Latvia declares state of emergency over migrant influx at Belarus border

Migrants at a school turned into a refugee facility in Vydeniai, Lithuania, on July 29, 2021.
Migrants at a school turned into a refugee facility in Vydeniai, Lithuania, on July 29, 2021. © Petras Malukas, AFP

Latvia declared a state of emergency Tuesday at its Belarus border, authorising border guards, armed forces and police to use physical force to return migrants to the country from which they came. Latvia, like neighbouring Lithuania, has faced an influx of mostly Iraqi migrants in the past few months coming from Belarus.

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Latvia and Lithuania's borders with Belarus are also the European Union's external border. Latvia has a nearly 175km (109-mile) border with Belarus. Normally only border guards can patrol the frontier.

The state of emergency will run from August 11 until November 10, the Baltic News Service said, and would also enable the Armed Forces and the state police to assist the Border Guard with the prevention of illegal immigration. 

The Baltic News Service, quoting Latvia's State Border Guard, said between August 6 and August 10, some 283 people were detained for crossing the border from Belarus, bringing the total for 2021 so far to 343 people. 

Lithuania's parliament voted Tuesday to build a 4-metre (13-foot) metal fence topped with razor wire on 508km of the 670km border it shares with Belarus. “Without this physical barrier, it is impossible to protect our borders, it is very clear,” Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite told Reuters.

The three Baltic countries, which all are members of the 27-nation EU, have accused the government of Belarus’s authoritarian President Lukashenko of encouraging the migrant flow in retaliation for the EU sanctions against his country following the diversion of a passenger plane in May to arrest a dissident journalist aboard.

Tensions have been strained between Belarus and European nations since a disputed election on August 9 last year returned President Alexander Lukashenko to power despite mass protests against his regime. 

Two Belarusian sports coaches were stripped of their Tokyo Olympics accreditations last week over an alleged attempt to force a sprinter to fly home, an incident that drew international condemnation.

Poland, another EU member that borders Belarus, says it is also seeing a rising number of Iraqi and Afghan migrants trying to enter from Belarus in what a government official called part of Belarus's “hybrid war” against the EU.

The United States, Britain and Canada levied more sanctions against Belarus on Monday.

Pariah regime

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya spoke at a rally on Monday in central Vilnius to mark one year since the disputed election in which she ran against Lukashenko. The rally was also attended by Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte.

"We will not stop," Tikhanovskaya said. "We will fight on so that thousands of people can return home from prison. We will fight on to free ourselves from the fear that has gripped our country."

Tikhanovskaya decided to run after the candidacy of her husband, an opposition blogger, was blocked and he was arrested. She ran a popular campaign and claimed victory but fled to Lithuania in the days after the election, fearing for her safety after a violent crackdown by the authorities against mass protests against the Lukashenko regime.

Since then she has rallied Western support and recently met US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP, Reuters) 

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