Illegal border crossings into Lithuania pass 3,000

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Lithuania’s border guard service said it detained 171 people caught illegally crossing from Belarus into Lithuania on Tuesday night, the largest number in a single day in 2021 and bringing the total number of migrants detained so far this year to 3,027.

The border service said the group of migrants, all from Iraq, will be placed in one of Lithuania’s already crowded immigration detention centers. Illegal migration to Lithuania began growing dramatically after new sanctions were imposed on government officials in neighboring Belarus.

In July some 2,366 migrants were detained, up from 473 in June, and compared to 81 for all of last year. Lithuania has accused Belarusian authorities of organizing border crossings by people from the Middle East and Africa. The European Union’s border control agency has pledged to step up support to Lithuania to help stem the arrivals.

Lithuania says the influx is an act of retaliation by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Since the authoritarian leader’s reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the West denounced as rigged, he has cracked down on opposition protests in his country. His main election challenger fled to Lithuania under pressure.

Lithuanian authorities believe most of the people attempting to enter the country traveled to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on one of the four weekly flights from Iraq that carry up to 500 passengers on Boeing 747s. Lithuania Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis visited Baghdad this month for talks with Iraqi officials.

With no prior experience dealing with large numbers of asylum-seekers, the Lithuanian government sought help from the European Union and fellow member nations. The Estonian government sent 100 kilometers (60 miles) of barbed wire to help secure the most vulnerable sections of Lithuania’s 678-kilometer-long (421-mile-long) border with Belarus. Lithuania had announced days earlier that it had run out of materials for reinforcing the border fence.

The military is expected to join efforts to control the border this week.

“The armed forces will also deploy personnel to 12 immigrant detention centers to ensure its security” Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas told reporters Wednesday.

Tensions are rising in the border region among both local residents and detained migrants. Violent protests broke out in Lithuania’s Salcininkai district this week as locals blocked roads and burned tires while opposing government plans to establish new immigration detention centers nearby. Police used tear gas to disperse crowds and arrested eight protesters. Two officers were injured.

Meanwhile, a riot broke out Monday at an abandoned school repurposed as a detention center where some 150 migrants have been held for several weeks. The detainees refused to eat, and several dozen climbed on the roof and started vandalizing the building, police said. The protest ended with no one suffering significant injuries, police said.

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