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A growing number of African and Middle Eastern migrants have been illegally entering Lithuania from Belarus. The country has said it's finding it hard to cope. Alexandra von Nahmen reports from the Lithuanian border.
Carefully, Justas moves through the undergrowth, using his flashlight to illuminate the dark forest. He's pulled a brown balaclava over his face. The 22-year-old officer and his colleague Vitautas have been on patrol at Lithuania's border with Belarus for hours.
"Three days ago, a hole was cut into the fence to make crossing the border easier," Justas tells me. Justas and Vitautas planned only a brief stop along this border segment. But then, they hear a loud rustling sound in the forest. Vitautas waits in the patrol car, while Justas heads into the undergrowth to investigate. He finds nothing.
Lithuania and Belarus share a 680-kilometer (423-mile) border. In many places, the two countries are separated merely by low wooden fencing or narrow ditches. Overcoming these obstacles to cross into EU territory is child's play.
Until recently, this was not a serious problem in Lithuania. According to official figures, just 79 people entered the small Baltic state illegally in 2020 — most of them fleeing the authoritarian Lukashenko regime in neighboring Belarus.
So far this year, however, more than 2,500 people from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and several African nations have arrived in Lithuania. Most of them came in the past two months.
Just a day ago, Lithuanian border guards arrested six people at this section. There is security camera footage showing how the group of people crossing the border help each other over the fence and then take a rest shortly afterward. A man on the Belarusian side — presumably a Belarusian border guard — can be seen gesticulating at them as a Lithuanian patrol nears the scene.
"We used to have a good working relationship with the Belarusian border guards," Justas tells me. "Nowadays, they simply ignore us." He says both sides used to share information gathered during patrols. Today, however, there is little communication between both sides, he says.
Lithuania blames the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko for this sudden uptick in illegal cross-border migration. Authorities in Vilnius suspect the Belarusian strongman of instrumentalizing migrants to punish the EU for imposing sanctions on his country.
Eyewitnesses report that officials without insignia confiscate migrants' passports and delete data saved on their phones before escorting them to the border, Lithuanian Deputy Foreign Minister Mantas Adomenas told DW.
European Council head Charles Michel recently visited the border with Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte
Adomenas said his country can take in no more than 5,000 migrants. He stressed that Lithuania does not want to allow new arrivals to travel onward to other EU states — most want to go to Germany, according to him. But, he said, "if numbers keep rising, we will have no more capacity to take them in and must let them move on."
Lithuania's Deputy Interior Minister Arnoldas Abramavicius told DW that the migrants are "the consequences of the Lukashenko regime hybrid attack towards Lithuania and towards the European Union."
The Belarus regime has started to "weaponize migration policy" by opening up new routes to the border, he explained. It is "a really difficult situation," including for Lithuanian authorities.
"We need to install a solid physical barrier and physical obstacle" at the Belarus-Lithuanian border he said, adding that the current surveillance system "doesn't work."
He stressed a new fence was neither "a good or bad solution" and that "irregular migrants" from countries such as Iraq were threatening Lithuania's security.
Public sentiment in Lithuania is turning sour, or even downright xenophobic, said Ieva Cicelyte, who has worked with refugees and migrants in the border region for five years as a project leader for the charity organization Caritas. "[Lithuanian] locals think terrorists are coming into the country."
Back at the border, Justas and his colleague Vitautas are mystified as to why migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan or Congo are flocking to tiny Lithuania. Above all, they cannot understand why anyone would take children on such a dangerous journey.
The two border guards have parked their vehicle on a hill. Using this vantage point, they use night vision goggles to monitor their surroundings.
"These people say they are looking for a better life, but in reality they are just after money," says Vitautas, who has been with the Lithuanian border guards for six years. That, the 29-year-old adds, is his personal opinion. But the fact of the matter is that many migrants and refugees have paid considerable sums of money to smugglers just to reach the border.
Ieva Cicelyte said Lithuanian lawmakers are to blame for the increasing xenophobia in the country. "They are portraying the situation in a purely negative light, instead of trying to give us hope," she said with obvious emotion. Just last weekend, for example, residents of a Lithuanian border town took to the streets in protest over plans to build a new refugee reception center.
Authorities set up such a center in the small town of Rukla on the Neris River a while ago to take in those who make it over the border. The site makes a rather dreary impression. Behind the entrance gate, a few children can be seen playing.
An Iraqi father tells me how he arrived there. He says he and his son flew to the Belarusian capital, Minsk, where they stayed in a hotel. For this, the man says, he paid €1,200 ($1,400). From Minsk, they then traveled onward to the Lithuanian border. And since then, he says, he has been stuck in the reception center.
Another man, who says he hails from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, recounts how he and a group of others crossed the border one night. He says their Belarusian guides pointed out the frontier, telling them: "That's Lithuania over there; now run!"
He says the guides were not clad in uniforms: "They were dressed like civilians, I couldn't make out their faces."
The 12-hour patrol shift of Justas and Vitautas is coming to an end. Fog begins to rise as a new day dawns. When asked what is most important about his job now, Justas says, with some determination in his voice: "We are here to protect the EU's external border." Then he sighs. After all, he will be back on patrol tomorrow night.
Translated from German by Benjamin Restle