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Latvia, Lithuania move to stop migrant influx from Belarus

August 10, 2021

The EU countries have accused neighboring Belarus of encouraging migrants to illegally cross into the bloc in retaliation for heavy sanctions.

Migrants prepare food at the newly built refugee camp near a fence
Migrants at a refugee camp south of Vilnius, Lithuania.Image: Mindaugas Kulbis/AP/picture alliance

Latvia and Lithuania on Tuesday announced measures to counter an increase in illegal migration across both countries' border with Belarus. 

Authorities in the Baltic EU countries have accused Belarus of shuttling migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia to put pressure on Brussels in response to sanctions following a crackdown by Belarus authorities on dissidents protesting President Alexander Lukashenko's 2020 election victory.

What measures are being taken?

On Tuesday, Latvia declared a state of emergency in border areas from August 11 until November 10 along its 175 kilometer (109 mile) border with Belarus to allow soldiers and police to support border guards.

The decree would allow guards to use physical force if necessary to send migrants back across the border. Officials will also no longer be obliged to accept applications for asylum. 

"The emergency regime means that the border between Latvia and Belarus will be practically closed to everybody," said Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins. 

Since August 6, 283 people have been arrested crossing into Latvia from Belarus, raising the total number to 343 for the whole year, according to the BNS news agency. 

Record migrant crossings into Lithuania

In Lithuania, lawmakers are debating whether to erect a 4-meter-high (13 foot) metal fence armed with razor wire along 508 kilometers (316 miles) of its 670-kilometer (416-mile) border with Belarus. 

"Without this physical barrier, it is impossible to protect our borders," Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite told Reuters news agency.

A spokesman for the EU said that while the fence was "a good idea," the bloc "does not finance fences or barriers."

The Lithuanian parliament is also looking into allowing the military to assist border guards. Another proposal would be requiring migrants to submit asylum applications at frontier checkpoints or embassies, rather than anywhere in the country.

Lithuanian authorities have seen numbers of migrants crossing from Belarus grow from just 74 in 2020 to 4,110 so far this year.

What is behind the EU-Belarus rift?

The latest row between the EU and Belarus came after the bloc imposed sanctions over Lukashenko forcing a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk to arrest a dissident blogger who had been flying to Vilnius earlier in the year.

Latvia and Lithuania had already raised the alarm earlier this year about Belarus giving free passage to migrants in May.

Poland said it was noticing a similar rise in migrant crossings on its border with Belarus in what a government official called a Belarusian "hybrid war."

Iraq suspended all flights to Belarus on August 6, significantly lowering numbers of its migrants crossing into the EU.

Ministers from EU countries will discuss the migration issue in crisis talks planned for next week.

jc/wmr (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)