Lithuania and Belarus border area in turmoil | free press

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Rudninkai/Minsk (dpa) – refugee camps from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq were only seen on television in other countries for a long time by the people of Lithuania.

Until several hundred refugees illegally crossed the border from Belarus. In a makeshift tent town in the idyllic village of Rudninkai with its wooden houses, there are already more migrants than the local population. You come from neighboring Belarus – where ruler Alexander Lukashenko is angry about EU sanctions. He takes revenge by letting masses of refugees into the EU.

Resentment among the residents

For weeks it has been quiet for the about 500 residents in the quiet Rudninkai. The relief camp is causing a stir in the city more than 30 kilometers south of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. The Baltic EU country’s government has housed more than 700 migrants who have illegally crossed the border from Belarus to Lithuania – much to the dismay of many villagers.

«Stop Migrants in Rudninkai!» and “We say no to the illegals!” is on the protest posters hanging on the fences at the main intersection. The provisional camp is over a kilometer away in a wooded area. It is the largest reception facility in the country with a population of three million and a border with Belarus that is 680 kilometers long.

“We feel insecure,” said 80-year-old retired Teresa Zavadskaja of the German news agency on her way to the village shop. “There are now more migrants here than locals.” The store’s saleswoman and other customers make a similar statement. They fear for their safety.

Lithuania on the escape route

More than 4,100 refugees have illegally crossed the green border between Lithuania and the neighboring country since May. In the entire previous year, there were only 81 migrants. There are also people from Afghanistan in the camp. Belarusian airline Belavia flies to neighboring countries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where many people are fleeing the militant Islamist Taliban.

In Minsk, Lukashenko stated several times that his border guards would no longer prevent migrants from continuing to travel to the EU – in response to tightened Western sanctions against the ex-Soviet republic, which was isolated from the West. He complains that the EU has cut back on his country. The EU calls for border protection. “But who’s going to pay for that?” asks the 66-year-old.

Lithuania’s government, on the other hand, speaks of “hybrid warfare” against its own country and the entire European Union. The EU, whose interior ministers wanted to discuss the situation on Wednesday, accuses Lukashenko of using “refugees as weapons” against the EU. In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized Lukashenko’s actions as an “attack on all of us in the European Union”.

Criticism of the authorities

Since early August, Lithuanian border guards have been refusing migrants who want to enter the country illegally through Belarus. But the imprisoned migrants, most of whom come without passports and apply for asylum, must be taken care of. There is opposition to this in various places near the border – and criticism also of the way the authorities deal with the local population.

In Rudninkai, about 30 kilometers from the Belarusian border, villagers blocked access to the tent town, which was built on a site owned by the Interior Ministry. There was a scuffle between security forces and protesters – several people were injured. Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite later spoke of anti-state actions. The villagers were “incited” by interested parties.

Cold, alone and without appropriate clothing

The unrest among migrants in Rudninkai also caused a stir. Some 20 refugees recently escaped from the camp – and were later recaptured by the police. According to the Interior Ministry, the reason for the uprising was dissatisfaction with living conditions.

“The weather is cold. We have no clothes,” say some men sitting in a group near the camp gate. “My wife is in Germany,” one of them says in broken German. He has been in prison for 35 days. He first came by plane from Baghdad to the Belarusian capital Minsk, from there he went to the border and crossed it, the Iraqi says.

Smuggling gangs are a problem

Lithuanian media continues to report on such escape routes. There must also be smuggling gangs. For many, the destination is Germany. According to a report from the Internet portal 15min.lt, the journey from Iraq to the Federal Republic of Germany, which starts with a flight to Belarus, costs about $3,000 in total (about EUR 2,500). A question about the smuggling costs for the migrants behind the fence in Rudninkai is lost in a spontaneous demonstration. ‘Free Afghanistan’ and other slogans invoke the refugees.

Belarus is using the crisis for its own ends

State media in neighboring Belarus have been making merry use of the state of emergency in Lithuania for weeks. Lukashenko points to Lithuania and complains that the poor refugees are treated inhumanely as if they were in a “concentration camp”.

Not Belarus, but the West must take responsibility for its policies in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Everything was destroyed there. “It is understandable that migration through Belarus has also increased,” the ruler says. He doesn’t want to stop anyone. Lukashenko repeatedly claims that EU countries are happy with the workforce. In any case, there is no room in Belarus.