Red Cross questions Lithuania on trying to block migrants

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FILE – In this Friday, July 9, 2021 file photo, members of the Lithuania State Border Guard Service patrol on the border with Belarus, near the village of Purvenai, Lithuania. Lithuania has ordered its border guards to turn away, by force if needed, migrants attempting to enter the Baltic country as the rapidly growing number of immigrants illegally crossing from neighboring Belarus has emerged a major foreign policy issue to the small European Union nation. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis, File)

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — The Red Cross warned Wednesday that Lithuania’s decision to turn away immigrants attempting to cross in from neighboring Belarus does not comply with international law.

Lithuania, a member of the European Union, has faced a surge of mostly Iraqi migrants in the past few months. It says that’s due to retaliation by Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko after the EU put sanctions on his country over an air piracy incident. The Lithuanian Interior Ministry this week distributed a video shot from a helicopter showing large groups of immigrants being escorted to Lithuania’s border by Belarusian border guard vehicles.

On Tuesday, Lithuania said it reserved the right to use force to stop such illegal immigration and turned away 180 people attempting to enter the country. But rights groups noted that all nations have an obligation to protect vulnerable people.

“Pushbacks of people seeking asylum are not compatible with the Geneva Convention on Refugee Status, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and other human rights instruments” Egle Samuchovaite, program director for Lithuania’s Red Cross, told The Associated Press.

Samuchovaite also pointed out that rejecting the admission of vulnerable people into the country would put them into an unsafe environment, trapped between two countries.

“In the absence of a physical border barrier with Belarus, the question arises as to how to ensure that there is no disproportionate use of force against asylum seekers, which by any means could not be justified,” she said, adding that the Red Cross understands the state’s challenges in protecting its border.

Lithuania, a nation of less than 3 million people, has no physical barriers for its 679-kilometer (420-mile) long border with Belarus. Some 4,090 migrants, most of them from Iraq, have crossed this year from Belarus into Lithuania.

Another 35 people crossed into Lithuania illegally on Wednesday, according to the State Border Guard Service, but this was significantly lower than the triple-digit numbers of previous days.

Belarus claimed Wednesday that a “non-Slavic” person died from injuries at a border town but Lithuania dismissed the report as propaganda from a hostile regime.

“This is nonsense, a Brothers Grimm fairy tale,” Lithuania Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite told reporters.

Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas called the report “an obvious provocation. Lithuania is under hybrid attack and spreading such information is a classic example of this process.”

Later Wednesday, the Belarusian State Border Committee claimed that five Iraqi migrants who were forcibly expelled to Belarus from Lithuania had injuries, including dog bites, and had been hospitalized.

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