A first team of six guards from the European Union’s border agency Frontex began working in Lithuania on Friday, as the Baltic state reported another sharp rise in migrants and refugees arriving from Belarus amid simmering tensions between the bloc and Minsk.
The Lithuanian border guard service said over the last 24 hours it detained 150 migrants and refugees – almost twice as many as for the whole of 2020.
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That brings the total number of detected illegal crossings along their shared 680km (420-mile) border to more than 800 so far this year. In 2020, there were 81 detected crossings.
The Lithuanian government, which is strongly opposed to Belarus’s longtime President Alexander Lukashenko, has said it suspects his government is allowing migrants and refugees through the border.
Lukashenko has previously warned his country will no longer try to stem a flow of illegal migrants and refugees from other countries to the EU following a downturn in relations between his government and Brussels prompted by Minsk’s forced diversion of a passenger jet in May and subsequent arrest of a dissident journalist on board.
“The situation is tense and has a tendency to deteriorate further,” Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told the AFP news agency.
“The goal of the foreign ministry is clear – economic migrants who cross the EU border illegally have to be returned to the place they left,” he said.
‘Playing with people’s lives’
Two weeks ago, the Lithuanian military set up several tents for the migrants and refugees, most of whom are reportedly from the Middle East, to cope with the increased numbers.
The number of Frontex border guards deployed on the border with Belarus is expected to increase to 30 later this month.
European Parliament President David Sassoli voiced “concern” on Friday about the situation there.
“Once again someone is unacceptably playing with people’s lives,” he tweeted.
I am following with concern the influx of migrants on the Belarus-Lithuania border.
Once again someone is unacceptably playing with people's lives.
It's clear that across Europe, be it in the South or East, we need a common asylum and migration system to respond to the crisis.
— David Sassoli (@EP_President) July 2, 2021
The EU has imposed far-reaching economic sanctions on Belarus over the forced landing of the Ryanair plane in Minsk, which in turn has withdrawn from the so-called European Partnership programme, through which the bloc seeks closer cooperation with several ex-Soviet states where Western powers and Russia vie for influence.
Belarus was rocked by months of protests last year fuelled by Lukashenko’s re-election to a sixth term in an August 2020 election that was widely denounced by his opponents as rigged.
Authorities responded to the demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw thousands of people arrested and reports of police brutality.
Most of Lukashenko’s opponents are now either in jail or have fled the country.
Meanwhile, Lukashenko ordered on Friday the full closure of Belarus’ border with neighbouring Ukraine, citing security reasons, BelTA state news agency reported.
He told a gathering marking the country’s Independence Day that rebel groups planning to carry out a coup were uncovered in Belarus, BelTA reported.
“A huge amount of weapons is coming from Ukraine to Belarus. That’s why I ordered border-security forces to fully close the border with Ukraine,” Lukashenko said.