Lithuania's border guard chief says that there may be some 1,500 migrants in Minsk, Belarus, that can be sent towards the EU border.
Groups of migrants have been crossing from Belarus “on a regular basis, almost each night”, according to Rustamas Liubajevas, head of the State Border Guard Service (VSAT).
“According to information available to us, there is a sufficiently large group of illegal migrants in Minsk and it keeps growing, with new migrants coming from Baghdad or Istanbul,” Liubajevas told reporters on Tuesday after visiting the Aleksandras Barauskas checkpoint on the Belarusian border together with Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė.
Asked whether there was any correlation between the schedules of flights to Minsk and the flows of illegal migrants, Liubajevas said that “such a conclusion could be made, considering the size of those groups of illegal migrants”.
Over the last weekend, Lithuanian border guards detained 58 irregular migrants who entered Lithuania from Belarus in the districts of Švenčionys and Ignalina. On Monday and Tuesday, however, there were none.
“We are aware that the situation at the border is very dynamic. Illegal migrants will show up without any doubt,” the border guards’ chief said.
He noted that it was getting more difficult to project at which points the migrants would be crossing, saying they might appear along the entire border.
“It is difficult to make any projections, but we have worked out several scenarios and plan our actions accordingly,” Liubajevas said.
European assistance expected in mid-July
Lithuania’s Border Guard Service has reinforced controls on the border with Belarus, mobilised the Public Security Service and the Riflemen’s Union to assist border guards, and stepped up cooperation with agencies in Latvia and Poland.
“We have also agreed on action plans with our Polish colleagues and are working on joint measures. It is very important to exchange information and we have already achieved certain results,” Liubajevas said.
Moreover, a group of experts from Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, should arrive in Lithuania this week, he said.
“They will assess technical, operational matters in order to enable European border guards to start guarding the border from mid-July,” the chief of the Lithuanian Border Guard Service noted.
The Service reported earlier that approximately 30 EU border guards should arrive in Lithuania.
Šimonytė: we have to be ready for unexpected developments
Earlier this week, the Foreigners Registration Centre in Pabradė, eastern Lithuania, installed a temporary tent camp for irregular migrants. The required infrastructure was provided by the Lithuanian Armed Forces.
“The armed forces have been contributing with their logistical capacities thus far. [...] We think that we will keep working as we have been until now and, if other decisions are necessary, those other decisions will be made,” Šimonytė said.
According to her, the State Border Guard Service has been coordinating its work with other institutions.
“The situation is similar to the Covid-19 pandemic in that it has to be managed here and now, considering what is going on. I think it is impossible to predict precisely what the situation will be like in a week’s time. We have to be ready for various unexpected developments,” the prime minister said.
Šimonytė also said that Lithuania had been holding discussions with EU commissioners and representatives of other governments “on bilateral cooperation, finding solutions to this problem”.
“There are many different issues, including funding, which, in my opinion, can be reasonably put forward by Lithuania in this context, and the country puts them forward,” she explained.
As part of efforts to beef up security on its border with Belarus, Lithuania is planning to install surveillance systems along the entire border by late 2022, a project estimated to cost 38 million euros.
Currently, surveillance systems cover only 38 percent of the 680-kilometer border with Belarus.
Discussions with Minsk of no help
In Šimonytė’s view, irregular migration across the Belarusian border has been spurred by the actions of Minsk authorities.
“We have good ground to believe that some institutions, like tourism agencies, might be part of this picture in the Belarusian regime,” the prime minister said.
Asked whether Belarusian government was allowing migrants to cross the border more easily, Šimonytė answered that “it would not be a mistake to state so”.
According to her, Belarusian and Lithuanian officials had possibilities for cooperation, but Belarusian border guards made no use of them.
It would be useless to try to talk with Minsk authorities, Šimonytė said: “Do you think they woulnd't just be denying everything if I talked to them?”
Lithuanian Interior Minister Agnė Bilotaitė said earlier that the dramatic increase in the flow of irregular migrants to Lithuania was the conscious policy pursued by the Belarusian government. She called the tactic a “hybrid war”.
Following the international uproar over the forced grounding of a Vilnius-bound Ryanair flight in Minsk, Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko said his country would no longer stop “drugs and migrants” entering the EU. Lithuania’s officials later alleged that Belarusian officers were complicit in facilitating the crossings.
The number of undocumented migrants entering Lithuania has increased following a slump last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Lithuanian border guards have said they detained 387 irregular migrants, mainly Iraqi citizens, crossing into Lithuania from Belarus this year, compared to 81 last year, 46 in 2019 and 104 in 2018.