Belarus migrant arrivals could reach 10,000 in weeks, warns Lithuanian minister

Gabrielius Landsbergis urges EU to 'step up' pressure on Belarus as well as countries of migration origin like Iraq.

Belarus migrant arrivals could reach 10,000 in weeks, warns Lithuanian minister

The number of migrants crossing into Lithuania from Belarus could top 10,000 by the end of the summer, Lithuania’s foreign minister warned as he urged the EU to “step up” actions to stop the arrivals.

Gabrielius Landsbergis told POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook that Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko is using migrants as a “political weapon” by welcoming planeloads of alleged “tourists” from Iraq, Syria and African countries. Many then try to cross the border into Lithuania illegally to seek asylum in the EU. Lukashenko’s actions come as his regime is facing increased sanction pressure from the EU following his move to force down a Ryanair flight in May to detain a dissident journalist, Roman Protasevich, and his companion, Sofia Sapega.

Landsbergis said that over 4,000 migrants had already entered Lithuania illegally from Belarus this year, compared with around 80 the previous year. “We have to remind our partners that Lithuania is a small country. We have 2.8 million inhabits, so per capita we’re actually receiving the biggest numbers in Europe,” he said.

“There is a possibility to have 10,000 people by the end of the summer, or possibly even more,” the minister warned, pointing out that Lukashenko’s regime is negotiating visa liberalization with Pakistan and adding flights from Islamabad to Minsk. “And that’s not the only case,” he warned. “We know that he’s approaching governments in Western Africa, in Northern Africa in order to build up new routes. So what we are seeing might be just the beginning.”

Landsbergis said he had already discussed the issue with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and other EU officials who “understand the situation,” but he stressed that more must be done: “I think we need to really step up our game. Because at this point the message that we are sending [is] not sufficient to change the way things are.”

Concretely, the foreign minister called for a multi-faceted response: Increased pressure on Minsk via further sectoral sanctions and pressure on the migrants’ countries of origin. “The EU could tell countries like Iraq that there’s a list of instruments — restrictions of visa programs, for example — that we will use if they don’t stop these flights to Minsk,” Landsbergis said. “We know that these people are not tourists coming to visit Belarus.”

Plus, Landsbergis said, the EU “must make sure that no European company can provide assets that facilitate the trafficking route. For example, European companies should not be renting planes to the airlines who are bringing the migrants to the border.”

“Lithuania shouldn’t be left alone to control the border. Technical help and personnel should be given more rapidly,” he added.

Lithuania has asked the EU to convene an extraordinary Council of Interior Ministers in mid-August to discuss the crisis, the minister said.

Asked about a plan by Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė to build a physical barrier at the border with Belarus, Landsbergis acknowledged that the proposal is controversial given the EU’s previous criticism of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s initiative to build a wall on the border with Mexico.

“I know it’s a huge step for Europe to come from criticizing the countries that are building external barriers with third countries to actually helping the country to be able to control the border,” he said.

“But I think it needs to be done. We are building a wall against Lukashenko, to prevent him from being able to pressure us into submission,” he said, “I don’t think we are building that big of a wall. I think in our case that might be one of the resorts that could help us to control the flows.”

A European Commission spokesperson said Tuesday that Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson is of the view that “in the situation that Lithuania faces, such a barrier could indeed be a good idea.” However, the spokesperson rejected Lithuania’s calls for financial assistance for the project, saying the Commission doesn’t “finance fences, as such.”