BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s top migration official is urging member countries to help Lithuania beef up surveillance on its border with Belarus and not to give in to political pressure from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Lithuania’s border guard service said it detained 171 people caught crossing in from Belarus on Tuesday night, the largest number in a single day this year. It brought the total number of migrants detained so far this year to 3,027.
The border service said the migrants, all from Iraq, were to be placed in one of Lithuania’s already crowded immigration detention centers.
Movements of people across the border have spiked dramatically since the EU imposed sanctions this year on more Belarus government officials.
Once dubbed Europe’s last dictator, Lukashenko ordered a crackdown on opponents and protesters since he was named the winner of a sixth term last August in a vote that the West denounced as rigged. His main election challenger fled to Lithuania.
“The unacceptable instrumentalization of people for political purposes must stop. Our first priority must be to assist Lithuania in security its border with Belarus,” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson wrote to Lithuania’s 26 partner countries in a letter seen Thursday by The Associated Press.
“I call on all of you to contribute to this effort as a matter of priority,” Johansson said.
She said 35 officers from the EU's border and coast guard agency, Frontex, have now been deployed to Lithuania and four to EU neighbor Latvia, which also borders Belarus. More workers are due to be sent to help with border surveillance. Frontex is also providing equipment, including fingerprint scanners.
Johansson said the commission stands ready to provide 12 million euros ($14.3 million) to help meet urgent migrant reception and asylum processing needs, and that Lithuania can also benefit from other material aid including temporary shelter from the EU’s civil protection mechanism.
A commission team is to visit Lithuania to study ways to boost surveillance along its entire border with Belarus.
Lithuanian authorities believe most of the people attempting to enter the country traveled to the Belarus capital of Minsk on one of the four weekly flights from Iraq, which carry up to 500 passengers each.
In the letter, sent Wednesday, Johansson said the EU has been in contact with the Iraqi government “to better control flights to Belarus and readmit Iraqi nationals who want to return voluntarily or have no right to international protection.”
Follow all AP stories on global migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration.
Lorne Cook, The Associated Press