VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Lithuania’s parliament on Tuesday passed new legislation aimed at curbing an influx of migrants crossing its borders that it accused neighboring Belarus of orchestrating.
In an 84-1 vote with 58 abstentions, the 141-seat Seimas passed the amendments that include a fast-track procedure enabling the speedier deportation of migrants and slashing the processing time of asylum applications from as many as several months to 10 days.
The amendments, which also prevent the free movement of migrants and restrict their rights were strongly criticized by human rights groups.
Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said these migrants aren’t fleeing either “war plague or famine but are students “in Belarus with long-term visas “in completely safe conditions.”
“They are being sent on a compulsory basis as a weapon against us. We must repel the attack,” Landsbergis said before leaving for Turkey and Iraq for talks on repatriation.
Interior minister Agne Bilotaite said ”much larger flows of migrants are very likely.”
“Our response in dealing with this crisis must be swift, dissuasive and united,” she told parliament.
In a joint statement, non-governmental organizations expressed concern that the amendments would violate human rights, permit detentions for an undetermined period of time without a court ruling and restrict NGO access to detention centers.
Bilotaite said the amendments had been vetted by jurists while Laurynas Kasciunas, a lawmaker with the government coalition, said they would help dissuade migrants from crossing into Lithuania.
“This is not a rose-strewn path, and you will have many obstacles,” Kasciunas said addressing potential migrants.
Relations between Lithuania and Belarus are tense following the August 2020 elections in Belarus, which were won by long-time President Alexander Lukashenko but have been widely condemned by the West as rigged. The vote results triggered months of protests and a harsh crackdown on the opposition by Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime.
Lithuania, which has granted refuge to Belarus opposition figures, has accused Belarusian authorities of organizing border crossings of people mainly from Iraq, other Middle Eastern nations, and Africa. The European Union’s border agency has pledged to step up its support to Lithuania to help stem the tide of migrants.
Tensions between the EU and Belarus have escalated further after Belarus diverted a passenger jet on May 23 to arrest an opposition journalist.
Lukashenko has said his country will halt cooperation with the 27-nation bloc on stemming migration, in retaliation for bruising economic sanctions the EU slapped on Belarus over the passenger jet diversion.
Lithuania, a country of 2.8 million people has already set up tent camps to accommodate the migrants and has begun erecting a fence along its border with Belarus to deter them from entering.
More than 1.700 people have been detained at Lithuania’s border with Belarus this year so far, more than a twenty-fold increase compared to all of 2020.
Follow all AP stories on global migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration
Liudas Dapkus, The Associated Press