Lithuania is currently dealing with an influx of irregular migrants via Belarus. Why is this happening and what can the country do about it?
Why the sudden spike in irregular migration to Lithuania?
Lithuania is no stranger to irregular migration, with up to a hundred migrants entering the country annually. However, Lithuania is currently experiencing a surge in migrant flows, with over 2,700 people detained at the border so far this year.
Lithuania is struggling to accommodate all the migrants, and more officers are needed at the checkpoints and to speed up processing time of asylum applications and other procedures.
The Lithuanian parliament has called the irregular migration a hybrid aggression from Belarus, whose government has delcared that it will no longer stop migrants from entering Lithuania and the EU in response to imposed sanctions.
How is the Lithuanian border protected?
Two fifths of the 680-kilometre Lithuanian-Belarusian border are monitored by surveillance cameras. Operators inform border guards of any irregular crossing, and the guards then travel to the location and stop those entering the country. Sometimes irregular migrants manage to get deeper into the country, but border guards check CCTV footage to see how many people have crossed the border.
Border guards rely on strips of sand to protect areas unmonitored by cameras. The strip shows footprints, indicating that someone has crossed it.
Guards also use thermal vision equipment, portable cameras, and service dogs to track the people. Moreover, officers cooperate with local residents who provide additional eyes and ears for the border guard service.
While some migrants do make it past the border on their way to other EU countries, Poland often returns them to Lithuania, or they are detained at the Polish border.
Why isn't the entire border surveilled with cameras?
Installing surveillance systems is expensive – it costs some 120,000 euros to cover a kilometre of the border with cameras.
Due to the cost, the process of installation is lengthy and slow. Lithuania installed cameras on its border with Russia first and is now tackling the Belarusian border.
How will the barbed-wire fence keep migrants from crossing the border?
The so-called concertina wire fence was first built alongside the border near Druskininkai, where the largest migrant flows were recorded.
The fence keeps irregular migrants from entering the country, as few would risk climbing it. Moreover, border guards get more time to respond to border violations.
However, the barbed wire fence is erected within Lithuania’s territory rather than at the border, so migrants do not have to get past it to be able to apply for asylum. Lithuania will process asylum applications regardless.
Migrants can apply for asylum at any border checkpoint. However, Belarusian opposition activists, many of whom seek shelter in Lithuania from regime persecution, fear that the fence will make their plight harder.
Why aren’t border guards keeping the migrants out?
Border guards can only inspect border violations and detain migrants. Using physical force or threat to keep migrants out of the country is a violation of human rights and EU law.
It is impossible to know whether someone is a so-called ‘economic migrant’ or a refugee fleeing persecution without processing their asylum applications. Therefore, Lithuania could put vulnerable people in danger by denying entrance to the country.
Migrants are detained and accommodated in dedicated facilities while their asylum applications and other documents are processed.
Are irregular migrants, asylum seekers and refugees the same?
Irregular migrants, or third-country nationals who have illegally crossed the border, are people who have not applied for asylum or had their application rejected. They are sent back to their country once legal procedures are completed.
Asylum seekers are those who have applied for the refugee status. If the application is denied, asylum seekers are deemed irregular migrants.
If the application is approved, the migrant gets the refugee status and is allowed to stay in Lithuania or move to another EU country.
Does this mean that all irregular migrants will stay in Lithuania?
Only refugees can become Lithuanian residents, and only some 10–15 percent of migrants get refugee status, according to data from the Foreigners’ Registration Centre.
Many refugees leave Lithuania for other EU countries.
None of the migrants that have entered the country during the recent spike in migration have been granted the refugee status yet.
Why doesn’t Lithuania send the migrants back?
Migrants can only be sent back when they do not apply for asylum or their application is denied.
However, Lithuania needs information about a person’s nationality in order to send them back. Irregular migrants also need to have valid passports.
If a passport is missing, Lithuania has to contact the country of origin for confirmation of citizenship, and demand that the person is accepted back.
The process usually takes between three and six months, thought in rare cases asylum applications can be processed within a week. Migrants sometimes destroy their passports, hide their nationality or lie about it, which slows down the procedure.
Some countries have signed readmission treaties with Lithuania, agreeing to accept their nationals back. If no such agreements exist, it is difficult or near impossible to return irregular migrants, especially if a country of origin does not cooperate with Lithuania at all.
The Foreigners’ Registration Centre arranges the return of migrants with respective airlines. Few airlines offer direct flights to countries that migrants come from, therefore transit countries are also contacted. Moreover, some of the migrants need to be escorted.
Even if a return route is arranged, airlines retain the right to refuse boarding, if the person is seen as a security threat.
Are the rights of detained migrants protected?
Migrant rights in Lithuania are protected under international laws and conventions.
In response to a growing influx of irregular migration from Belarus, the Lithuanian parliament has recently adopted amendments to the Law on the Legal Status of Aliens, limiting certain migrant rights, including cutting the processing time of asylum applications and curbing the right of appealing the decision.
Non-governmental organisations have said the amendments will violate human rights and put vulnerable people in danger.
Legal observers have also said that limiting the right to appeal runs counter to the Lithuanian constitution.
Authors of the amendments claimed that such limitations were necessary to deal with the influx and that the most basic rights of migrants will still be protected.
When will the migrant flows stop?
Lithuania may always remain a transit or a destination country for migrants coming via Belarus, and experts believe that the current flows may grow even further.
However, migrants may be deterred from transiting Lithuania, since getting to Germany or other EU countries is difficult.
Cutting the processing time of asylum applications, as well as signing readmission agreements with Iraq and other countries of origin would speed up the process of returning migrants.