on the far fringes of vital migration routes to the European Union from Asian and African countries.

This was surprising. However, it quickly turned out that this was the result of creating an airbridge that transported immigrants from the Middle East to Belarus and moved them to Lithuania illegally.

Immigrants from the Middle East in remote Belarus?

Yes, this migration route has been thoroughly investigated by Lithuanian journalists. An extensive investigation was conducted by Lithuanian, Belarussian and Iraqi reporters. Based on their reports, we can reconstruct what the trail looks like with increasing accuracy.

Most often, people who bring these immigrants act legally on the surface. They run a normal business as tourist companies, e.g. in Iraq, which mediate in obtaining a Belarusian visa, buying a ticket and accommodation in Belarus. This way, you can sign up for a „trip” for several thousand euros. We are not yet sure if these companies are aware that they are involved in human trafficking.

Interestingly, part of the fee for travel companies is collected as a deposit and then directly transferred to the Belarusian authorities as insurance in case the client does not return from Belarus. We are dealing with human trafficking since the Belarusian state not only imports these people but also makes money on doing so. Probably similar mechanisms work in other countries from which migrants arrive in the largest numbers, such as from Turkey. Talks of the Lithuanian authorities with Iraq and Turkey are underway to limit or even suspend flights to Belarus from these destinations.

The Lithuanian media and politicians describe this crisis as a hybrid-war-style action because it is almost certainly stimulated by the Belarusian authorities and services. What goals does Lukashenko’s regime have in mind and try to pursue?

Interestingly, the concept of hybrid war is, in fact, a journalistic term. It is not included in any acts of international laws, unlike such terms as war or occupation. However, in a way, it has recently also been introduced into legal circulation in Lithuania. The Lithuanian parliament has passed a resolution stating that the current migratory pressure carried out by Belarus is a hybrid attack against Lithuania.

Why is Lukashenko doing this? Let’s start with the fact that it may not have been his idea at all. Analyzing the current situation in Belarus, it seems like this plan may have been put together by the secret services. Lukashenko has surrounded himself with uniformed guards who influence him. Why are they doing this? This is Belarus’s reaction to Lithuania’s position, which showed support for the Belarusian opposition a year ago and gave shelter to Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya.

There is also a center of the Belarusian political emigration community in Vilnius, and Swiatlana Tsikhanouskaya has a staff and an office there, which have been granted diplomatic status by the Lithuanian authorities. It is from Vilnius that she is conducting extensive quasi-diplomatic activities. Moreover, from the standpoint of political declarations, Lithuania does not recognize Lukashenko as a legal president and is among the main supporters of introducing severe sanctions against the Belarusian regime.

In the long run, the plan of the Belarussian President is unknown. One can hardly suspect him of being a particularly Machiavellian man with a multi-layered and cunning plan. It seems that he is just trying to harm Lithuania as much as possible. Therefore, there are various speculations in the Lithuanian media as to how this issue may end. There are even concerns that Lukashenko may be striving for provocation, e.g. exchange of fire on the border or an attack on civilians. These concerns are aroused by the fact that a joint Belarussian-Russian military exercise, West 2021 (Zapad 2021), will soon take place, which may be an occasion for violating Lithuanian territory.

Is Lithuania receiving real aid from its neighbors and the European Union?

Technical, infrastructural and personnel support from the European Union was provided promptly. Already at the very onset of this crisis, Lithuania applied for the activation of the so-called EU Civil Protection Mechanism, under which the EU institutions, as well as the individual Member States, assist. Moreover, Frontex forces were also deployed there – a dozen first, then 60, and recently up to 120 officers with patrol cars, helicopters and drones.

At the initiative of the EU Member States, Lithuania received material support in the form of equipment for centers for migrants. Poland donated tents, electricity generators, blankets and beds. Similar aid was also provided by other countries, such as Croatia, Sweden, Denmark, Finland or Greece, which is, after all, a country very experienced in managing migration crises. Athens was one of the first places where Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė traveled to see how the Greek services and migration offices work.

Moreover, the EU fully supports Vilnius’ point of view. There is a consensus at the EU level that the current crisis on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border is a form of Belarus’ aggression against Lithuania.

You’re saying that this crisis is happening to Lithuania on account of its support for the Belarusian opposition. Is it likely then that the Polish-Belarusian border will face a similar fate? After all, Poland also supports oppositionists and independent civic movements in Belarus.

This is not a potential threat; it is a reality already. Over the past few days before our conversation, a total of around 400 immigrants have been detained at the Polish-Belarusian border. Of course, this is not the same scale as in Lithuania, but it is a clear increase compared to previous years. Everything seems to indicate that the scenario currently unfolding in Lithuania is starting to repeat itself in Poland as well. The only thing that can distinguish Poland’s situation from Lithuania’s is the border infrastructure, which is more difficult to cross due to natural conditions and Poland’s better ability to accept larger numbers of migrants.

How does this crisis affect the activities of the Lithuanian government and the entire political scene? There are even rumors of a Lithuanian response in the form of the introduction of a state of emergency.

As the crisis began to intensify, a state of the extreme situation was introduced in Lithuania. This is a form of emergency, but by a degree lower than that of a state of emergency, analogous to the Polish state of natural disaster. Thus, it does not give any special powers to the authorities and does not seriously restrict civil rights and freedoms.

The idea of introducing a state of emergency in the border area comes mainly from the Ministry of the Interior. This would impose some restrictions on movement, would make it possible to use the army and send it to border control. The military is currently only assisting the Border Guard, but not guarding the border. If introduced, the military would also control the border. More about this was discussed when quite serious unrest in the border areas arose, even resulting in protests against the location of centers for migrants.

At present, it seems that the authorities will try to avoid its implementation. They do not want to frighten society and limit its freedoms, particularly during a pandemic, when anxiety is pervasive anyway and social discontent is growing.

The Lithuanian government is already implementing this tough policy. Since August 2, Lithuania has been sending incoming immigrants back to Belarus.

Yes, this is the decision of the Ministry of the Interior. It assumes that people who try to cross the border illegally are to be detained and headed back to Belarus. An important objection was also added that during said detention, immigrants should be instructed that if they want to apply for asylum, they should report to a border post or Lithuanian diplomatic missions. This is a safety valve that the Lithuanian authorities have left in the event of complaints. Formally, according to international law, no one should be denied the right to submit an asylum application, but it is not a breach of the law to send migrants back while leaving them an alternative.

This tactic is known as pushback in international politics. It was used in different ways by different countries, e.g. in Croatia, Spain or Hungary.  Cases from these countries were often brought to tribunals, e.g. to the European Court of Human Rights, which assessed whether the pushback of migrants was a violation of international law. As a rule, if immigrants were left with the alternative of submitting the said application in another way, the European Court of Human Rights would state that international law had not been breached. It is probably based on these experiences that Lithuania introduced this reservation.

How does the public react to these accusations?

There has been some debate in the media about whether Lithuania is dealing with immigrants properly. There is no shortage of opinions that Lithuania is not prepared to accept such an influx of people. It is pointed out that the services would not be able to check all of them; after all, it is uncertain who in this crowd is in need and who might be a terrorist.

On the other hand, the thesis that Lithuania is hovering on the verge of the law resonates strongly. Its proponents point out that in a conflict situation with an authoritarian state (such as Belarus), Lithuania should set an example of respect for democratic values and morals, reaching out to people in need of help.

Polish version is available here.

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The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020 – nowy wymiar”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.