Poland and Latvia have a registered a record number of migrants crossing their borders with Belarus, amid accusations Minsk is using migrants as a weapon against the European Union.
In recent weeks, Lithuania has faced a surge of mostly Iraqi migrants from Belarus, prompting authorities in the EU member to beef up the border and start pushing back illegal migrants.
As Lithuania tightens its border, Poland and Latvia are now accusing Belarus of following the same script by directing a growing number of migrants to their borders.
The Polish Border Guard said in a statement on August 9 that it had detained 349 irregular migrants crossing the Belarusian border since August 6. It said the migrants were probably from Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2020, the Border Guard detained 122 migrants crossing the Belarusian border. So far this year, the number has reached nearly 900.
In Latvia, the Interior Ministry detained 218 people over the same August 6–9 period, mostly Iraqis.
Prime Minister Krisjanis Karin’s office said on August 9 that he backs a proposal by the interior minister to declare a state of emergency at the Latvia–Belarus border.
Poland, the Baltic states, and EU officials say the migrant flows are being orchestrated by strongman Alexander Lukashenko in retaliation for EU sanctions over his government's crackdown on the country’s pro-democracy movement.
Poland says Belarus may also be sending migrants over the border in retaliation for Warsaw's decision last week to give refuge to Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya after she refused to return home from the Tokyo Olympics.
EU ministers are slated to discuss the Belarusian border issue at an extraordinary meeting on August 18. The bloc has been trying to work with the government in Baghdad to stem the flow of Iraqi nationals, even as Minsk has pledged to increase direct flights and add more Iraqi cities.
In a nearly eight-hour press conference on August 9, Lukashenko struck a note of defiance against the West and opposition, denouncing international sanctions against his government.
"The illegal migration. No, we are not blackmailing anyone. We are not threatening anyone. You simply put us in such conditions that we have to react. And we are reacting, excuse us, in the best way we can," Lukashenko said.
The authoritarian leader also threatened to stop cooperating with the United States against the smuggling of radioactive materials if the sanctions continue.
“Who needs some dirty explosives going to the European Union?” Lukashenko said.
August 9 marked the one-year anniversary of country's presidential election that extended Lukashenka's decades-long rule and sparked an unprecedented wave of protests amid allegations the vote was rigged.
Lukashenko reacted to the protests by unleashing a brutal crackdown. More than 32,000 people have been detained in an ever-widening sweep targeting the media, civil society, and any form of dissent.
Opposition leaders have been locked up or forced to flee, including Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who left for Lithuania a day after the vote that supporters say she actually won.