The European Union said on August 10 that it hopes for a stabilization of the migrant situation in Lithuania after Iraq suspended flights from Baghdad to Minsk, as neighboring Latvia declared a state of emergency and Lithuania decided to erect a fence following an influx of illegal migrants entering from Belarus.
Lithuania first started to register a surge of mostly Iraqi migrants crossing the border with Belarus in July. This has been followed in recent weeks by Latvia and Poland witnessing a similar wave, prompting authorities in the EU member states to beef up the border and start pushing back illegal migrants.
Poland, the Baltic states, and EU officials say the migrant flows are being orchestrated by strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka in retaliation for EU sanctions over his government's crackdown on the country’s pro-democracy movement.
Poland says Belarus may also be sending migrants over the border in retaliation for Warsaw's decision last week to give refuge to Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya after she refused to return home from the Tokyo Olympics.
EU officials have been pressing Iraq to stem the flow of migrants, with Baghdad this week suspending Iraqi Airways flights to Minsk.
"We are pleased to see a very constructive attitude by the Iraqi partners and their constructive reaction," a spokesman for the European Commission -- the 27-member bloc's executive -- told reporters on August 10.
"We are quite concerned that Iraqi partners are aware how important this issue is for the EU and we hope that the situation will stabilize when it comes to the flights between Baghdad and Minsk," he said.
In Lithuania, parliament voted on August 10 to build a 4-meter-high metal fence topped with razor wire on 508 kilometers of the 670- kilometer border it shares with Belarus.
"Without this physical barrier, it is impossible to protect our borders, it is very clear," Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite told Reuters.
The Lithuanian parliament also voted to allow the military to patrol the border alongside frontier guards and to turn back people deemed to have crossed illegally.
Some 4,026 individuals have illegally crossed into Lithuania, a country of 2.8 million inhabitants, from Belarus this year, the Lithuanian Interior Ministry said on August 3, compared with 74 in total last year.
Latvia, which has detained 218 migrants over the August 6-9 period, mostly Iraqis, declared a three-month state of emergency on August 10 at its Belarus border, authorizing the border guards, armed forces, and police to use physical force to return illegal immigrants to the country from which they came, according to the Baltic News Service.
Currently, only border guards can patrol the 175-kilometer border with Belarus.
The Polish Border Guard said in a statement on August 9 that it had detained 349 illegal migrants crossing the Belarusian border since August 6. It said the migrants were probably from Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2020, the Border Guard detained 122 illegal migrants crossing the Belarusian border. So far this year, the number has reached nearly 900.
EU ministers are slated to discuss the Belarusian border issue at an extraordinary meeting on August 18.
In a nearly eight-hour press conference on August 9, Lukashenka struck a note of defiance against the West and opposition, denouncing international sanctions against his government.
"The illegal migration. No, we are not blackmailing anyone. We are not threatening anyone. You simply put us in such conditions that we have to react. And we are reacting, excuse us, in the best way we can," Lukashenka said.
August 9 marked the one-year anniversary of country's presidential election that extended Lukashenka's decades-long rule and sparked an unprecedented wave of protests amid allegations the vote was rigged.
Lukashenka reacted to the protests by unleashing a brutal crackdown. More than 32,000 people have been detained in an ever-widening sweep targeting the media, civil society, and any form of dissent.
Opposition leaders have been locked up or forced to flee, including Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who left for Lithuania a day after the vote that supporters say she actually won.