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Sunday, July 21, 2024

“Together we must convince Brussels to protect its external borders”

By Tímea Koren-Karczub

It is very important for us that Hungary has shared its experience with us, we will continue our cooperation with Budapest in the future, we will coordinate our efforts on issues concerning the competences of the institutions of the European Union, because only together can we convince Brussels, lithuanian Deputy Interior Minister Arnoldas Abramavičius said in an interview with the Hungarian newspaper Magyar Nemzet. Lithuania, like Hungary, is building a border fence to curb migratory pressure from Belarus. Abramavičius visited Budapest last week to talk about the migration crisis on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border.

Like Lithuania in recent weeks, Hungary faced an extraordinary influx of migrants in 2015, leading to the decision to physically close the border – as Vilnius is now doing. During your talks in Budapest, did Hungary succeed in sharing its experiences that could help Lithuania to stop the migration crisis?

Since we also decided to erect a physical border fence due to the deteriorating situation, we visited the fence on the Hungarian-Serbian border and looked at how it is technically constructed and what technical solutions were used for this so-called temporary border fence. This visit, as well as our meeting with Károlly Papp, State Secretary for Internal Security at the Ministry of the Interior, were very successful and fruitful. I would like to stress how important it is for us that Hungary has shared its experience with us. Therefore, we will continue our cooperation with the Hungarian side in the future and coordinate our efforts also in matters of competences of the EU institutions. After all, the threats from Belarus affect not only Lithuania, but the entire European Union – Minsk is now sending migrants from the Middle East not only to us, but also to Poland and Latvia.

What is the European Union’s view on the fact that it is building a fence? Will it offer help to Vilnius?

According to our negotiations so far, the EU is not against our intention to erect a physical border barrier. We have worked closely with the EU authorities since the beginning of the crisis, when the situation deteriorated following the EU’s imposition of sanctions on Belarus. As the EU is also an actor in this crisis, we expect solidarity to be used to finance emergency aid and border management. Brussels has not yet agreed to finance the construction of the fence, but has offered to help us with other technical equipment such as cameras or heaters. However, we are still looking at how we can obtain additional EU funding for the construction of the asylum centres and the fence itself. I know that the dialogue between Hungary and the EU on the construction of the fence was not very successful during the crisis in 2015, but perhaps it will be different now that many more Member States are affected by illegal immigration. We have already agreed with the other two Baltic States, Latvia and Estonia, to harmonise our emergency and border management measures, as well as our legislation on asylum procedures. This visit to Hungary will help us to mobilise other Member States with whom we share a common position, and together we will convince the European Union that we need to change our external borders policy and find new solutions to combat illegal immigration.

Both Vilnius and Brussels are convinced that Belarus is deliberately allowing migrants to enter the EU in response to the West’s punitive measures. Why has Lithuania become a major target of migratory pressure?

There are both political and practical reasons for this. A year ago, several EU Member States, including us, agreed that there had been electoral fraud in Belarus and that Aleksandr Lukashenko could no longer be elected president. Since then, we have granted asylum and refugee status to around 4,000 Belarusian opposition members, wrathing Minsk and Lukashenko. So Lithuania has been too active in supporting and encouraging the Belarusian opposition, including opposition leader Svetlana Chihanouskaya, who is currently active in Vilnius. Belarus has also chosen Lithuania as its main destination because it is much smaller than e.B Poland, which means that the wave of migration poses a threat to our society. In the last month, more than 4,000 illegal immigrants have arrived in Lithuania, and it is quite difficult to grant asylum to so many people – of course, I know that Hungary faced hundreds of times the number in 2015. In addition, it takes two hours to get from Minsk airport to the Lithuanian border, while the Polish and Latvian borders are further away from the Belarusian capital, from where the migrants are transported.

Most of these illegal immigrants are Iraqis. How do they get to Lithuania from the Middle East?

– Minsk offers tourist packages: special flights from Iraq, booking a hotel stay for the migrants and even a transfer to the Lithuanian border – there has never been anything like this before. And the travel agencies in Baghdad and the criminal organizations involved in human smuggling receive a share from Minsk in return for their help.

Lithuanian Deputy Interior Minister Arnoldas Abramavičius says the EU’s external borders policy needs to change · Photo: Máté Bach/Magyar Nemzet

What other measures has the Lithuanian Government taken besides the construction of a border fence to prevent illegal immigration?

Similar to Hungary in 2015, we changed the law, and from now on it is illegal to cross the green border. Immigrants are therefore prohibited from crossing the green border; the only legal way to Lithuania is through a border crossing. Latvia and Poland have already followed our example and changed their legislation.

Have these measures improved the situation?

In the last week, no refugees have arrived at our border. This is also due to the important step we have taken, with the help of the EU, to persuade Iraq to suspend special flights to Minsk for ten days.

Nevertheless, many asylum seekers are still waiting at the Lithuanian border. As you mentioned earlier, more than 4,000 illegal immigrants have already arrived at the Lithuanian-Belarusian border this year, 50 times as many as in the whole of 2020. How is Lithuanian society reacting to this unusual situation?

Lithuanian society is not prepared for so many immigrants, and the local authorities strictly oppose the establishment of new camps – there have already been several protests. So far, we have the situation under control, but I can’t imagine what would happen if, for example, the number of immigrants exceeded 10,000. In addition, not only immigration poses a threat, but also the hybrid warfare of Belarus. Minsk knows how to destabilize and radicalize a society. So the situation is quite dangerous, but so far we have managed to stabilise it. However, we must not forget that we are not only on the fringes of the European Union, but also of NATO, so a confrontation between the two military blocs could pose an even greater danger to us.

Are you afraid of an escalation?

Yes, we are concerned that any small provocation could trigger a major crisis. Citizens living in the areas bordering Belarus are very concerned and are counting on the Lithuanian government and authorities to protect them.

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