Belarus is cynically exploiting the hopes of Iraqi migrants by sending them on fruitless journeys to the EU border in an act of aggression against the bloc, European Commissioner Ylva Johansson said on Monday.
Thousands of mainly Iraqi migrants have entered EU member Lithuania from Belarus in recent months, a route which saw only 74 such crossings last year.
Visiting Lithuania on Monday, Ms Johansson said it must be made clear to migrants that “this is not a new route”.
She said Brussels had held constructive talks with Iraq and other countries aimed at informing migrants that travelling to Belarus was a road to nowhere.
While the new arrivals can apply for asylum in Lithuania, many are not thought to be refugees and will be returned home if their claims fail. Some are currently living in camps on the border.
“We need to make sure that people can be sent back to the country of origin, and also to do all that we can do to prevent these flights coming to Minsk with more people,” Ms Johansson said.
“They are being cynically exploited by the Lukashenko regime with false hopes and false routes,” she said, referring to Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko.
Lithuania’s Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte expressed hope that the EU’s efforts in Iraq would help to ease the situation. Brussels is also pledging financial support to Vilnius.
“The EU has opportunities to make use of its negotiating capacity with the Iraqi government,” Ms Simonyte said.
Iraq’s Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said in July that Baghdad would investigate alleged people smuggling to Europe from its territory.
EU border agency Frontex has deployed guards and helicopters to help Lithuania protect its frontier, while Europol works to break up alleged smuggling gangs. About 3,000 people have entered Lithuania.
Lithuania’s northern neighbour, Latvia, has not seen a similar spike in arrivals but has asked Frontex for help as a precaution.
Brussels suspects that the migrants are ferried to Minsk on flights from Baghdad and Istanbul, then transported to the border with Lithuania.
“The institutions of the [Belarusian] regime are taking part, in one way or another, in the organisation of the flow,” said Ms Simonyte.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned what he called the "instrumentalisation" of migrants and refugees by Belarus.
“Using human beings in need to advance political goals violates fundamental European values and principles,” he said.
The EU imposed sanctions on Belarus last year after Mr Lukashenko claimed victory in an election seen by the opposition as rigged.
Mr Lukashenko’s main challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has been living in exile in Lithuania since fleeing Belarus in the election’s violent aftermath.
Lithuania has refused a request to extradite Ms Tsikhanouskaya and last month granted her diplomatic status in a symbolic gesture.
Sanctions on Belarus have been tightened following the arrest of a Belarusian opposition figure who was detained on board a Ryanair jet in May.
Belarus’s military forced the plane to land in Minsk citing a supposed bomb threat, which was widely regarded as a ruse to arrest the journalist.
“What we are facing [at the border] is an aggressive act from the Lukashenko regime, one that is designed to provoke,” said Ms Johansson.
“The EU has a lot of power when we reach out to third countries, and that’s why we need to do that, and Lithuania should not be left alone.”