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EU to aid Lithuania amid swelling migrant flows from Belarus

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — European Union officials on Monday pledged millions of euros to Lithuania to help it tackle a migrant crisis that it blames on the government of neighboring Belarus and its authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko.

Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner of Home Affairs arrived in Lithuania on Sunday, a day on which a record 287 people walked into the EU territory from neighboring Belarus — more than three times as many as in the whole of last year.

“This is a provocation of the Lukashenko regime. We must show that there is no free access to EU territory,” Johansson said.

“Lithuania, the EU, the Schengen states must prevent illegal access to this area. That is why we, the whole EU, support Lithuania to defend our common external border with Belarus” Johansson told reporters.

So far this year, 3,832 migrants have been detained in Lithuania. That compares with 81 for the whole of 2020. More than two-thirds of the arrivals are Iraqi citizens. Iraqi airlines have increased flights from Baghdad to Minsk from two to four a week from this month and are also starting flights from Basra, Irbil and Sulaymaniyah.

Lithuania has accused Belarusian authorities of organizing the border crossings. It says the influx is an act of retaliation by Lukashenko. Since his 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, and his main election challenger fled to Lithuania.

The Lithuanian state border guard service announced Monday that its capacity to accommodate new immigrants has reached its limit and urged the government to relocate people to other facilities.

“We have managed this until now, but I must admit we have reached the limit of our possibilities” said director of the service Rustamas Liubajevas.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte expressed hope the European Commission will be able to handle the rapidly deteriorating situation. “The first task is to reduce the potential of the flow itself. The biggest expectation here is for the EU to be able to use its negotiating position with the Iraqi government” Simonyte told reporters.

Johansson promised Lithuania would not be left alone. “I will send a delegation that will spend a few days here to discuss in detail the possibility of funding a good border protection system that includes monitoring and protection against illegal migrants,” she said, adding that 20-30 million euros will be allocated to this purpose by 2022.

The Lithuania government wants to build a physical barrier with Belarus, which it estimates will cost more than 100 million euros.

“We will eventually build it no matter how much aid is sent by the EU. The border must be protected” Simonyte said.

Liudas Dapkus, The Associated Press