Vilnius decides how to fight back against the usurper.
"Laba diena. Šiandien mes turime puiki halva iš Homso" - "Good afternoon. Today we have great halva from Homs." The seller speaks fluent Lithuanian, but with a slightly unusual accent. Ahmad (let's call him that) - from the destroyed by the artillery of Bashar al-Assad Aleppo. He moved to Lithuania via Turkey a few years ago, writes dw.com.
Today, in his shop on one of the narrow streets of old Vilnius, you can really buy the very famous halva from the city of Homs, makdus (eggplant with nuts in spicy oil), hummus, and other goods from the Middle East, including from the very Syria. Deliveries through Turkey and Germany have been established, the younger children - girls - go to school. The elders help with the trade. Ahmad is pleased and intends to stay in Lithuania for a long time.
The border with Belarus is not secure
The buyers of halva and hummus in his store are not only Arabs living in Vilnius (there are not many of them in Lithuania) but also Lithuanians. For them, spicy Middle Eastern cuisine is not yet as familiar as for residents of many other countries of the European Union, where millions of immigrants from Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, and North Africa have settled.
In recent weeks, states that seemed distant to Lithuanians and did not affect their lives in any way suddenly came to the center of everyone's attention. After Belarus froze the agreement with the EU on the readmission (reception back) of illegal migrants at the end of June, the Lithuanian-Belarusian border literally in one day turned into a front line of a new Cold War. Every day, several dozen people illegally cross into the territory of Lithuania from Belarus.
For Aliaksandr Lukashenka and (as many in Vilnius believe) Vladimir Putin, who is behind him, illegal migrants have become an effective form of pressure on the European Union. According to observers, its goal is to force Brussels to weaken sanctions against Minsk and start a dialogue with it.
"Lukashenka does not let his citizens go abroad, and people from third countries cross our border without problems,” Vytis Jurkonis, representative of Freedom House in Lithuania, says. “This means that the situation is under his complete control. Migrants are only a consequence of the main problem, which has a name - the Belarusian regime. This is not a bilateral Lithuanian-Belarusian problem, but a common European one."
The task is to urgently equip the border
For Lithuania, Minsk's decision to practically open the border turned into an unprecedented emergency. “Only 30 percent of the border with Belarus is equipped, mainly in the area of settlements. The remaining 70 are actually protected to a minimum,” one of the Lithuanian state officials admitted in a conversation with DW.
DW sources in Vilnius explain this: up to the presidential elections in Belarus in August 2020 and the brutal suppression of the democratic protest movement that followed, many in Lithuania (and in the EU in general) believed that it was necessary to maintain a dialogue with Lukashenka in the hope that, sooner or later, he distances himself from Moscow. Strengthening the border against this background would look like a gesture of distrust. In addition, Minsk has been implementing the readmission agreement with the EU quite consistently. Until, one day, it stopped.
Now the primary task is to urgently equip the border. For starters, at least with the help of urgently procured barbed wire, although this is clearly not enough to suppress mass violations. In Lithuania, there are representatives of FRONTEX (EU Border Agency) who advise local border guards. The European Union also promised to allocate funds to Vilnius to solve migration problems.
"Give us hamburgers!"
The second task of local authorities is to accommodate migrants. They are brought to empty rest homes, campgrounds, and schools far from large settlements. Not without problems. In recent weeks, the Lithuanian media have regularly reported either about riots in a refugee camp in the northern town of Ignalina or about the refusal of migrants from the food offered to them. "Young people demanded chips and smoked chicken wings, and best of all - Coca-Cola with hamburgers." "Hamburger!" they shouted to us when we brought handmade chicken dumplings," chef Jidre Šimėliauskienė from the village of Kapčamestis in southwestern Lithuania told reporters.
The third challenge for Vilnius is legal. The Seimas (Parliament) of Lithuania adopted a series of amendments to the law on the legal status of foreigners, which severely restrict the right of migrants to move around the country pending consideration of their asylum applications. The procedure itself is significantly accelerated, and the right of appeal is minimized. President Gitanas Nauseda initially refused to sign the law. And his adviser Povilas Maciulis even said that "the rights of migrants were thrown into the trash can."
After a meeting with members of the cabinet, Nauseda nevertheless signed it under the amendments to the law in exchange for the government's promise to make adjustments to them at the autumn session of parliament, strengthening the protection of the rights of refugees. “Under the current conditions, the most important thing is to send a signal to both Lukashenka and those who are just about to cross the border - the reception will be tough, and it is better to stop!” an informed employee of one of the ministries involved in resolving the crisis explained to DW the position of the country's leadership.
A wall from Lukashenka?
In theory, those migrants who cannot prove that they are fleeing political persecution or war should be deported to their homeland. But, in the context of COVID-19, this is not easy to do. In addition, in the Middle East, Lithuania has an embassy only in Israel, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, and in Africa - in South Africa. There is also the problem of personnel. “Many run from Belarus without documents. For example, a person says: “I am from Baghdad!” But how can we check if we have few specialists who not only distinguish the Iraqi dialect from Syrian but just know Arabic?” complains Vytis Jurkonis from Freedom House.
In Lithuanian social networks, calls sometimes slip to build a wall on the border with Belarus, similar to the one that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban erected on the border with Serbia after the migration crisis of 2015. “This is not a solution to the problem, although the border should, of course, be equipped,” says Jurkonis. “We need a well-paid, motivated, and efficient migration service. We need modern Lithuanian language courses and professional advice from the employment service. The current crisis is a reason to do all this.”
Sociologists have not yet recorded any noticeable anti-migrant sentiments in Lithuania. Although, warns political scientist, professor at Vytautas Magnus University Sarunas Liekis, if the current crisis lasts, they may intensify.
"The society thinks that everything will be the same as in 2015-2016. Then most of the refugees who ended up in Lithuania left for other EU countries - Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands. There, where there are large communities of compatriots, restaurants with familiar food and much more generous social programs than in Lithuania. But, of course, someone will stay here, and there will be more and more such people in the future."