Latvia and Lithuania move to stop migrants coming via Belarus

Lithuanian army soldiers install razor wire on the border with Belarus in Druskininkai, Lithuania

Latvia and Lithuania took steps on Tuesday to protect their borders from migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia they say Belarus is encouraging to cross into the European Union in retaliation against sanctions imposed by Brussels.

Rising numbers of migrants have in recent weeks reached Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, which accuse Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko using the issue to put pressure on the EU to reverse sanctions.

The Latvian government declared a state of emergency in border areas, a measure which allows its military and police to support border guards.

The border guard, armed forces and police will be authorised to instruct illegal immigrants to return to the country they came from, and use physical force if an illegal immigrant ignores their instructions, the Baltic News Service (BNS) said.

The state of emergency runs from Wednesday until Nov. 10 and requires the approval of parliament, which is expected on Thursday.

Some 283 individuals have been detained for illegally crossing into Latvia from Belarus since Aug. 6, BNS said, bringing the total for the year to 343 people.

In neighbouring Lithuania, parliament was debating whether to build a four-metre (13 feet) metal fence topped with razor wire on 508 km (316 miles) of the 670 km border it shares with Belarus, BNS reported, citing the Lithuanian Border Guard.

“Without this physical barrier, it is impossible to protect our borders, it is very clear,” Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite told Reuters.

The Lithuanian parliament will also debate whether to allow the military to patrol the border and restrict asylum-seekers to making applications only at locations such as border checkpoints or embassies, rather than anywhere on Lithuanian territory.

Currently only frontier guards are allowed to patrol the border.

So far this year 4,026 individuals have illegally crossed into Lithuania, a country of 2.8 million, from Belarus, the Lithuanian interior ministry said last week, compared with 74 in total in 2020.

Most come from Iraq, followed by the Republic of Congo and Cameroon, according to the Lithuanian Border Guard. Lithuania says Belarus allows these individuals to reach the Lithuanian border after they have flown to the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

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