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The embattled Belarusian dictator has made good on his threat to flood the European Union with migrants by sending hundreds of Iraqis on ‘package holidays’ to neighbouring Lithuania in retaliation for sanctions.
Lithuania, an EU nation which shares a 700-kilometre border with Belarus, felt the pain days after Alexander Lukashenko issued the threat in late May.
Local border guards, who used to catch a few dozen trespassers a year, started to stumble upon groups of several dozen people every day, who would surrender and say they were looking for refuge in the European Union.
Lithuania this year received over 507 migrants, mostly Iraqi men, from Belarus, six times higher than last year's number. Most of them arrived over the last three weeks.
“We see that this flow of migrants is regulated by Belarusian authorities as a tool of political pressure, a means of hostile hybrid warfare,” Mantas Adomenas, Lithuania’s deputy foreign minister, told the Sunday Telegraph.
“We’re dealing with a dictator who is increasingly on the edge of madness and is prepared to do absolutely unspeakable and unpredictable things.”
His crackdown on the opposition reached a new low at the end of May when Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair flight to land in Minsk, arresting a dissident journalist who was on board.
Europe responded with tough sanctions, including banning Belarusian flights from EU airspace. Mr Lukashenko said he would have his revenge.
“We used to catch migrants in droves here,” he told parliament last month. “Now, forget about it. You’ll be catching them yourself.”
Lithuanian border guards have been detaining groups of asylum seekers, mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan, every day since then.
Authorities in Lithuania had to pitch dozens of heated tents in a makeshift migrant processing centre to accommodate the asylum seekers and are now considering building a wall with Belarus which will cost about €15 million.
Ingrida Simonyte, the Lithuanian prime minister, has publicly accused the Belarusian government of orchestrating what her country views as a migrant crisis.
“It’s not just an episode of illegal immigration like we see on the other borders of the European Union,” the prime minister told reporters on a trip to the sparsely populated border area with Belarus.
Four flights from Baghdad land in Minsk airport every week, and some of the planes carry as many as 600 passengers each.
There is no explanation why the capital of the former Soviet republic suddenly became such a tourist magnet for the insurgency-ravaged country.
A top Belarusian lawmaker was at the city airport in May to welcome the maiden flight by Fly Baghdad, telling state TV that most of the passengers were tourists “who are coming here to learn about our culture and civilisation.”
Belarusian journalists who went to the airport earlier this week saw that passengers from the Baghdad flight were mostly men who were greeted by minders and boarded in groups on two large buses into town.
Belarusian media claimed state-owned travel agency Tsentrkurort is providing package tours for asylum seekers from Iraq.
Arnoldas Abromavicius, Lithuania’s deputy interior minister, told the Telegraph that his country’s intelligence has “reports, lots of indirect evidence and some documents” showing that the Belarusian authorities are “involved in facilitating the passage from Baghdad to Minsk” through Tsentrkurot.
The company did not reply to requests for comment.
Some of the asylum seekers caught at the border had their Belarusian visas dated that same day, leading the Lithuanians to think that the visas could have been issued on the plane before being dropped at the Lithuanian border.
Lithuanian authorities who have interviewed the migrants say that they paid unnamed individuals in their home countries between $2,000 and $4,000 for a “package trip” from Baghdad to the EU border.
Belarusian border guards have for weeks ignored desperate pleas and questions from their counterparts. Some of them told the Lithuanians of the asylum seekers: “Maybe those people fell from the sky,” Mr Abromavicius said.
As the Lithuanian interior minister was talking to the Telegraph on the phone, he was told a group of 42 people had been spotted near the border.
“Let's imagine how difficult it would be to cross (into Lithuania) unnoticed by the Belarusian side.”
Belarusian border guards deny the claims, saying that they comply with “all the regulations and agreements with the border guard agencies of the neighbouring states.”
Rights activists who work with refugees in Belarus describe the sudden surge in asylum seekers from the Middle East as unprecedented and point to the hallmarks of an organised effort.
“It appears that someone in Belarus is promoting this as the route to Europe,” Alyona Chekhovich, a lawyer at Belarusian NGO Human Constanta that provides legal help to foreign nationals in Belarus, told the Telegraph.
“We have never seen a flow quite like this before.”
While Lithuanian authorities have now launched talks with Iraq about a possible re-admission agreement and hope to dissuade the asylum seekers, who they say were duped by the regime, from traveling to Lithuania, Ms Chekhovich does not see how the EU can discourage people from flocking to Belarus
“It’s going to be hard to dissuade people from coming here,” she said.
The Belarusian dictator, who has ruled the country since 1994, has hinted at weaponising desperate asylum seekers and dropping them on the EU’s doorstep.
“They’re urging us to protect them against smugglers, drugs,” Mr Lukashenko said of the EU in an emotional speech at a Second World War anniversary event in western Belarus on Tuesday.
“I can’t help but ask: have you gone crazy? You have unleashed a hybrid war on us and now you demand that we protect you as we did before?”
He also referred to “hundreds of millions of dollars” that Belarus has been spending to safeguard the EU border.
“He’s either lying or he’s badly informed about his own country’s international obligations,” Mr Adomenas, the deputy foreign minister, told the Telegraph, quoting an agreement on border control and re-admission of illegal migrants that Belarus signed with the EU exactly a year ago.
The surge of asylum seekers also seems to be curiously timed with EU discussions of sanctions against Belarus.
Lithuania did not see any illegal border crossings for several days before Monday, when the EU adopted its fourth package of sanctions against the regime, said Mr Adomenas, the deputy foreign minister. “After that, they’ve been getting 50 people a day again, which is more than a half of what we used to see in the course of a whole year,” he said.
“We know that Lukashenko will send in more refugees if he decides to punish Lithuania further.”