The European Commission’s top migration official is urging EU member states to support Lithuania as thousands of irregular migrants cross from Belarus in what Baltic defense ministers are calling a "hybrid attack."
Lithuanian and EU officials say Belarus is funneling migrants – mostly from Iraq – across the border of its Baltic neighbor to retaliate for EU support for the democratic opposition to Alyaksandr Lukashenka's repressive regime.
"The unacceptable instrumentalization of people for political purposes must stop. Our first priority must be to assist Lithuania in securing its border with Belarus," EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson wrote in a letter to the interior ministers of all EU member states.
"I call on all of you to contribute to this effort as a matter of priority," Johansson said in the letter seen by news agencies on July 29.
Lithuanian authorities reported that more than 3,000 irregular migrants have crossed the border so far this year, compared to 81 all of last year. Most of the migrants arrived in July.
The Baltic country, which shares a border of about 680 kilometers with Belarus, is a center for the Belarusian opposition led by Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Lukashenka has repeatedly threatened to allow migrants to cross into the EU in response to sanctions imposed on Minsk following a disputed presidential election last year and a subsequent crackdown.
The EU and its Western allies also slapped sanctions on Lukashenka's regime after Belarus forced a passenger flight to land in Minsk to arrest a dissident journalist and his girlfriend.
In a sign of a growing regional response, the defense ministers of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia -- the three Baltic EU and NATO members -- agreed on July 29 to better coordinate action to address the migrant crisis.
"The current situation on the border is no ordinary migration crisis, it is a hybrid war against the stability of the European Union, NATO, and particularly of the Baltic states,” Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas said during a video meeting with his Latvian and Estonian counterparts.
"Lithuania is under a hybrid attack and it constitutes a security crisis that directly affects the Baltic states and our region more broadly," Estonian Minister of Defense Kalle Laanet said.
As a first step, Estonia is sending surveillance drones and 100 kilometers of wire fencing to Lithuania, which began to erect a border fence earlier this month.
In the letter to the EU’s 27 members, Johansson said the bloc has been in contact with the Iraqi government about controlling flights to Belarus and readmitting Iraqi nationals.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on July 28 that he had held talks with Iraq's foreign minister "on how to tackle [the] increased number of Iraqi citizens irregularly crossing from Belarus into Lithuania.”
"This is an issue of concern not only for one member state but for the entire EU. We count on Iraq's support," Borrell wrote on Twitter.
Earlier this month, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis was in Baghdad to press the government to clamp down on the smuggling of Iraqi migrants to Lithuania via Minsk.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein pledged to investigate "the plan to smuggle Iraqis into Europe.”
Johansson said 35 officers from the EU's border agency, Frontex, have been deployed to Lithuania and four to EU neighbor Latvia, which also borders Belarus.
More border agents, surveillance tools, and equipment to process migrants are also being sent.
Johansson, who plans to visit Lithuania on August 1-2 for meetings, also said the commission was ready to provide 12 million euros ($14.3 million) to help meet urgent migrant reception and asylum-processing needs.
Speaking at the border on July 29, Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite said the main goal was to process migrants in order to send them back to their countries of origin as soon as possible.