VYDENIAI, Lithuania — This small village of dilapidated houses surrounded by fields and forests 5 kilometers from the Belarusian border is an unlikely gateway to the European Union.
But that’s what it’s become for about 150 people housed in an abandoned school encircled by a flimsy metal fence in the center of the village of 400. They are part of a wave of would-be asylum seekers sent into Lithuania by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who has encouraged people to fly to Minsk from the Middle East and then cross the borders with Lithuania, Latvia or Poland.
Those countries have beefed up their frontiers with border guards, troops and fences, bolstered by policies to turn back migrants. It’s a reaction to what EU officials call a “hybrid war” waged by Lukashenko in retaliation for sanctions imposed on Belarus.
Ylva Johansson, the migration commissioner, said last week that migrants in the region are “part of the aggression of Lukashenko toward Poland, Lithuania and Latvia with the aim to destabilize the E.U.”
No open arms
Those who have made it into Lithuania face a lukewarm welcome; the country is offering migrants tickets and €300 in pocket money if they’ll agree to go home. There aren’t many takers.
“Even if the offer was higher, I would not go back. This is my final decision,” said Aman Mehari, a 16-year-old from Eritrea. “I saw my friends dying in front of my eyes. How I can go back to where people want to kill me?”
He said he had been forced to flee from Eritrea to Ethiopia, and then flew to Belarus claiming to be a student to avoid being recruited to fight in a civil conflict in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray.
“They [immigration officials] have told us that if our asylum applications are rejected, Lithuania will send us back forcibly,” Mehari said. “If I get sent back to my country, I face five to six years in prison. I will not stay alive if I spend five years in prison. In prison, they beat you, they don’t provide you with enough food.”
Lithuania is very reluctant to approve asylum petitions.
According to Arnoldas Abramavičius, Lithuania’s vice interior minister, out of 4,000 migrants who arrived from Belarus since the start of this year, only around half have been able to file asylum applications. About 200 such applications have already been rejected.
“From the artificially created irregular migratory flow, no one has been granted asylum so far,” Abramavičius told POLITICO.
“However, there are 83 persons from Afghanistan who arrived in late May and early June, when the country was not affected [by the Taliban’s seizure of power]. Now that we have seen the televised pictures [from Afghanistan], asylum status will probably be granted to them,” he said.
That’s bad news for the mainly African migrants in Vydeniai.
“I ran away from Guinea because I was in prison there for two months. If I get back, I will be imprisoned again,” said Berry Umar, 19, explaining that the reason for his jailing was “political.”
A 27-year-old Nigerian, who declined to provide his name, was visibly angry after meeting with officials. “They keep talking to us about fingerprints … But they don’t want to listen to our stories.”
Rustamas Liubajevas, the head of Lithuania’s border service, believes that not many migrants will want to accept a voluntary return as many want to continue their trip deeper into the EU, despite being told that under European rules they have to file an asylum application in Lithuania.
“In many cases, people have been misled by the organizers [of the traffic through the border with Lithuania] — the Lukashenko regime that uses them as a tool, as a weapon to put pressure at the EU,” he said. “They really believe that in a day or two they will be able to continue their journey.”
The tougher border procedures are having an impact.
Since Lithuania allowed border guards to force most migrants back into Belarus in early August, only around 80 have been detained. In July alone, Lithuania reported a record 2,900 arrivals.
With the influx declining, the government is beginning to focus on the people already in the country. Many are still living in hastily built tent camps, abandoned school buildings and other temporary shelters in rural areas. The authorities are also dealing with a backlog of paperwork.
“Our migration control, asylum procedures and accommodation systems were not prepared for such a flow. Our capacities were quite limited,” Liubajevas said. “Currently, this is the main challenge for us.”
Over the past two weeks, special groups of immigration officials have been visiting migrant shelters to collect personal information, process biometric data, and in some cases to accept asylum applications, as well as to persuade people to take the offer to go home.
But the money that Lithuania is offering is “not really comparable” to the amounts migrants have already spent on flying to Minsk and then moving on to Lithuania, Liubajevas said.
The crackdown in Lithuania, Latvia and Poland is likely to make it much more difficult for irregular migrants to cross from Belarus, but the tensions with Minsk are unlikely to die down anytime soon.
Liubajevas said Lithuania “should keep in mind” the upcoming large-scale Russian-Belarusian Zapad war games, which are scheduled for September on Belarusian territory.
“Usually, during such military exercises there is a lot of activity on the border. That was exactly the case during similar drills in 2017,” he said. “We should also keep in mind that Russian troops are actively involved in these exercises.”
Lukashenko, in power since 1994 and grimly hanging on despite a wave of protests following last year’s fraudulent presidential election, is showing no sign of giving up his fight to stay.
“I don’t know what else he might do. Lukashenko is always a threat — some surprises are always possible,” Abramavičius said. “The best solution for the whole of European society is democracy in Belarus. That’s the key issue.”