Despite the looming cold weather, Lithuania plans to continue its policy of turning back irregular migrants, Interior Minister Agnė Bilotaitė said on Tuesday, adding that the country will still provide them with humanitarian assistance.
"We are not going to change the strategy, because the decision has been taken to protect our borders and we will protect them. I have to state this clearly," the minister told reporters.
"Of course, humanitarian aid has to be provided and it will be provided," she added.
Nearly 4,200 irregular migrants, mostly Iraqi citizens, have crossed into Lithuania from Belarus so far this year.
In a bid to stem the unprecedented migration influx, which Vilnius says is being orchestrated by the Minsk regime, Lithuania decided in early August to push migrants back into the neighbouring country.
In the wake of the decision, there have been cases of Belarusian officials refusing to allow migrants back into their territory, leaving them stranded at the border.
Poland drew criticism from human rights organizations after a group of migrants was trapped at its border with Belarus for several weeks. Five people have now been confirmed dead at the Polish–Belarus border.
Lithuania and Poland seek EU support
Lithuania will seek more EU financial support for countries directly affected by irregular migration, Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė said on Tuesday.
"We have raised and will continue to raise the issue that member states face with the objective reality of being located on the EU's fringes, whether eastern or southern, [...] should receive more solidarity and the EU's attention to measures needed to protect their borders," she told reporters.
The prime minister added that "the issue of solidarity financing for a physical barrier or other means of border protection will be raised in the near future".
Šimonytė noted that secondary migration, where migrants crossing the EU's external border travel further into Western Europe, is "no less of a challenge" than primary migration, which has to be dealt with by countries on the bloc's borders.
Commenting on proposals to review the EU's migration policy, she underlined the need to distinguish between refugees and economic migrants at an early stage.
"The current migration policy can probably be described as allowing very different things to be lumped together, that is, people who are genuinely seeking political asylum or fleeing a natural disaster, an objective situation, and people who simply feel that the grass is greener or the sky is bluer in other countries," she said.
The Lithuanian and Polish governments have recently called on the EU to review its migration policy.
"Measures at national level alone are no longer sufficient, new common solutions are needed at EU level," the governments said in a declaration after their joint meeting in Warsaw a couple of weeks ago.
"Poland and Lithuania underline the need to adapt the EU legislation and to create legal preconditions for EU member states to respond appropriately to the deliberate instrumentalisation of irregular migration by third countries,” it said.
Lithuanian interior minister meets counterpart from Denmark
On Tuesday, Interior Minister Agnė Bilotaitė met with her Danish counterpart, Mattias Tesfaye.
"We agreed that changes to the European law and migration are necessary and we agreed that we need to build an alliance that backs changes and believes that those changes are necessary, and it is being done," she told journalists after the meeting. "That pooling is one of the goals of this visit and I am very glad that we have Denmark's support."
Bilotaitė and Tesfaye also discussed Denmark's experience in dealing with the migration crisis the country faced several years ago.
"We discussed ways to further bolster the EU's external borders. First of all, a physical barrier is key here,” said Bilotaitė.
“We really agree that a physical barrier has to be built and that's not only Lithuania's matter but a matter of the whole of the EU," she added.
She also said she and her Danish counterpart talked about Lithuania's migration policy proposals.
"A common EU position, common action and non-tolerance are key in this situation. We feel support from the whole of the EU and we are grateful to Denmark as well for its support and understanding," Bilotaitė said.