Lithuania welcomes Belarusians as it pushes back Middle Easterners

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RUKLA, Lithuania – Emigrants hitchhiked overnight to the Dysna River, the border with their native Belarus. They thought they could wade through the freezing waters, but the spot they hastily picked turned out so deep they had to swim.

On the other side, at dawn two weeks ago, they found a house with a light on and called for the police. They fled the authoritarian regime of President Alexander G. Lukashenko and sought asylum in neighboring Lithuania, a member of the European Union. Taken to a makeshift camp at a border guard post, they joined dozens of Iraqis, Chechens and one person from Southeast Asia.

“We have been here for weeks, months,” a migrant told them, according to one of the Belarusians, Aleksandr Dobriyanik. “We know you’ll be leaving here in just a few days. “

Two migratory currents and two forms of human despair converge in the marshes and forests of northeastern Europe. There are the Iraqis and others that Mr. Lukashenko is channeling through Belarus to Lithuania and Poland, a migration crisis orchestrated by an autocrat eager to provoke the West. And then there are Belarusians fleeing Lukashenko, amid a wave of repression inside Belarus that has resulted in thousands of arrests.

Crossing from east to west, the two groups briefly share the same fate, staying together in border camps and migrant centers. But soon their lives diverge again: most Belarusians are quickly assured of staying in Lithuania and allowed to roam freely, while the rest spend months locked in cramped containers, awaiting almost certain rejection. of their asylum application.

The different treatment underscores the West’s unwavering support for Belarusian opposition – and illustrates the hard moral choices made by European countries determined to resist migration from other continents. Lithuania, a small, ethnically homogeneous nation, is at the forefront of the two waves of migrants, posing as a bulwark of the West, sheltering Belarusian dissidents while denying entry to others.

“They get mixed up and society accepts them,” Evelina Gudzinskaite, head of Lithuania’s migration department, said of Belarusians. “We’re pretty xenophobic,” she said, adding that she was half-joking, “but also pretty rational, I think.”

Lithuania has issued more than 6,700 “humanitarian” visas to Belarusians since the uprising against Lukashenko’s fraudulent re-election in 2020 sparked a crackdown in which anyone sympathetic to the opposition is a potential target. He approved 71 Belarusian asylum applications this year. The US State Department congratulated the country last week for “offering refuge to many Belarusian defenders of democracy”, including Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the leader of the opposition.

In contrast, of the 2,639 asylum applications in Lithuania processed by non-Belarusians since the influx began, said Ms. Gudzinskaite, only 10 have been accepted. Most of the arrivals took place before August, when Lithuania began blocking entry into the country at unofficial crossings, even for asylum seekers – a policy of “refoulements” widely criticized by refugee groups. defense of human rights.

Migrants have been prevented from entering the country some 7,000 times since August, according to the Lithuanian border guard service. But the Belarusians are not pushed back; when caught entering the country illegally, they are allowed to stay and seek asylum, said service commander Rustamas Liubajevas.

“It’s a totally different situation from arriving migrants,” General Liubajevas said. “In many cases, these people are just looking for a better life. “

Migrant advocates argue that the distinction between economic migrants and refugees is often wrong, that many people traveling through Belarus are fleeing failed states and violence, and should benefit from international protection. But even Caritas, a Roman Catholic charity that supports detained migrants, said many couldn’t.

“The big problem with this migrant crisis is that among these migrants, there are a lot of economic migrants, and they are being used for political purposes,” said Deimante Bukeikaite, Secretary General of Caritas in Lithuania.

This summer, Lukashenko’s government added flights from Middle Eastern destinations and eased visa requirements in what appeared to be a calculated effort to attract migrants who would then seek entry into neighboring countries of the United States. ‘EU, Lithuania, Poland and Latvia. Most are looking to travel to countries further west, such as Germany.

Lithuania, a two-hour drive from the Belarusian capital Minsk, has been a popular destination, although in recent weeks, Western officials said, Belarus has directed most of the migrants to Poland, where their clashes with Polish police made headlines around the world.

Amid the rush of migration, the paths of Belarusians and other migrants intersect in detention centers across Lithuania. In a migrant camp, a Syrian barber told his Belarusian tentmate that his family had spent their savings to travel to Europe and now had “no way of getting back.” Mr. Dobriyanik met men fleeing their home region of Chechnya in Russia, who railed against President Vladimir V. Putin.

Lithuania, with a population of less than three million, has struggled to cope with the thousands of new arrivals, and this month the government declared a state of emergency. Lithuanian leaders called the migrants a “hybrid weapon” wielded by Lukashenko to “attack the democratic world”.

Eyad, a 25-year-old Syrian who moved from Belarus to Lithuania in July, said he didn’t see himself that way. “On Facebook, it is written that refugees are weapons,” he said in an interview at a migrant center in Rukla, central Lithuania. “But that doesn’t mean that’s who I am.”

Eyad, who asked that his last name not be released to protect his parents in Syria, fled that country to Russia in 2018. Frustrated at being an undocumented immigrant in Moscow, where he said he worked in factories and shawarma stalls, Eyad read on Facebook over the summer that Mr Lukashenko had opened his country’s borders with the EU

He and two Syrian compatriots found a driver to take them to Minsk. Eyad then studied satellite imagery to find what appeared to be a porous place on the Belarus-Lithuanian border, took a taxi from Minsk, and drove across.

“It was lucky for me,” he said.

Eyad is one of the handful of non-Belarusians whose asylum claims have been approved. He was transferred a few weeks ago from a migrant center to a former prison in central Rukla, where more than 100 blue, gray and white containers house more than 700 migrants.

When Andrei Susha, a Belarusian, arrived at the Rukla center in April, it contained less than 100 people. Mr Susha, who faces jail for derogatory online posts about authorities, made one of Belarus’ most daring escapes this year: after being summoned to the police station, he seized his motorized paraglider , went to a field about 10 miles from the border, and took off.

He flew over the treetops to evade detection, confirmed he was in Lithuania when the language of road signs changed, and went as far as his fuel could take him into the country. After surrendering, he stayed in the Rukla center because he had no money to go elsewhere.

In the summer, the center started to fill up. Mr. Susha’s bedroom, which initially housed only himself and a roommate, housed seven people in August, the beds stacked on top of each other. Some of his new neighbors looked like real refugees: the Uyghurs of China, the Kurds of Turkey, the Sikhs of Afghanistan, the Muslims of Burma.

“My nerves gave out,” Mr. Susha said. “The conditions were unbearable.

In August, he managed to find a room to rent in the nearby town of Kaunas and moved out.

Mr Susha’s asylum claim was approved last week – a process that has been delayed for many Belarusians due to the crush of claimants. In the center of Rukla, several Eritreans were among the small group of non-Belarusian migrants who were granted asylum.

A 21-year-old woman said she first fled to Ethiopia to avoid unlimited military service in Eritrea, then flew to Belarus as civil war erupted in Ethiopia. The woman, who did not want her name used because she feared for her family in Eritrea, stayed in Belarus for months until she found a way to enter Lithuania.

“We fled from a dictatorial government,” she said, “and we were stuck in a dictatorial government. “

Tomas Dapkus contributed reporting.


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