DRUSKININKAI, Lithuania — Migrants from Iraq and Africa have faced rapacious traffickers and perilous land and sea crossings as they tried to make their way to the European Union to seek asylum.
Now some are finding themselves caught in a geopolitical battle between the European Union and Belarus’s strongman, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, which has intensified since his government forced down an international flight to drag off a young opposition activist, drawing worldwide condemnation — and E.U. sanctions.
Those battle lines appear to have been drawn at the Belarusian-Lithuanian border in recent weeks, as the number of migrants crossing into Lithuania, a member of the European Union, from Belarus has soared.
Lithuanian officials accuse Mr. Lukashenko of encouraging the migrants to cross the border, using them as “hybrid weapons.” In response, Lithuania is building a border fence as quickly as it can and just passed a law to fast-track asylum claims.
Migrants at a camp that has been rapidly set up in the quaint Lithuanian spa town of Druskininkai seemed confused when asked if they knew the government of the territory they had just entered considered them unwitting weapons in a geopolitical battle.
“I have no idea what is going on between Belarus and Lithuania,” said a young man who gave his name as Collins and said he was from Nigeria. “But I know the E.U. is going to protect us. Right?”
However, Lithuania appears to be taking an increasingly tough line against arriving migrants, whose numbers have shot up in recent months.
Of the 118 migrants whose cases have been processed this year, none has received asylum, according to the Interior Ministry’s department for migration. And last week, the Lithuanian parliament passed, almost unanimously, a law fast-tracking asylum procedures to 10 days, allowing the authorities to process and return migrants faster, and legalizing detention for migrants for up to six months without a court order.
The camp in Druskininkai, with tents and rudimentary showers to house the migrants, was set up this month but is already at capacity, said Cmdr. Andrius Beloruchkinas, the regional border chief. The Lithuanian army has also started laying loops of concertina wire for what will eventually become a formidable barrier along the 422-mile border.
Lithuanian suspicions about the reasons for the new influx of migrants have been fueled by a veiled threat Mr. Lukashenko made after the European Union initiated new sanctions against Belarus as punishment for forcing down a European passenger jet carrying the Belarusian dissident in late May.
- Belarus in the spotlight. The forced landing of a commercial flight on Sunday, is being seen by several countries as a state hijacking called for by its strongman president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.
- Election results and protest. It came less than a year after Belarusians were met with a violent police crackdown when they protested the results of an election that many Western governments derided as a sham.
- Forced plane landing. The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was diverted to Minsk with the goal of detaining Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old dissident journalist.
- Who is Roman Protasevich? In a video released by the government, Mr. Protasevich confessed to taking part in organizing “mass unrest” last year, but friends say the confession was made under duress.
“We used to catch migrants in droves here — now, forget it, you will be catching them yourselves,” he told European Union leaders.
And now that threat appears to be coming true.
Just eight migrants arrived in March, with the number jumping to 77 in May. But in June, 473 asylum seekers crossed over, and more than 1,130 in the first half of July.
“The Belarusian regime is using refugees, people from Iraq and other countries against Lithuania, against Europe as a hybrid weapon,” Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said in a phone interview. “If people are used as a weapon against Lithuania, then a barrier can be used as a defense line,” he said.
Lithuanians also believe their country is being targeted because it hosts the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Vilnius after claiming to win the presidential election in Belarus last August. Ms. Tikhanovskaya and members of her team were this month granted diplomatic status as the “Belarusian Democracy Representative Office.”
Laurynas Kasciunas, the chairman of the parliament’s defense committee, said Belarus had stopped answering a hotline that was used for years by border guards from both countries, and that they stopped implementing their obligations to accept returned migrants.
Belarus did not respond to requests for comment, and has publicly denied the charges leveled against it by Lithuania. In an interview with Sky News Arabia TV, Mr. Lukashenko said Belarus was ready to help deal with the crisis, “but not free of charge.”
He added: “If you want us to help you, you do not throw a noose around our neck,” in an apparent allusion to the E.U. sanctions.
Lithuania has also been turning to Hungary, which sees itself as an antidote to the liberal policies of the European Union, as a model for successful border management.
Its border plans are loosely based on a controversial wall Hungary built on its southern border with Serbia in 2015 after a wave of migrants traveled from Turkey through the Balkans in the hopes of reaching Western Europe.
In mid-June, Mr. Kasciunas made a study visit to the Hungarian border, and became the first local politician to advocate that Lithuania follow a similar model.
Most of the migrants arriving in Lithuania say they are from Iraq, with the majority identifying as Kurds. The next largest groups were from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Guinea, Iran and Syria.
Now that they have made it to Lithuania, many are worrying about their futures.
“Is this prison, or is this a camp?” a 28-year-old Iraqi who gave his name as Birhat asked outside one of the army tents that had been hastily erected in Druskininkai.
Birhat and others gathered around him had similar stories of how they got to Lithuania. Some said they found groups on Facebook that informed them they could fly to the Belarusian capital, Minsk, from Baghdad, get a visa upon arrival and then make their way with ease to the Lithuanian border. Birhat was apprehended a week ago by border guards.
The Lithuanian government believes that the travel is being encouraged by Mr. Lukashenko’s regime, though Belarusian officials have denied explicit involvement. Mr. Landsbergis said that Belarus began issuing tourist visas to Iraqis upon arrival several months ago. A state-owned travel agency, Centrkurort, works with local partners in Iraq and elsewhere to organize flights for migrants, according to Mr. Landsbergis.
Until early this month, a narrow canal was the only border between Lithuania and Belarus, two former Soviet countries.
But the new barrier that will separate them is rapidly taking shape.
“Tomorrow we will lay another quarter of a mile of this razor wire in this unbearable heat,” said Commander Beloruchkinas, detailing the plan to complete the fence in the next two months.
According to the government’s plans, the concertina wire will eventually be buttressed by a second parallel, taller fence, with equipment and technology at a cost of 41 million euros (about $48 million).
“This is a fence not against the free world but against a leader who wants to destroy the free world,” Mr. Kasciunas said in an interview in Lithuania’s parliament.
“When Belarus will be a democratic regime, we can tear it down,” he said, referring to the fence. “But for now, this could only be the start of a new migrant wave,” he added. “We are determined not to open a new route for migrants to Europe.”
Mr. Kasciunas was careful to differentiate Lithuania’s approach from Hungary’s, which has been criticized for its practice of pushing back refugees to Serbia, depriving migrants of food, and effectively prohibiting would-be asylum seekers from asking for protection at the border.
While Hungary’s border wall was heavily criticized in Brussels and by human rights groups, European Union leaders have supported Lithuania’s government in its efforts.
“Here we see indeed a pattern, a politically motivated pattern,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said in early July referring to Belarus. “And the European Commission and the European Union stand by your side in these difficult times.”
She promised emergency funding, and the European Union border agency, Frontex, has dispatched a mission to assist Lithuania.
Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat, suggested last week that Belarus could be subject to further sanctions. “To use migrants as a weapon, pushing people against borders, is unacceptable,” he said.
Still, human rights groups have raised concerns that Lithuania’s new asylum law could result in people with legitimate claims being denied.
Egle Samuchovaite, the program director at the Lithuanian Red Cross, said some of the elements of the law appear to violate E.U. standards.
“Under this system, some people with pretty reasonable grounds can be returned back to their countries,” she said.
Tomas Dapkus contributed reporting from Vilnius, and Ivan Nechepurenko from Moscow.