Lithuania Alleges Migrant Influx Is 'Well Organized,' Blames Belarus For Increase

After Lithuanian authorities detained a group of nine Iraqi asylum-seekers who entered the country through Belarus, officials are blaming Lithuania's southern neighbor for an influx of migrants.

Lithuanian officials claimed Belarusian border guards are covering the tracks of migrants. Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite said officials in Belarus might be cooperating in the shuffling of migrants into Lithuania.

"It is obvious that a hybrid war is being waged against Lithuania, and illegal migration flows are one of the means," Bilotaite said. Her country is a critic of the Belarussian government for its authoritarian crackdown on its people following a presidential election.

"Those flows of the illegal migrants who travel to Lithuania are not just random cases. These are well organized. There are flights from Baghdad and Istanbul to Minsk," she said, referring to Iraqis who fly to Belarus from those two cities.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Protestors Belarus
Protesters hold placards and traditional Belarusian flags, the symbol of the opposition, as they take part in a demonstration against political repression, in Vilnius on May 29, demanding freedom for Belarusian opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega. Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko sparked international outrage by dispatching a fighter jet on May 23 to intercept a flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying blogger Roman Protasevich, 26, and his partner Sofia Sapega. The diversion, prompted by a supposed bomb scare, provoked a global outcry and Western leaders have been calling for both to be released. PETRAS MALUKAS / AFP/Getty Images

She added that "all possibilities and preparations have been coordinated with the armed forces" to tackle the migration situation.

The latest group that entered Lithuania came Sunday. Last week, 52 migrants were detained by Lithuania's border officials. They are citizens of Iraq, Syria, Belarus and Russia, and most of them sought asylum in the Baltic country.

So far in 2021, about 160 people, mostly Iraqis, have entered Lithuania from Belarus—which is three times more than in all of 2020. Compared to 46 in 2019 and 104 in 2018.

The countries—both formerly part of the Soviet sphere—share a nearly 680-kilometer-long (about 420 miles) frontier that serves as the European Union's external border.

Lithuania's support for the Belarus opposition is longstanding, and its capital, Vilnius, has already become a center for Belarusians in exile.

In 2020, the Baltic nation gave shelter to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition challenger in Belarus's disputed election that President Alexander Lukashenko won after 26 years of authoritarian rule. A number of Belarusian nongovernmental organizations also have relocated to Vilnius which hosts a university that Lukashenko banned.

In recent weeks, the two countries have expelled a number of diplomats and last week. Last month, the EU imposed sanctions on Belarus, including banning its airlines from using the airspace and airports of the 27-nation bloc, amid fury over the forced diversion of a passenger jet en route to Vilnius to arrest, Raman Pratasevich, an opponent to Lukashenko.

Lukashenko has warned that Belarus could retaliate against the latest EU sanctions by loosening border controls against Western-bound illegal migration and drug trafficking.

"We were stopping migrants and drugs—now you will catch them and eat them yourself," he said in a speech on May 26.

In Brussels, the European Commission said it "shows the need for a European system to manage migration and asylum. Irregular migration as well as people arriving to Europe to flee war or persecution can happen at any of the EU's external borders."

The bloc's executive body added it stands ready to offer operational support to Lithuania through the EU's agencies.

"But a structural response is needed," the European Commission said in a statement.

The 27-nation bloc wants to reform its asylum system, hoping countries will finally share responsibility for people seeking sanctuary or better lives. The move comes after years of chaos and disputes among its member states' over the handling of migrants and refugees amid a recognition that the current EU system for deciding whether they should receive protection or be sent home has failed.

Belarusian Op Leader
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya speaks during her news conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, on June 2. Mindaugas Kulbis/AP Photo

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