A group of volunteers from Rūdninkai, Baltoji Vokė, and other nearby towns have joined forces with the police to stop migrants trying to flee the nearby migrant camp.
The largest migrant camp in Lithuania is located at a military training ground near Rūdninkai in southeastern Lithuania. At the end of July, local protesters tried to prevent it from being set up by blocking access to officers and construction equipment.
“A meeting took place that very first day, on July 26, our residents call it January 13 [reference to the Soviet military crackdown in 1991] simply because all the scared people that gathered there were met with sticks and gas, and called names just because they didn’t know what will happen there,” says Robertas Kovgiris, one of the founders of Safe Neighbourhood Group.
Every night between 19:00 and 01:00, volunteers patrol towns closest to the migrant camp, including Rūdninkai and Baltoji Vokė. They are equipped with reflective gear, pepper spray bottles, and walkie-talkies.
“We are their right hand, as police call us, and, considering the current situation with refugees, we help them do a lot of the work, and substitute officers, since there simply aren’t enough not just in the district, but in all of Lithuania,” says Kovgiris.
There are some 42 people going on patrols, according to Kovgiris.
“The majority from that list simply gather between 19:00 and 01:00 and divide the territory based on watch duty schedules. There’s the Vakariškės settlement, Rūdninkai settlement, places where refugees fleeing camps are most commonly seen.”
Some 730 men are currently accommodated at the migrant camp in the military training ground near Rūdninkai.
There have been numerous cases of migrants trying to flee the camp, Kovgiris says.
“There were definitely more than one or two cases. A few days after the migrants were brought here, locals detained two migrants in their yard in Rūdninkai [...]. The next day, my sister and her friends stopped one who was walking by, asked him where he was going. [...] He was all drenched, cold and scared,” says Kovgiris.
Patrol duties aside, the Safe Neighbourhood Group of Baltoji Vokė also inspects suspicious vehicles.
“Never in my life were there so many vehicles with foreign registration plates, especially German, Polish, there are some from the Netherlands, but German and Polish are the most common,” says Rūdninkai resident Ina Ušakova. “We write the numbers down and forward them to the police for inspection.”
Volunteers have come across cars transporting several migrants without documents, says Kovgiris.
A second fence was later installed to prevent migrants from escaping the camp in Rūdninkai. The area is guarded by the Public Security Service, two police crews from Poland and one from Lithuania.
Moreover, an entry permit is required to visit the area.
The migrant crisis has changed the lives of residents in other towns as well. For example, contraband cigarette prices have shot up, says Antanas from Eišiškės, a town by the Belarusian border.
“Before the migrant crisis, [the cost] was between 1.50 and 1.60 euros, now it ranges between 1.80 and 1.90. It got more expensive by some thirty-forty cents,” Antanas told LRT RADIO.
It’s much safer now in Rūdninkai and Baltoji Vokė, says Baltoji Vokė elder Genadijus Baranovičius. Local authorities have since upgraded street lighting and installed surveillance cameras in the towns.
“The situation at the moment isn’t bad, those escapes aren’t there, earlier there would be some practically every day as someone would still flee, now the situation got better,” he said.
Rūdninkai residents have hung banners against migrants outside their homes. ‘We demand that none are accepted in’, ‘A status of criminals for illegal migrants’, ‘Protect Lithuanian-ness, arm up and defend’, some of the banners say.
Urging others to “arm up” will cause more tension by the border, according to Justinas Žilinskas, a law professor at Mykolas Romeris University.
“This banner truly is problematic, I think. There are still laws that define who can carry weapons and the basis for that, and, most importantly, when they can be used,” he said. “If anyone sees this banner and [...] arms up without looking into the requirements for weapons, they will have some big problems with the judiciary.”
Baranovičius, the head of the local administration, has promised to look into such provocative banners.
On Friday, the police issued a statement, saying the local neighbourhood watch groups have no right to stop cars or inspect documents. The police also said the groups have no right to hand out pepper spray cans to other people, as they are considered category D weapons.