Amid Belarus migrant row, Lithuania to open new camp for 500 people

·3 min read

By Andrius Sytas

VYDENIAI, Lithuania (Reuters) -Lithuania said on Monday it would open a new camp to house illegal migrants coming from Belarus, amid accusations from the Baltic state that Minsk is flying in migrants from abroad to send them illegally into its neighbour.

Some 1,676 migrants have entered Lithuania illegally from Belarus this year, including 1,057 so far in July, according to Lithuania's border guard service. It said around half of the migrants identified themselves as Iraqi citizens.

A migrant from Somalia who spoke to Reuters said her group had been told they could pay $7,000 on arrival for transit to Lithuania. They were now being detained by Lithuania in cramped, unsanitary conditions, she said.

Lithuania has suggested the migrants are being used as a means of pressure on the EU, which has imposed a series of sanctions on Belarus since a disputed presidential election.

"This week we will launch a camp in Dieveniskes, fit to house 500 people," Interior Minster Agne Bilotaite said after a meeting of the Lithuanian leadership to discuss the crisis.

The camp will be based around a disused school building and would be expanded later by building tents or temporary housing in the surrounding area, the minister's spokeswoman told Reuters.

It will be situated in a pocket of Lithuanian territory almost completely surrounded by Belarus, connected to the rest of the country by a 2.5km wide isthmus.

"The remoteness makes it easier to ensure safety of people and the migrants", interior ministry spokeswoman Lina Laurinaityte said.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has said his country is now only guarding the border as much as it is "profitable" to it, and as much as it can afford.

$7,000 TO ENTER

Lithuania's main detention centre for migrants, in Pabrade, is full, and the migrants are being temporarily housed in sites scattered near the border area.

Next to one such site, a disused rural school in Vydeniai village, a woman who introduced herself as Kauthar, 19, from Somalia, said she had fled war and domestic violence in her country and was looking for a better life.

Kauthar said she had travelled in a group of about five people, flying from Mogadishu Airport to Minsk, Belarus, with a transfer in Istanbul.

Speaking to Reuters on Sunday through a fence erected around the school, she said the migrants were told to pay $7,000 for transfer to Lithuania.

"They said, 'pay when you come here, when we bring you here' - but we don't have the money, so they left us", she said.

"I was walking and I was in the bush for three days," said Kauthar, referring to the open country around the Belarus-Lithuania border.

It was not clear who had arranged the journey in Mogadishu, or who had abandoned the migrants in Belarus.

Now housed along with over a hundred other African migrants, Kauthar said she was unhappy with conditions in the temporary holding site.

"I just want to go out from here, to a better place, to a good place", she said. "We share one toilet for almost 150 people. And one shower. The hygiene is not good".

Migrants are not allowed to have phones, so she could not tell her family she was alive after the journey, Kauthar said.

(Reporting by Andrius Sytas; Writing by Andrius Sytas and Alan Charlish; Editing by Alex Richardson and Toby Chopra)

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