When they sent a distress call to the international organization Alarm Phone, they had been barred from access for five days in a “no-person zone” between the European Union and Belarus.
“I’m telling you, I have nothing here, I have everything there. Do you understand? Please my friend,” one of the Iraqi immigrants told the Lithuanian guards lined up.
“Go back to Belarus! Do you understand? Go back!”, Replies the agent.
“How to get back?” Asks the stranger, in English. A few meters away, a Belarusian patrol prevents the group from passing.
The case, filmed and confirmed by Lithuanian border guards, has not been isolated: there are 4,000 to 5,000 foreigners scattered along the borders, Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anushauskas said last week.
Since August 3, when Lithuania tightened its guard and issued a decree to curb the arrival of hundreds of immigrants from Belarus, more than 1,500 have been barred from entering the Baltic country.
“It’s a cynical game made with human lives,” explains Maurice Sierl, spokesperson for Alarm Phone, who attributes the crisis to the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
According to the activist, who spoke to the Iraqis by video call on the 7th, they were shaking with cold and one, sick, passed out more than once.
The stalemate continued until sunset: immigrants keep repeating “I want to go home. I’m very hungry. Please help. I need a glass of water, ”with no response beyond the whimper of one of the guard dogs.
After a few days without contact, Sierl learned on the 13th that the Iraqi government had repatriated them. That same afternoon, Alarm Phone received another call for help, this time from three women and two men stranded near the Polish town of Kuznica.
At that time, at least 4,000 were in Lithuanian refugee camps which had been hastily expanded or improvised. After the number of illegal entries fell from 6 in March to 3,115 in July, the government tripled border patrols and sent military personnel, dogs, helicopters and night cameras to the 670 border. km with Belarus.
An “anti-immigrant fence” of barbed wire and accordion is advancing at the rate of more than half a kilometer a day. It will be four meters high, 508 km long, ends in Y-shaped barbed wire and will cost 150 million euros (R $ 929 mi), according to the director of communication of the border guard service, Rokas Pukinskas. .
Foreigners stranded by Lithuania even tried to enter through Latvia and Poland, to no avail. The first declared a state of emergency on August 11 and has since banned 436 people.
Poland, after receiving 491 asylum requests in the first week of August – nine times more than the previous week – has already banned 1,342 entries.
Reports of people in a “no-person zone” have also reached UNHCR (the United Nations refugee agency), said Elisabeth Arnsdorf Haslund, spokesperson for the organization: “It is a very diverse group – young people, the elderly, women, men, families of various nationalities, who are in need of humanitarian assistance.
These foreigners “roam the forests of western Belarus, live in hotels while the money runs out,” as the Lithuanian Defense Minister described to the Delfi newspaper, and Belarusian media claim that abandoned houses in villages are already occupied by them.
The crisis is expected to worsen with the end of summer. The nights cool quickly in September in the border area, and in October or November it starts to snow. In winter, the average temperature in this area is -6 ° C, with negative thermometers even during the day.
The cold is already felt by those who entered legally and await the analysis of an asylum application, like the Russian Anton (fictitious name, at his request). In the Pabradé camp, where he has been since June, “the military tents are air-conditioned but not heated”. “When it rains, everything gets wet,” he said on the afternoon of the 11th.
The land has been crowded since Arabs and Africans started arriving. “Lukashenko has opened a huge window of passage to Europe, it is a large-scale program like the way people are brought in,” describes Anton.
“Foreigners are a heavy weapon in the hands of the dictator. If they attack with bombs, NATO will defend itself. It uses the Arabs as its bullets, and the damage is much more important”, explains the Russian.
The thesis that the Belarusian dictator is at the origin of this crisis is shared by the Lithuanian and European authorities, who this week insisted on separating the threat of a migration crisis stemming from the conflicts in Afghanistan from what he calls a “crisis of aggression” caused by Lukashenko. .
“It is a serious act of aggression intended to provoke,” said EU Immigration Commissioner Ilva Johansson during a visit to Lithuania. “Using migrants as a weapon, pushing people against borders, is unacceptable,” said the bloc’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell.
There are several reports that Belarus facilitated entry visas and logistics between Minsk airport and EU borders for immigrants, who paid between 1,000 and 3,000 euros (from R 6,200 $ to R $ 18.6,000).
“You also have to bribe the Belarusian border guards, who know exactly the roads and show you where there are fewer Lithuanian patrols,” said Victar Savich, 31, a former director of a logging industry who went into exile in the country. Baltic country after being chased by Lukashenko.
“They believed in the Belarusian story that Lithuania would be a free passage to reach other countries in the European Union.”
This was the case with Mujbil Muhammad, who says he took out a loan to raise 10,000 euros (around 62,000 BRL) for the trip of his wife and four children – “all under the age of 10” – to the block. European.
Most of the money went to “a taxi driver who knew about the border crossing,” said Muhammad, who was reached via a phone his wife gave Savich. Like other interviewees, while confirming Belarusian connections, the Iraqi avoids giving details.
Savich says most of the new arrivals at Kabeliai camp – where he stayed for a week before settling in Minsk – do not intend to stay in Lithuania: “The Arabs and Indians are mostly money and parents in Finland, Germany ”.
In Pabradé, talks about travel to Germany are becoming more frequent, Anton said, especially after Lithuania announced it would speed up deportations.
In the town of Alytus, a group of 36 people fled at dawn on the 12th, after digging a hole under the fence. They crawled through the bush, reached a train line and from there headed for Poland, according to the government. According to data from the Ministry of the Interior, more than 350 foreigners have disappeared from housing.
The government is investigating the actions of gangs that promise to get them to Poland or Germany, for around 8,000 euros (around R $ 50,000). Last week, one of these ploys was reported by a reporter for the public broadcaster LRT, who posed as an immigrant.
Lithuania, Latvia and Poland are now trying to speed up the examination of asylum applications and the repatriation of those who do not meet the conditions.
The aim is to alleviate internal pressure, which is already provoking reactions like those in Rudninkai, where 800 foreigners were accommodated in a military zone.
On the afternoon of the 10th, through the fence, immigrants shouted in English “water, please” and “we want to talk to her”, but the guards did not allow Folha to question them. Nine police vans guarded the entrance to the camp.
At night there were demonstrations, riots and escapes, for the second time this month, to revolt by residents of the neighboring village, uncomfortable with the makeshift camp in their surroundings.
“No one can sleep at night any more. They pass by, assess our houses, there are always leaks, ”said a 42-year-old Lithuanian, who refused to be identified.
On your neighbor’s fence, a banner has a large red “Stop” symbol asking immigrants to leave town.
In Pabradé, conditions are less critical, says Anton, as he walks through the countryside to show off his facilities. Women and children stay in brick apartments, there is a playground and a sports field.
The canteen serves vegetarian (for Hindus) and halal (for Muslims) meals, the Russian says, and children up to 12 are given reinforced milk and chocolate.
“But responding to a sudden crisis may not work in the long term,” says UNHCR’s Haslund, and one of the problems is also the harsh winter. Container houses are being prepared for 1,000 people in the Medininkai area and in some of the existing camps.
Lithuania has opened a voluntary repatriation program, which has so far only had 20 registrations – last week the first Iraqi returned home.
Ryan Schroeder, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), says the flow could increase when more immigrants become aware of the option.
But it won’t be too soon: last week the Lithuanian government attempted to hire interpreters for Arabic and Kurdish (the language of half of Iraqis who entered the EU) to at least identify them.