Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN
Lithuania might be facing a major threat soon. Although it is coming from the East, behind it stands not the bellicose Russia, but thousands of illegal migrants.
If the European Union manages to put somehow a stop to the human torrent in the South, then it can roll to Lithuania through Ukraine’s porous Belarusian border and Latvia. The latter, Lithuanian officials admit, is becoming «an increasing concern.»
Will illegal immigrants make it to Baltics?
«The protection of Latvian borders is a matter of Latvia, but we can state that the numbers of contraband goods and illegal immigrants from the country is on the rise. Last year, part of smuggled goods from Latvia accounted for 14,2 percent in the total contraband and 45 percent of all illegal migrants in 2015 also came from Latvia. The figures are expected to rise this year,» Giedrius Mišutis, the spokesman for Lithuania’s State Border Guard Service, told BNN.
But is the change in migrants’ pathways real? A knowledgeable source in Lithuania’s Ministry of Interior Affairs, who spoke to Delfi.lt on the condition of anonymity, insists that it is very real and moreover: Lithuania is unprepared for it, he says.
«If the European Union manages to partly reign in the illegitimate migration flows from Turkey to Greece and from Libya to Italy, the new ways of illegal migration can open up through Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. In this case, the Baltic States can become corridors for the crowds of Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and others,» the source claims.
Lithuania is holding border drills
To get better prepared for possible challenges to the EU easternmost borders, Lithuania’s Interior Ministry has started this week exercises simulating an unexpected breach of the border security and getting it swiftly under control. The high-ranking Interior ministry official, however, insists that is not enough.
«I don’t say we should get panicky, but the preparations for that kind scenario should be in a full swing. The examples of Norway and Finland have revealed that Syrian and Afghan immigrants brave up to cross the borders even after spending a couple of years in Russia. Russia has always been the main supplier of illegal immigrants. Nearly all of them reach the Lithuanian borders from there- either through Belarus, Estonia or Latvia. If the border is tightened up at one strip, they will look for loose stretches elsewhere,» the Lithuanian official warned.
Border guards have to be ready for anything
Speaking of the border exercises, Saulius Skvernelis, the Lithuanian Interior minister, admitted they are in response to the situation in the East, which, in the minister’s words, will possibly get «hotter.»
«Lithuanian border guards have to be able to hold in a lot bigger flow of possible immigrants and smugglers. All exercises we hold are aimed at all kinds of possible scenarios,” Skvernelis told. «If the pressure (at the Lithuanian borders) were as if that at the Greek border, we must be able to cope with it and possess all the means for that.»
The minister admitted that the border drills are also partly related to the stepped up surveillance of the Norwegian-Russia and Finnish-Russian borders, which saw an increased number of illegitimate crossings lately.
Russia «weaponizes» immigrants?
Finnish media has reported that secret Russian services, like FST, instigate and organize illegitimate migration through the northeastern border. A similar situation was simultaneously observed at the Norwegian and Russian border. In 2015, around 5500 migrants reportedly sneaked into Norway from Russia. As part of them had previously lived legally in Russia, Norway started to send them back to Russia, but met the latter’s resistance.
«We are aware of the situation. Just five years ago, nobody could predict that Europe would have to deal with that scope of illegal immigration. We have to be prepared. The border exercises simulate a remote possibility of incontrollable influx of migrants at the Lithuanian borders. But it does not mean, however, that the threat is here and now,» Elvinas Jankevičius, the deputy Interior minister, says.
According to him, there is «a concern», however, that with the pathways of illegal migration under control at the EU southern borders, the new ones will emerge elsewhere, and the Baltics is not safe.
Latvian-Russian border protection in question
The Hungarian-Ukrainian and Latvian-Russian borders are of particular uneasiness for Lithuanian officials.
As both Lithuania and Latvia belong to the Schengen zone, the non-existent border between the two neigbours, is getting increasingly more attractive for many smugglers and illegal immigrants, too.
«Many would rather not to say it, but we wish that the Latvians guarded their borders way more painstakingly,» said the undisclosed Lithuanian official.
After Russia began war against Ukraine and after an Estonian border guard was kidnapped at the Estonian-Russian border, Estonia announced about the plan to erect a 2,5-metre high fence on the 136-kilometre border with Russia, as well as installing special buoys in the Peipus-Pskov Lake.
Latvia has also announced intention to build a fence on its 214-kilometre border with Russia.
Both countries will step up border surveillance
Faced with the prospects of higher illegal immigration, Lithuanian officials say, Lithuania and Latvia are considering renewing the control of the joint border.
«We are talking about the formula, where, one day, Lithuanians would keep a keener eye on it and, the other day, the Latvians would take over the surveillance. As the European Union is dealing with huge illegal immigration, perhaps as soon as this summer we will likely see refugees not only from the war-ravaged Iraq and Syria, but also from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and other countries trying to cross the border,» the Lithuanian Interior ministry representative said.
Politics dominates Belarusian-Lithuanian border control
The Lithuanian border with Belarus is protected «decently», the official says, but the quality depends on the political relations with the neighbour.
«When here’s a thaw in the relations, then Belarusians do a good work catching illegal border crossers. When the relations are good, they accept them when we return them held up on this side of the border. But when the relations are rocky, then they start wriggling out,» the source related.
According to the knowledgeable source, illegal border trespassers apprehended on the Lithuanian side are accepted by Belarus only when the borders guards on both sides produce evidence of the illegitimate crossing.
«But since the agreement is unofficial, the whole process depends on the Belarusian colleagues’ mood. Therefore, we have a situation, where we can provide video evidence, but the colleagues on the other side of the border insist they have not spotted any traces of the trespassers. Such communication makes things very complicated,» the official within Lithuania’s State Border Guard Service underlined.
EU integration on halt for years to come
Asked about the probability of illegal migrants’ influx at the Lithuanian borders, Arvydas Anušauskas, a member of the Lithuanian Parliament’s (Seimas) Committee ob National Defense and Security, told BNN that Lithuania «constantly» deals with illegal immigration from the East.
«But unlike Greece, Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, the countries in the East, control their borders more strictly. I don’t think that the flows of illegal migrants through the borders are possible unless the countries’ state structures deliberately let the crowds of illegal immigrants stream to the EU eastern borders, i.e. the Baltic countries,» the MP underlined. «The risk is there.»
Calling migrant crisis «a huge challenge for the European Union», Anušauskas believes that any further integration of the Union has been out of question for many years to come.
«I think the European Union will remain the way it is now, but the issue of migration is a big splinter in the member states’ positions (on the issue). I think that, addressing it, the European Commission should be working along with the countries in the East, too,» the parliamentarian believes.