The European Commission on Monday slammed the arrival of migrants in Lithuania as a Belarusian “act of aggression” and promised to ramp up its support for Vilnius.
The EU blames Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko for orchestrating a migration crisis in neighbouring country Lithuania.
He is alleged to have set up additional flights from Iraq to Belarusian capital Minsk and then letting migrants cross the border without documents.
“This is not primarily a migration crisis,” European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson told reporters in Vilnius. “This is an act of aggression.”
Lukashenko has threatened to let migrants cross over into EU territory in response to sanctions that the bloc had slapped on the country.
The bloc has imposed punitive measures on Belarusian officials and sectors for undermining democracy.
Lithuanian authorities have reported a sharp increase in irregular arrivals in its territory from neighbouring Belarus over recent months.
Within one day, almost 200 people crossed the border earlier this week, bringing the total number of apprehended migrants this year to 3,500 – compared to 81 in the whole of last year. Most of them have applied for asylum.
Despite EU assistance, the situation continued to deteriorate, Johansson said. “This is totally unacceptable,” she said. “We have to make clear that there is no free access to the EU territory.”
To do so, the bloc’s border agency Frontex was setting up a team of more than 100 border guards in Lithuania, she said.
“It’s important to see that … many of those migrants coming are probably not refugees,” Johansson said, arguing that they had to be sent back to their country of origin quickly.
This would include additional financial support for the country, she said without naming a sum.
“The funds are under my responsibility [but they] also have limitations,” she said, pointing to working within the constraints of approval by the EU governments and parliament.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said her country needed more officers to patrol the border and process asylum requests, as well as interpreters.
Regardless of EU assistance, however, she said her country was going to expand a “physical border” at the frontier with Belarus, “starting with the most vulnerable sections but also including the entire eastern border of the European Union.”
The country shares a nearly 680-kilometre border with Belarus.
Tensions between the EU and Belarus are running high due to the ongoing repression of civil society and peaceful protests that were unleashed a year ago after disputed elections.
Internationally, Lithuania is one of the biggest supporters of the Belarusian democracy movement.