VILNIUS, Lithuania — Lithuania began Friday to erect a fence along its border with Belarus to deter third country migrants from entering, a week after Vilnius declared a state of emergency to address a sharp rise in migratory flows — which it says Belarusian authorities are encouraging.
Relations between the two neighbors are tense following the August 2020 elections in Belarus, which were won by long-time President Alexander Lukashenko but have been widely condemned by the West as rigged. The vote results triggered months of protests and a harsh crackdown on the opposition by Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime.
Lithuania, which has backed and granted refuge to Belarus opposition figures, accuses its neighbor of organizing the border crossings by people mainly from Iraq, the Middle East and Africa.
The double, barbed wire fence will run for 550 kilometers (342 miles), covering most of the nearly 680-kilometer (423-mile) frontier. It will cost 41 million euros ($48 million), according to Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite.
In the past two months, more than 1,500 people have crossed into Lithuania — 20 times more than in the whole of 2020.
This week, Lukashenko said his country wouldn’t close its borders “and become a camp for people fleeing Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Tunisia.”
“We won’t hold anyone, they are coming not to us but to the enlightened, warm and cozy Europe,” he added mockingly.
The European Union, of which Lithuania is a member, has said it will help the Baltic country of 2.8 million people that has already set up tent camps to accommodate the growing number of migrants.
Tensions between the EU and Belarus have escalated further after Belarus diverted a passenger jet on May 23 to arrest an opposition journalist.
Lukashenko has said his country will halt cooperation with the 27-nation bloc on stemming migration, in retaliation for bruising economic sanctions the EU slapped on Belarus over the passenger jet diversion.
Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration