Belarus is pushing barefoot migrants across the Lithuanian border in a bid to pressure the country, the Lithuanian government said on Wednesday.
Minister of the Interior Agne Bilotaite told reporters that nine people were found without proper shoes and winter clothing, adding that two migrants had been hospitalized.
This follows reports that a Sri Lankan man lost his leg and five toes to frostbite after being trapped in no man’s land between Belarus and Lithuania earlier this month.
Since 2021, Lithuania and Belarus have been switching migrants back and forth across each other’s borders, following geopolitical tensions between the two.
Many migrants – mainly from the Middle East and South East Asia – were reportedly deliberately brought into Belarus, which the EU has accused of causing the crisis in response to the sanctions.
In a statement, Bilotaitė said attempting to cross the border barefoot would not be sufficient grounds to enter Lithuania or seek asylum.
“The fact that people arrive at 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 taken to hospital were given the opportunity to apply for asylum.
Lithuanian border forces have been accused of repeatedly pushing back migrants trying to cross its border with Belarus, often violently.
Once on the other side, the Belarusian authorities usually force them back.
It is believed that hundreds of people are currently trapped between the two countries and have set up camp in sub-zero temperatures.
Thousands of migrants have been affected, according to aid groups.
“They are deliberately kept there, not released. They don’t get any [warm clothes]they are not used to winter conditions,” Bilotaitė said.
Critics of the Lithuanian government have urged the country to take in some people stranded at the border and consider their asylum claims.
Other migrants are stuck between Belarus’ borders with Latvia and Poland, where several are believed to have died.
No deaths have been recorded in Lithuania or Latvia.
Belarus ‘actively damaged’ the border
A large number of Belarusian border guards were seen at the border, the Lithuanian Interior Minister said.
Bilotaitė accused Belarus of sabotaging the Lithuanian border in its attempt to help those sneaking across the border.
“Not only do they keep pushing migrants into Lithuania, but they are also actively damaging the physical barrier, especially where border surveillance systems have not yet been installed,” she said.
“Illegal migrants also try to damage the physical barrier by themselves. In total, the number of damaged physical barriers is 433 times.”
Videos on social media allegedly show Belarusian border guards cutting fences and escorting migrants through the Lithuanian border fence.
She stressed that border officials are taking all necessary measures to avoid humanitarian problems at the border, in addition to providing assistance.
According to figures provided by the Ministry of Interior, a total of 10,549 illegal migrants were arrested while entering Lithuania illegally.
Earlier this year, the country installed a metal fence, which explains the 550 km long border with Belarus.
Lithuania announced that by the end of 2022 it will complete the installation of high-tech surveillance systems.