2021.07.13 17:55

Six years ago Lithuania turned a blind eye. Now it is asking for EU's solidarity tackling migration

Gytis Pankūnas, Radvilė Rumšienė, LRT.lt2021.07.13 17:55

With Lithuania asking for EU’s help in tackling the migration influx, politicians and analysts point out that the country failed to show solidarity with other states dealing with the same issue six years ago.

During the Mediterranean refugee crisis in 2015, the European Commission wanted to relocate 160,000 from Hungary, Greece and Italy to other member states. Lithuania was asked to accept 1,105 refugees.

However, Lithuania then criticised the allocated quotas, claiming that the member states have so far been accepting refugees voluntarily.

Lithuania is currently dealing with a migrant crisis of its own, with over 1,600 irregular migrants having entered the country from Belarus this year so far. The majority of people detained by Lithuanian border guards come from the Middle East and Africa.

The spike in migration led to Lithuania declaring a state-level emergency, and mobilising the military to assist the border guards. The European Border and Coast Guard Service (Frontex) has also deployed officers to Lithuania to help patrol the Belarusian border.

Failing to show solidarity in 2015

When asked about the migrant crisis in Lithuania, Parliament Speaker Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen pointed out that the country failed to share the burden with other member states that were dealing with the same problem 6 years ago.

“In 2015, Lithuania undertook to accept some 1,100 refugees and help Greece, Italy, and other countries that really needed solidarity. Sadly, then we only managed to accept around a half of the promised quota,” said Čmilytė-Nielsen.

“We now have over 1,000 refugees here in Lithuania, gifted to us by Lukashenko’s regime. That is exactly the number we undertook to accept.”

Lithuania turned its back to a migrant crisis six years ago, and is now the one asking for help, Čmilytė-Nielsen added.

“This is why it is important to weigh the impact our present decisions will have on the future. Which of our current fears about EU initiatives and conventions will become a burden to us in a few years. Who will we ask for help then, those that we turned our backs to?”

Lithuania being ‘selfish’

Lithuania comes off as selfish by asking for EU’s help with migrant flows now, having distanced itself from the issue before, says professor Ramūnas Vilpišauskas of Vilnius University's Institute of International Relations and Political Science (VU TSPMI)

“Since 2015, when the so-called refugee crisis was happening, and up until now it was the southern European countries that actually expressed solidarity with the EU and the member states. The countries that weren’t the main destination or transit countries for refugees stayed away in general.”

Vilpišauskas pointed out that some Central European countries even spoke against mandatory quotas for migrants, and Lithuania largely avoided discussing the issue.

Despite this, Vilpišauskas believes that the EU will lend a helping hand to Lithuania.

“I think it’s part of the job for the European Commission and special agencies such as Frontex to be involved in management of migrant flows. [...] I doubt that anyone would be so offended right now,” says Vilpišauskas. “It seems that the Greek government is expressing goodwill as well and wants to help Lithuania by sharing their expertise.”

Problem lies in approach to border security, former prime minister says

MP Algirdas Butkevičius who served as the prime minister in 2012–2016 denies Lithuania’s lack of involvement regarding Mediterranean migrant crisis.

Experts carried out a thorough selection process to make sure that the country accepted migrants that were actually fleeing persecution. Moreover, Lithuania sent “border guards on international missions”, according to Butkevičius.

Border security ineffective.

“It is a problem. The EU agreed that the Lithuanian–Belarusian border was the EU border, and they would fund the installation of surveillance cameras and other technologies that would make the border guards’ job easier. We would also allocate some funds from the budget for border protection, and so did the European Union, it was a shared concern,” said Butkevičius.

However, Lithuania needed more money to ensure an effective border protection, Butkevičius said, adding that the government led by him would have allocated more had they known what would happen in the future.

Promised help

Mayors of cities further from the border told that they were looking for places to accommodate irregular migrants.

“It’s a big problem, it will take more than a day, more than a few weeks [to solve]. [...] However, we can see both the government and the Interior Ministry putting a lot of effort into this,” said Ausma Miškinienė, mayor of Lazdijai district. “It is an issue for the EU, since we have this angry regime nearby that can’t be compromised with, so Lithuania should not be the only one using its resources [...] to solve the problem.”

Vytautas Grubliauskas, mayor of Klaipėda, agreed that all municipalities should share the burden of accepting irregular migrants.

“This [accommodation of migrants] should in no way affect the security and peace for the residents. I am determined about this. At the same time, how much space and infrastructure is needed will naturally depend on how many migrants Klaipėda would have to accept,” said the mayor.

Preparations decade too late

Ričardas Malinauskas, mayor of Druskininkai, is more critical towards the efforts put into border protection. The town has dealt with the biggest influx of migrants so far.

“This isn’t a Druskininkai problem, it is, first and foremost, Lithuania’s problem and then Europe’s. If this is Europe’s external border, we all have to tackle this problem together,” said the mayor. “Since when does a municipality solve border-related questions? Since when does a municipality participate in solving geopolitical, international questions?”

Druskininkai would rather not accommodate migrants in schools, since there are summer camps and cultural events taking place in educational facilities, said the mayor.

Malinauskas pointed out that the town needs funding to turn buildings into a suitable living space for migrants.

“We should have been preparing for [increased migrant flows] ten, fifteen years ago. There were plans to build a cordon by the border in Druskininkai that was four or five times bigger. The projects were prepared, but the border guard commander at the time got into his head that the cordon is too big [...],” said Malinauskas. “So they lowered it, built some garages, reconstructed the building that we later gifted to the State Border Guard Service. Now there’s no space for people there, [they are] building tents.”

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