More than 2,000 Muslim migrants stranded in Lithuania this spring will be offered a lifeline if they volunteer to return to their homes in Iran and Afghanistan — though the offer from Belarus is not aimed at bringing them back in search of work but to fight organized crime and human trafficking rings, a reporter with the Reuters news agency told a Polish television channel.
Karen Prince — an award-winning reporter who has covered both Lithuania and Belarus since 2016 — reported from both countries that efforts by the countries’ presidents to stem the tide of migrants have left them “braced for mass deportation, which may further entrench the relationship between Russia and Belarus.”
Prince said migrants had been charged more than $5,000 to “get out of Belarus,” though it was unlikely that they would ever be allowed to return home.
She said Moscow and Minsk were at odds over Ukraine, which is a member of NATO, and Belarus’ president, Alexander Lukashenko, continues to brand the Western military alliance a threat to his country’s sovereignty.
Lukashenko “plays a political role in ensuring that those people do not actually do anything concrete, and Putin has to deal with the consequences of that,” Prince said.
Lukashenko said in April that Belarus and Estonia had a “common foe” in the matter and viewed “illegal migration” as a “geopolitical and security issue for us.”
“By and large our Western neighbors support our policy, although some, whose interests it may be, are dragging their feet for their own reasons,” he said.
Prince said Belarus had created a new immigration bureau and police to combat human trafficking, and “definitively wants to stop anything that can break up its borders or its national identity.” She said the migrants would be handed over to “illegals” groups that would promise to take them “back to their country, if there is any of the will to go back.”
One alleged incentive for migrants in Russia is to serve as pawns for the authorities in the fight against organized crime. Prince said there were signs of the same gangs “coming into Belarus to blackmail migrants, so that they will give up their business in order to get them back.”
In March, Lithuania deported two men who it said were duped and recruited by Russian gangs. The men, Meyrick Avetisovs and Regis Ruchieff, had entered Lithuania illegally from Russia, and they were found with $11,000, the equivalent of more than $8,000 in cash and nearly $7,000 in silver coins, when they were taken into custody. They had told police they wanted to attend the wedding of the sister of their business partner in St. Petersburg, but their money was instead intended for the gangsters.
Lithuania shares a roughly 50-mile border with Russia that is the most heavily trafficked single external border in Europe. According to the World Bank, 450,000 Syrians and Afghans crossed that border in 2016 alone, mostly heading towards northern Europe and beyond.
Separately, Prince reported that nearly 300 Moldovans, including many children, have crossed the borders into Germany in the past month.
Read the full story at Reuters.
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