Belarus ‘weaponising’ illegal migration, Lithuania says

Belarus is “weaponising” migration by sending illegal immigrants from Iraq and Syria across the border to Lithuania, according to the Baltic country’s foreign minister.

Gabrielius Landsbergis told the Financial Times that Belarus was engaged in a “hybrid attack against Europe” by enticing the migrants with package deals from a state-owned tourist agency that included flights from Baghdad or Istanbul, as well as travel to the Lithuanian border.

So far this year, Lithuania has detained almost double the migrants who crossed the frontier from Belarus than the combined total for the three previous years.

“This is weaponised migration that is directly aimed at Lithuania. The reason? It’s quite easy to guess. We are outspoken, we shelter the main opposition leaders [from Belarus],” Landsbergis said on Monday.

Lithuania has been on high alert since Belarus last month forced the landing of a Ryanair plane from Athens to Vilnius and then seized prominent dissident Roman Protasevich, who had been living in exile in the Baltic country.

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko threatened last month that his country could relax some controls on its borders, as tensions with the west mounted. “We stopped drugs and migrants — now you will eat and catch them yourselves,” he warned during an address in the Belarusian parliament.

Landsbergis said that Tsentrkurort, a Belarusian state-owned tourist agency, was using Boeing 777 planes to bring in migrants and claimed there were currently 1,000 Iraqis and Syrians in Minsk.

Lithuania has stopped 387 migrants at the Belarusian border up until June 14, up from 74 last year. “This is the direction it might be going — to test the country, to test Europe,” he added.

Belarus’s foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment; nor did Tsentrkurort.

Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is also in Lithuania, said the approach taken by Lukashenko was unsurprising.

“Lukashenko’s job right now is to take revenge,” he told the FT. “But he has such limited opportunities to take revenge, that he is trying to create some problems on the border because that is the only leverage he has.”

Landsbergis called Lithuania “the country of freedom fighters” and said it would soon need help from the rest of Europe to deal with the migrants. Vilnius is already in discussions with Turkey, a fellow member of Nato, about stepping up border and identity checks.

He added that, after the “hijacking” of the Ryanair plane, Lithuania was not ruling out any action from Belarus, including the targeting of Belarusian dissidents inside the Baltic country.

“Now we are in a position where we have to consider everything. [Lukashenko] crossed a red line a long time ago. We have to be really vigilant,” Landsbergis said. But he added that Lithuania would not change its outspoken policy against the Lukashenko regime.

There had been previous allegations of countries “weaponising” migration, such as in 2015-16 when thousands of migrants — mostly from Syria — crossed the Arctic Circle borders from Russia and travelled on to Norway or Finland by bicycle or in decrepit cars.

“They’ve been testing the means, and they’ve been testing the methods, and now they’re weaponising it,” Lithuania’s foreign minister said.

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