VEREBIEJAI, Lithuania (AP) – Mustafa Hussein Hamad kicked a dirty ball between two old tires in the schoolyard where he spends most of his time. He and dozens of other migrants are locked in a former school after walking at night through thick woods in Lithuania from neighboring Belarus.
“I paid $ 1,400 after a friend pointed out this new path to Europe,” said the 20-year-old from Baghdad as he waited in the shabby two-story school housing 160 people. Recounting his trip from Iraq for a better life in the European Union, he added: “They said it was a good shortcut by plane to Minsk. “
The building is one of many facilities that Lithuania quickly converted to accommodate hundreds of people from the Middle East and Africa – an influx which Baltic officials say was sparked by Belarusian authorities in a “Hybrid war” against the EU.
Daily arrivals sometimes reach triple digits when migrants cross the border and appear in the woods in front of Lithuanian border guards, meet locals picking mushrooms, or just walk around towns. More than 1,700 have arrived in recent weeks, compared to just 80 for 2020 as a whole.
Lithuania claims that this influx is an act of retaliation by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Since the authoritarian leader’s re-election 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.
In May, Belarus hijacked an airliner to Minsk to arrest a dissident journalist, and the EU responded to what it called an act of air piracy with stiff penalties. Lukashenko, in turn, ordered the cessation of cooperation with the EU to stem illegal immigration.
“If some think we are going to close our borders with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine and become a camp for people fleeing Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Tunisia, they are wrong, ”he said last week. “We won’t hold anyone back. They do not come to us but to an enlightened, warm and comfortable Europe. “
At the same time, authorities in Minsk have banned most Belarusian citizens from leaving the country.
Migrants from the school in Verebiejai, a village about 140 kilometers (85 miles) west of Vilnius, are under police surveillance and are not allowed to leave. Some have tested positive for COVID-19 and have isolated themselves indoors.
Six migrants fled a compound in neighboring Lazdijai district on Tuesday, triggering a police search with dogs and helicopters.
Like other Iraqis, Hamad used an agency that arranged direct flights to Minsk.
“The plane was full,” he said.
Iraqi Airways offers two flights per week to Minsk on Boeing 747s that can accommodate up to 500 passengers. Its website showed that a Wednesday flight is full, as are the next two.
Once in Minsk, Hamad said he and others were taken to a hotel where their passports were seized. Four days later, cars picked them up in groups of three.
“The driver spoke Kurdish. He dropped us off at dusk in the middle of the forest and pointed in the direction of the European Union, ”Hamad said.
Another Iraqi, Haidar al-Garawg, said he paid $ 1,500 to reach Minsk and walked with others through a forest and even a swamp, “but we kept walking in the water”.
“We faced wild animals and all the other things. I thought we were going to die in this forest. But thank God! He saved us and allowed us to get here, ”al-Garawg said.
None of the 160 accommodated at the Verebiejai school has a passport. Some say they lost their papers during their trip, while others say they were confiscated in Belarus.
Lithuanian authorities use migrants’ phones to identify them while overwhelmed regional courts process their asylum claims.
On Tuesday, the Lithuanian parliament passed a law aimed at speeding up the deportations of those who cross the border illegally. Critics say it could violate their human rights, but the government and lawmakers reject it.
“It is an extreme situation,” said Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite. “This is not a normal migration, it is not a normal migration path. It’s a hybrid war against us, so the response has to be adequate.
Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis will visit Turkey and Iraq this week to try to open repatriation routes for those refused asylum in Lithuania.
Frontex, the EU’s border agency, pledged to step up its support “in view of the growing migratory pressure on the border with Belarus”. New sections of barbed wire were erected this month, with plans to invest 41 million euros ($ 48 million) to strengthen the entire 678 kilometer (421 mile) border with Belarus.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said that by encouraging the flow of migrants, Lukashenko was seeking to put pressure on her country’s infrastructure and politics.
“Organized mass immigration is revenge,” she told The Associated Press.
“Immigrants are used not only by criminals, but also by regimes,” said Simonyte. “It is a great pity that I feel for them because they are instrumentalized for the good of those who do not care about people. “
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who came out against Lukashenko and fled to Lithuania under official pressure in Minsk, shares Simonyte’s point of view.
“This is obviously an attempt by the (Lukashenko) regime to take revenge on Lithuania and the whole of the European Union for their support for civil society in Belarus,” she said.
Simonyte accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of using similar tactics in 2016, encouraging migrants to enter Norway and Finland. Russia denied the allegations at the time.
“Putin and Lukashenko really don’t care about people from Iraq or African countries. They just want to use them as a tool to increase pressure on the EU and potentially inspire unhealthy political debates, ”she said.
Belarusian opposition activist Pavel Latushka claimed that a recent Lukashenko decree granting visa-free entry to Belarus for nationals of 73 countries to be vaccinated against COVID-19 was aimed at increasing the influx of migrants. He said a special unit of the Belarusian border agency takes migrants to the Lithuanian border and helps them cross in lightly guarded areas.
The Belarusian border guard committee declined to comment.
Simonyte said the influx of migrants “easily sets off some people” in Europe, especially those on the far right.
“Even though there are no such strong parties in the country, there are movements and some of them are financially linked to sources of the same regime,” she said.
Residents of Verebiejai have expressed concern about migrants.
“We know very well what will follow these first birds,” said farmer Jonas Bredikis. “We don’t want to see terrible things happening here in France, Spain and elsewhere. “
An anti-migrant group of more than 50 vehicles organized last weekend in the border district of Raigardas was turned back by the police. More action is planned and social media was buzzing with warnings of “possible threats.” In the port of Klaipeda, tenants of an apartment building staged a rally after rumors spread that hundreds of migrants were being accommodated in their neighborhood – a claim that turned out to be false.
As he spent the time watching a family of storks nest on a pole at Verebiejai’s school, Hamad said the birds reminded him of those he used to see near his home in Iraq, ” but now they are gone ”.
Of his own journey, he said: “I left because it’s a chance for a new life. “
Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau contributed to this report from Kiev, Ukraine.
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