Lithuania has begun building a border wall to block undocumented migrants entering the EU via Belarus, after dictator Alexander Lukashenko threatened to “flood” the bloc with immigrants in retaliation for sanctions.
More than 1,500 people have crossed the border this year, many of them from the Middle East and North Africa, up from around 80 in the whole of 2020.
On Friday, Lithuania started work on a 1600-foot stretch of the barrier, which will be six feet high and topped with razor wire, an army spokeswoman said.
The country’s 400-mile border with Belarus runs through sparsely populated areas, with large stretches going through forests and marshes.
Mr Lukashenko said this week that Minsk would only guard the border if this was “profitable” for Belarus.
Much of the Lithuanian border with Belarus runs through deserted areas
Credit: REUTERS/Janis Laizans
"If someone wants more, we are ready to go to the table and agree on what conditions we would do it", he said.
"If someone thinks we will close our border with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine and will become a holding site for those running from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunis and further down Africa – if someone thinks so, he is misguided, to say the least", he added.
“We will not hold anyone back. We are not their final destination…They are headed to enlightened, warm, cozy Europe.”
The Telegraph reported last month that hundreds of people were arriving in Minsk from Baghdad on several weekly flights. Belarusian authorities claimed they were coming as tourists.
But Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Shimonyte this week said Belarus had been offering the flights to migrants, citing documents found on at least one person who had crossed the border.
Lithuania announced plans to build a border wall earlier this week.
Ms Shimonyte had earlier dismissed the idea as a “waste of time”, but on Friday admitted that the migrant flow was unlikely to subside on its own.
More than 1,500 people have crossed the border so far this year – up from 80 last year
Credit: REUTERS/Janis Laizans
"As the Belarus regime is making money from these people for visa charges and, I think, gets other income from them as well – it would be difficult to expect any positive trend without additional means of impact", she said.
Charles Michel, the European Council President, said the EU was “not intimidated” by the threat, following a visit to the border region this week.
Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, launched a brutal crackdown on dissent last year, after protests broke out in response to his claim of victory in a rigged election.
Several people died during the demonstrations and many more were tortured in police custody, while prominent members of the opposition were jailed or forced into exile.
The EU imposed sanctions against Mr Lukashenko’s increasingly isolated regime, though Russia offered its traditional ally financial and political support.
There was also condemnation from the international community in May when Minsk forced a Ryanair plane to land while crossing through its airspace and arrested an opposition journalist on board – sparking a further round of EU sanctions.