VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — European Union officials on Monday pledged millions of euros to help Lithuania tackle a migrant crisis that it blames on the government of neighboring Belarus and its authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko.
Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner of Home Affairs, arrived in Lithuania on Sunday, a day on which a record 287 people walked into the EU territory from Belarus — more than three times as many as in all of last year.
“This is a provocation of the Lukashenko regime. We must show that there is no free access to EU territory,” Johansson said.
“Lithuania, the EU, the Schengen states must prevent illegal access to this area. That is why we, the whole EU, support Lithuania to defend our common external border with Belarus,” Johansson told reporters.
So far this year, 3,832 migrants have been detained in Lithuania. That compares with 81 in 2020. More than two-thirds are Iraqi citizens. Iraqi airlines have increased flights from Baghdad to Minsk from two to four a week and are also starting flights from Basra, Irbil and Sulaymaniyah.
Lithuania has accused Belarusian authorities of organizing the illicit border crossings as an act of retaliation by Lukashenko. Since he was announced as the winner in an August 2020 presidential vote that the West denounced as rigged, he has cracked down on opposition protests in his country and his main election challenger fled to Lithuania.
Lithuania’s border guard service announced Monday that it cannot accommodate any more new immigrants and urged the government to relocate people to other facilities.
“We have managed this until now, but I must admit we have reached the limit of our possibilities,” said director of the service Rustamas Liubajevas.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte expressed hope the European Commission will be able to handle the rapidly deteriorating situation.
“The first task is to reduce the potential of the flow itself. The biggest expectation here is for the EU to be able to use its negotiating position with the Iraqi government,” Simonyte told reporters.
Johansson promised Lithuania would not be left alone. “I will send a delegation that will spend a few days here to discuss in detail the possibility of funding a good border protection system that includes monitoring and protection against illegal migrants,” she said, adding that 20-30 million euros will be allocated to this by 2022.
Lithuania wants to build a physical barrier with Belarus, which it estimates will cost more than 100 million euros ($119 million). EU funding is not usually permitted to finance the building of border barriers.
“We will eventually build it, no matter how much aid is sent by the EU. The border must be protected,” Simonyte said.
Later Monday, police used a water cannon and tear gas to disperse a crowd of immigrants who were rioting over the crowded living conditions at Rudininkai detention center and a tent that failed in the rain. Several young Iraqis were removed from the center for questioning, police said.
The Rudininkai military training ground, 40 kilometers (25 miles) outside Vilnius, was converted into one of the country’s many migrant detention centers in July.
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