RUKLA, Lithuania. The emigrants hitchhiked for the night to the Dysna River, the border of their native Belarus. They thought they could wade through the cold waters, but the place they had chosen in their haste was so deep that they had to swim.
On the other hand, at dawn two weeks ago, they found a house with the lights on and asked for the police. They fled from the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko and sought refuge in neighboring Lithuania, a member of the European Union. They were brought to a makeshift camp at the border station and joined dozens of Iraqis, some Chechens and some from Southeast Asia.
“We have been here for several weeks, months,” the migrant told them, according to one of the Belarusians, Alexander Dobryanik. “We know you’ll be leaving here in just a couple of days.”
Two streams of migration and two forms of human despair converge in the swamps and forests of northeastern Europe. There are Iraqis and others whom Mr Lukashenko is channeling through Belarus to Lithuania and Poland – a migration crisis orchestrated by an autocrat seeking to provoke the West. And then there are Belarusians fleeing Lukashenka amid a wave of repression within Belarus that has led to thousands of arrests.
Moving from east to west, the two groups briefly share the same fate, but together they live in border camps and migrant centers. But soon their lives diverge again: most Belarusians are quickly assured that they will stay in Lithuania and be allowed to move, while others spend months in cramped containers waiting for an almost certain rejection of their asylum applications.
The differing attitudes underscore the unwavering support of the West for the Belarusian opposition and illustrate the tough moral choices made by European countries determined to resist migration from other continents. Lithuania, a small ethnically homogeneous nation, is at the forefront of both waves of migrants, serving as a stronghold of the West, harboring Belarusian dissidents and refusing entry to others.
“They merge, and society accepts them,” said Evelina Gudzinskaite, head of the Lithuanian migration department, about the Belarusian. “We’re pretty xenophobic,” she said, adding half-jokingly, “but also, I think, pretty rational.”
Lithuania has issued over 6,700 humanitarian visas to Belarusians since uprising against Mr. Lukashenko A fraudulent re-election in 2020 sparked a crackdown in which anyone who sympathized with the opposition becomes a potential target. He approved 71 asylum applications from Belarusians this year. U.S. Department of State praised the country last week for “providing asylum to many Belarusian defenders of democracy,” including Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, an opposition leader.
In contrast, according to Ms Gudzinskaite, out of 2,639 asylum requests processed by Lithuania from non-Belarusians since the beginning of the influx, only 10 were granted. Most of the arrivals arrived before August, when Lithuania began blocking entry into the country through unofficial checkpoints, even for asylum seekers – a “rebuff” policy widely criticized by human rights groups.
According to the Lithuanian border service, migrants have been banned from entering the country about 7,000 times since August. But Belarusians are not repelled; When they are caught illegally entering the country, they are allowed to stay and ask for asylum, ”said the commander of the service, Rustamas Lyubayevas.
“This is a completely different situation than with incoming migrants,” General Lyubayevas said. “In many cases, these people are just looking for a better life.”
Migrant advocates argue that the distinction between economic migrants and refugees is often misguided, that many people traveling through Belarus are fleeing failed states and violence and should be entitled to international protection. But even Caritas, a Roman Catholic charity that supports detained migrants, said many couldn’t.
“The big problem with this migrant crisis is that there are many economic migrants among these migrants and they are used for political purposes,” said Deimante Bukeikaite, Secretary General of Caritas in Lithuania.
This summer, the Lukashenka government added flights from the Middle East and eased visa requirements in what appeared to be a calculated effort to attract migrants who would then try to move to neighboring EU countries, Lithuania, Poland and Latvia. Most of them tend to travel to countries further west, such as Germany.
Lithuania, two hours from the Belarusian capital Minsk, was the main destination, although in recent weeks, Western officials say, Belarus has sent most migrants to Poland, where they clashes with Polish police made headlines all over the world.
In the migration crowd, Belarusians and other migrants cross paths in places of detention throughout Lithuania. In one of the migrant camps, a Syrian barber explained to his Belarusian neighbor in the tent that his family had spent their savings to get to Europe, and now they “have no way back”. Mr Dobriyanik met men who fled their homeland of Chechnya in Russia who spoke out against President Vladimir Putin.
Lithuania, with a population of less than three million, has struggled to cope with thousands of new arrivals, and the government declared a state of emergency this month. Lithuanian leaders called the migrants Lukashenka’s “hybrid weapon” for “attacking the democratic world.”
Eyad, a 25-year-old Syrian who fled Belarus to Lithuania in July, said he did not see himself as such. “It says on Facebook that refugees are weapons,” he said in an interview at a center for migrants in Rukla, in central Lithuania. “But that doesn’t mean that I am.”
Eyad, who asked not to disclose his last name to protect his parents in Syria, fled that country to Russia in 2018. Disappointed that he became an undocumented immigrant in Moscow, where he said he worked in factories and shawarma kiosks, Eyad read on Facebook in the summer when Lukashenka opened his country’s borders with the EU.
He and two other Syrians found a driver to take them to Minsk. Eyyad then examined satellite images to find what appeared to be a porous patch on the Belarusian-Lithuanian border, took a taxi there from Minsk and walked on foot.
“It was a chance for me,” he said.
Eyad is one of the few non-Belarusians whose asylum applications have been approved. A few weeks ago, he was transferred from a migrant center in a former prison to a center in Rukla, where more than 100 blue, gray and white containers contain more than 700 migrants.
When Belarusian Andrei Susha arrived at the Rukla center in April, there were less than 100 people in it. Mr Susha, facing jail for derogatory Internet posts about the authorities, made one of the boldest escapes from Belarus this year: when he was summoned to the police station, he grabbed his motorized paraglider and was driven into a field about 10 miles from cities. border, and took off.
He flew low over the treetops to avoid detection, confirmed that he was in Lithuania when the language on the road signs changed, and traveled as far out of the country as his fuel would allow. Giving up, he stayed in the center of Rukla because he didn’t have the money to go anywhere else.
In the summer, the center began to fill up. By August, there were seven people in Mr. Sushi’s room, where only he and his roommate lived, by August, the beds were stacked on top of each other. Some of his new neighbors seemed like real refugees: Uighurs from China, Kurds from Turkey, Sikhs from Afghanistan, a Muslim from Myanmar.
“My nerves broke down,” said Mr. Susha. “The conditions were unbearable.”
In August, he managed to rent a room in neighboring Kaunas and move.
Mr Sushi’s asylum application was approved last week – a process that has been delayed for many Belarusians due to the large number of applicants. In the center of Rukla, several Eritreans were among a small group of non-Belarusian migrants who had been granted asylum.
A 21-year-old woman said she first fled to Ethiopia to avoid indefinite military service in Eritrea, then flew to Belarus when civil war broke out in Ethiopia. The woman, who did not want her name to be called because she feared for her family in Eritrea, remained in Belarus for several months until she found a way to enter Lithuania.
“We fled from a dictatorial government,” she said, “and we got stuck in a dictatorial government.”
Thomas Dapkus prepared a report.