Belarus is pushing migrants across the Lithuanian border barefoot in an attempt to put pressure on the country, the Lithuanian government said on Wednesday.
Minister of Internal Affairs Agne Bilotaitė he told reporters that nine people were found without shoes and without proper winter clothing, adding that two migrants were hospitalized.
This follows reports that a Sri Lankan man lost his leg and five toes to frostbite after becoming trapped in no-man’s land between Belarus and Lithuania earlier this month.
Since 2021, Lithuania and Belarus have been ping-ponging migrants across their borders, following geopolitical tensions between them.
Many of the migrants — mostly from the Middle East and Southeast Asia — are said to have been deliberately brought to Belarus, which the EU has accused of triggering the crisis in response to sanctions.
In her statement, Bilotaitė said that trying to cross the border barefoot would not be a sufficient basis for entering Lithuania or for asylum.
“The fact that people come to the border barefoot will not be a reason to let them in,” she said.
“Our message is that such attempts will not be a reason to enter Lithuania.”
Four of the nine people who were taken to the hospital were given the opportunity to apply for asylum.
Lithuanian border forces have been accused of repeatedly pushing back migrants trying to cross the border with Belarus, often violently.
Once on the other side, the Belarusian authorities usually force them back again.
Hundreds of people are currently believed to be trapped between the two countries and camped out in sub-zero temperatures.
Thousands of migrants have been affected, humanitarian groups say.
“They are deliberately holding on there and not letting go. They are not insured [warm clothes]they are not used to winter conditions,” said Bilotaitė.
Critics of the Lithuanian government have called on the country to accept some of those who remain at the border and consider their asylum claims.
Other migrants got stuck between Belarus’ borders with Latvia and Poland, where several died.
No deaths were reported in Lithuania and Latvia.
Belarus has ‘actively damaged’ the border
A large number of Belarusian border guards were spotted at the border, Lithuania’s interior minister said.
Bilotaitė accused Belarus of sabotaging the Lithuanian border in an attempt to help those sneaking through the border.
“They not only continue to push migrants into Lithuania, but also actively damage the physical barrier, especially where border control systems have not yet been installed,” she said.
“Illegal migrants also try to damage the physical barrier themselves. In total, the number of damaged physical barriers is 433 times.”
Videos on social media reportedly show Belarusian border guards cutting fences and escorting migrants through Lithuania’s border fence.
She emphasized that border officials are taking all necessary measures to avoid humanitarian problems at the border, while providing assistance.
According to the data of the Ministry of the Interior, a total of 10,549 illegal migrants who entered Lithuania illegally were arrested.
Earlier this year, the country installed a metal fence to explain the length of the 550 km border with Belarus.
Lithuania has announced that it will complete the installation of high-tech surveillance systems by the end of 2022.