Border guards in EU-member Lithuania have begun turning back illegal migrants attempting to enter the country from neighboring Belarus, as Brussels expressed concerns about Minsk using migrants as a political instrument.
Some 180 migrants, most of them Iraqi citizens, were directed back to Belarus on August 3 on orders from the Lithuanian Interior Ministry, which authorized border guards to use force if necessary.
"Anyone who tries to enter Lithuanian territory illegally will be refused entry and directed to the nearest operational international border control point," Border Guard Service head Rustamas Liubajevas told reporters.
Migrants will be able to apply for asylum legally at the border stations or at diplomatic missions. Liubajevas said that no force was used in sending the migrants back to Belarus on August 3.
The development comes amid a surge in illegal crossings from Belarus that Lithuanian and European officials say are being orchestrated by strongman leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka in retaliation for EU sanctions over his government's crackdown on the political opposition following Belarus's presidential election nearly a year ago, widely considered to be fraudulent.
"The whole situation at the Belarusian-Lithuanian border is of concern to the EU," Adalbert Jahnz, the European Commission's spokesman for migration, home affairs, and citizenship, said in Brussels on August 3.
"We have repeatedly rejected the instrumentalization of migrants by the Belarusian regime," he said.
Jahnz said that the European Commission is working with the Iraqi authorities regarding increased flights from Iraq to Belarus that are believed to be carrying many of the Iraqi citizens crossing into the European Union.
Jahnz also said the commission sees the implementation of proposed restrictions on Iraq and other countries regarding the readmission of migrants as key to resolving the situation on the Belarusian-Lithuanian border.
In announcing Lithuania's decision to authorize the use of force on August 3, Deputy Interior Minister Arnoldas Abramavicius told reporters that the measure "depends on the circumstances," including the possibility that border guards "will face aggression" from migrants.
The announcement came one day after a record 287 migrants crossed from Belarus as EU Commissioner of Home Affairs Yiva Johansson visited Lithuania to help tackle the crisis.
“This is a provocation of the Lukashenka regime," Johansson said in Lithuania, where the European Union pledged millions of euros in assistance to help Vilnius address the problem. "We must show that there is no free access to EU territory."
More than 4,000 migrants have been detained by Lithuanian authorities so far this year, officials say, compared to a total of 81 in 2020. The 679-kilometer Lithuanian-Belarusian border is mostly without physical barriers.
More than two-thirds of them are Iraqi nationals who appear to have arrived in Minsk from increased direct flights from Baghdad.
Belarus is said to be preparing more direct flights from Al-Basra and two other Iraqi cities.