Parliament in Lithuania has approved the mass detention of asylum seekers amid a rise in numbers crossing the border with Belarus that Vilnius says is being organized by Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government to punish the Baltic nation for its vocal support of Belarus’s democratic opposition.
Some 84 members of the 141-seat parliament voted on July 13 to pass the law, brushing aside protests from the Red Cross and other nongovernmental organizations saying it violates Lithuania's international obligations and migrants' rights.
Vilnius says Lukashenka's regime is trying to pressure the 27-nation bloc in response to the sanctions it imposed following the forced diversion of a Ryanair commercial flight to Belarus to arrest an opposition blogger and his girlfriend.
On July 12, the European Union's top diplomat suggested that Lukashenka could face further sanctions over the surge in illegal migrants crossing from Belarus into Lithuania.
At a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell agreed that Minsk was using migrants as a "weapon" in its dispute with the bloc.
"We need to be very strict with the regimes that are using these sorts of weapons, first of all with sanctions," Landsbergis said.
Without providing evidence, Lithuanian EU lawmaker Rasa Jukneviciene told the July 12 meeting that Belarus and Russia were behind human smuggling networks that were being aided by Iran to get people to the Lithuanian border.
Belarus and Russia have rejected such accusations.
Lithuania has been one of the staunchest critics of Lukashenka, calling for a robust EU response against his regime. On July 5, Lithuania granted the Belarusian democratic opposition led by Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya official status in the EU country.
"When refugees are used as a political weapon...I will talk to my colleagues in order for the European Union to have a common strategy," Landsbergis said as he arrived in Brussels.
Last week, Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said Belarus had been offering migrants flights to Minsk, citing documents found on at least one migrant who had reached Vilnius.
Borrell said after the meeting that the European Union should consider expanding the economic sanctions that were imposed on Belarus last month.
"To use migrants as a weapon, pushing people against the borders, is unacceptable," Borrell said.
Hundreds of people have crossed into Lithuania since Lukashenka said in May that his country would no longer prevent migrants from crossing its western border into the EU.
The European Union's border guard agency, Frontex, said on July 12 that it will send additional personnel to conduct interviews with migrants to gather information on criminal networks involved in the flow of people, while Vilnius said last week that it had started the construction of a 550-kilometer razor wire barrier on its border with Belarus.
"The situation at Lithuania's border with Belarus remains worrying. I have decided to send a rapid border intervention to Lithuania to strengthen EU’s external border," Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri said in a statement.
In the first week of July, Lithuanian authorities recorded more than 800 illegal crossings at its border -- much of which runs along heavily wooded areas -- with Belarus, according to Frontex.
Separately, Lithuania announced on July 12 that it will open a new camp in the town of Dieveniskes on its southeastern border with Belarus to house 500 illegal migrants.
Dieveniskes is situated in a pocket of Lithuanian territory that is almost completely surrounded by Belarus. It is connected to the rest of the country by a 2.5 kilometer-wide isthmus.