ASMA KHALID, HOST:
While the world focuses on Afghanistan, another border drama is playing out in the tiny Baltic nations of Lithuania and Latvia. Belarus is granting Iraqi asylum-seekers tourist visas, busing them to its border with the European Union and pushing them across. It's seen as revenge for EU sanctions on the government in Minsk, as Teri Schultz reports.
TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Go, go, go, the Belarusian guards dressed in riot gear yell at the group of people. The guards point ahead and sometimes even give a shove to move reluctant ones forward.
SCHULTZ: The governments of Lithuania and Latvia have released numerous videos like this one, showing some of the thousands of people, most of them Iraqi, crossing their southeastern borders with Belarus in recent weeks. The Baltic governments say the regime of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko lures people to Minsk with tourist visas and promises of access to the European Union, then pushes them over the border. Many of the new arrivals in Latvia are held in government detention centers, like the one where I meet Iraqi asylum-seeker Salad Sadeq Ali just outside the capital. He describes how Belarusian authorities help Iraqis get there.
SALAD SADEQ ALI: Some people, they have stamp on the passport. Or they said we have a stamp, and we cross from Belarusia (ph).
SCHULTZ: We have a stamp from where?
ALI: From airport.
SCHULTZ: In Minsk?
ALI: In Minsk.
SCHULTZ: So they admit that the officials were helping them come in.
ALI: Yeah, yeah.
SCHULTZ: Latvia says Lukashenko is weaponizing migration to retaliate for EU sanctions imposed on his regime for allegedly rigging elections last year and violently attacking those protesting the outcome. More EU sanctions came in May when a flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk over what turned out to be a fake bomb threat so authorities could arrest a dissident journalist on board. Latvian Interior Minister Marija Golubeva.
MARIJA GOLUBEVA: Obviously, after that, Europe had to act. We couldn't refrain from acting. We had to impose those sanctions. So now, as a response to that, we would get this specially organized stream of regular migration to our borders.
SCHULTZ: If Lukashenko's goal was to create chaos in his EU neighbors, he achieved some success, if only modest. Ingrida Simonyte is prime minister of Lithuania, which has seen well over 4,000 people crossing from Belarus in just the last few weeks, 500 times more than in all of last year.
PRIME MINISTER INGRIDA SIMONYTE: This problem was imposed on us very wickedly, I would say, because it was a high - influx of high number of people within a very short period of time. Definitely, that was a very significant challenge and still is a very significant challenge for us.
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SCHULTZ: Lithuania is reinforcing its border with barbed wire and extra guards, but still has to manage those people who made it in.
In the Lithuanian town of Rudninkai, I ask a small group of men chatting on a street corner for directions to the nearby migrant holding center. They're standing in front of a sign that reads in Lithuanian and Russian, Rudninkai says no to migrants. The men say they didn't put up the sign, but it's quickly clear they agree with its sentiment. One of the group happens to be the town's mayor, Gennadi Baranovich, who says his displeasure is shared by his constituents.
GENNADI BARANOVICH: (Through interpreter) The government has tricked us. They aren't telling people anything. If immigrants are coming here, we should know what it means for security.
SCHULTZ: This resident has agreed to lead me down a very potholed, muddy road to the camp, which he says was set up here in this farming village without anyone's notice.
Authorities wouldn't let me speak with any of the roughly 800 residents of the Rudninkai camp. They're detained behind high metal fences, and many of them have told local media they don't want to be here, having hoped to end up elsewhere in Europe. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis says the real problem is not just this wave of illegal migration, but what may be next.
GABRIELIUS LANDSBERGIS: It's extremely easy. You just need a country or rogue state that just stops the control of the border. To add to that, if it offers help for people to, you know, to go to the border that it's stopped controlling, you have a hybrid attack. The whole democratic world needs to - it will sound strong. But I mean, it needs to wake up to new reality because these sort of weapons will be used against us in the future as well.
SCHULTZ: The Baltic governments and Poland are calling on the United Nations Security Council to take up the issue of the Belarusian tourist trap.
For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz in Rudninkai, Lithuania.
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