Lithuania Says It Faces A Migrant 'Crisis' At Border With Belarus
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Let's zoom in now on a border 400-plus miles long snaking between Belarus and neighboring Lithuania. This border has been busy recently. Migrants, many originally from Middle Eastern or African countries, have been crossing in recent weeks for the Belarus side to the Lithuanian side. Lithuania says it needs to stop and has started building a razor wire fence along that border. To talk about this, we have the foreign minister of Lithuania on the line from Vilnius, Gabrielius Landsbergis.
GABRIELIUS LANDSBERGIS: Hello.
KELLY: Describe the status of this fence and what you hope that it will do.
LANDSBERGIS: Well, currently, as of today, we have more than 2,400 people that crossed illegally during the last two months the border between Belarus and Lithuania. And it's increasingly worrying since to our knowledge, there are still a lot of people on the other side. So the barrier that we're building - well, at least it should discourage the people that the border is not open, that it's not a legal way to cross it. And part of it is actually a story about how criminal organizations or even a criminal regime of Belarus is actually using these people as a sort of a weapon against my country, against the European Union.
KELLY: Hang on. I just want to understand. Belarus, which is landlocked, which is in northern Europe - why would people go to Belarus if what they wanted to do was to come next door to you, to Lithuania?
LANDSBERGIS: Well, that's a very good question because this is actually what they are being sold - a safe trip that starts somewhere, let's say, in northern Iraq, in Irbil. Then they fly to Baghdad. Then from there they fly to Minsk. They spend several days in Minsk. And then they are taken on a minivan, on a bus to a border with Lithuania. And then they actually are shown the way through the border where it's easiest to cross. Obviously, nobody's saying that it's an illegal trip. And people are paying enormous money for that - somewhere from 1,500 up to 20,000 euros. They would like to go to Germany, to Sweden, to Austria. But since - as any member of a European country, we are obliged to keep people in as a first-accepting country.
KELLY: You've just mentioned a key part of the context here for Americans following along. Your country, Lithuania, is in the European Union. Belarus is not.
LANDSBERGIS: Yes, exactly.
KELLY: You said you believe these people are being used as weapons. What do you mean?
LANDSBERGIS: Well, because the goal of the Belarusian government is not to help the people of Iraq. It's actually to change a policy of a European country that was outspoken about the abuses that were happening in Belarus. And they don't like it, and therefore, they know, you know, which buttons they can press. And obviously, one of the most sensitive subjects in any European country or even Western country is the problem of migration.
KELLY: I don't want to lose sight of the fact that these are people at stake, human beings whose lives are on the line here. For the migrants coming to your country, for those already in your country, you're housing them. What happens to them? Will they have an opportunity to apply for asylum?
LANDSBERGIS: They are applying, but unfortunately, I don't think that this is working the way they expect it since it's very difficult for them to prove that they are actually people seeking political asylum.
KELLY: Have any received asylum in your country?
LANDSBERGIS: Not a single one. And there might be some cases. I know that they are under review, but this is not what they've probably been expecting.
KELLY: While I've got you, I want to ask about someone who fled to your country under very different circumstances - Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the pro-democracy movement there in Belarus. She has been living in exile in your country. What kind of support is your government providing either to her personally or to the broader pro-democracy movement next door?
LANDSBERGIS: On a practical terms, I have to say that Lithuania has issued more than 2,000 visas for political refugees from Belarus and Russia. I think that alone is a strong message to the regimes next door that Lithuania is serious about defense of democracy and liberty in the region, well, to say the least. We are using our - you know, the political influence that we have so that we can gather support for the democratic movement so that we can build on pressure up until the point where these countries can expect actual democratic elections.
KELLY: Gabrielius Landsbergis is the foreign minister of Lithuania, and he joined us from Vilnius.
LANDSBERGIS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.