Border-crossing via ‘Belarus Route’: case of irregular migration to Lithuania

After unfair 2020 Belarusian presidential election, widespread protests against the official results in Belarus have started. Many countries, including European Union member states, refused to accept the result of the election. They expressed their disagreement by imposing sanctions on Belarusian officials responsible for election fraud, violence and repression in the country. Because of giving asylum to Belarusian opposition, Lithuania becomes one of the main targets of so called ‘hybrid attack’ from Minsk. As a response to the lifting sanctions, incumbent Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko lets illegal immigrants from Iraq and Syria reach European borders by providing government-owned planes.
As country’s main migrant camp in Pabrade is currently full, it forces smaller sites to be set up near the Belarusian-Lithuanian border. These temporary camps are mainly allocated in abandoned schools of small towns/villages. The schools are not equipped for living at all: migrants live by two, three, eight and more in the classrooms, open sports hall and study room for training, the spaces are cold and lack of sanitary conditions.
A small country like Lithuania with less than 3 million inhabitants was not prepared for such a big and rapid migrant flow. In order to prevent illegal migrants from entering the country, on 9th July 2021 Lithuania began constructing a 320-mile razor-wire barrier along the Belarusian- Lithuanian border. Later on, this barrier will be reinforced with a two metre (6.5 ft) high border fence topped by razor-wire. Except inhumane conditions in temporary camps migrants are facing, another issue is an active usurpation of time by state authorities: newcomers cannot freely exit the camp and are forced to wait for government’s permission to leave the country of transit for several months. Although over half of them (51%) state Lithuania as destination country, a big part of migrants (27%) is seeking to reach Germany. Dissatisfaction of being ‘stuck’ at the border evokes loud protests, clamouring for ‘freedom’.   

Some background of the ‘migrant crisis’ in Lithuania in 2021  

The results of the 2020 Belarusian presidential election evoked massive dissatisfaction among the nation leading to a series of ongoing political demonstrations and protests against the Belarusian government and President Alexander Lukashenko. As Lukashenko has won every presidential election since 1994, the last one was not an exception.
Although, the opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya claimed to have received 60–70% of the votes, meaning that the official election had been falsified. In order to facilitate a transfer of power, her campaign formed the Coordination Council which was ready to organize "long-term protests" against the official results. However, all seven members of the Coordination Council Presidium were afterwards arrested or went into exile. Lukashenko had been inaugurated for another five- year term in a brief private ceremony. EU rejected the legitimacy of the election and introduced sanctions against 40 Belarusian officials accused of political repression and voter fraud. Fearing repercussions, Tsikhanouskaya together with her two children chose to flee to Lithuania. 

On 31st May 2021 Belarus closed its border, preventing anybody from leaving the country. Moreover, as a response to the lifting sanctions, Belarusian President let go all the illegal migrants (mainly from the Middle East) by helping them to reach European borders. As the closest neighbour, Lithuania became one of the targets of so called ‘hybrid attack’.
According to the final report “Rapid profiling of migrants in Lithuania arriving from Belarus” which was carried out by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in August 2021, the biggest number of migrants are Iraqi (68 out of 110), then Sri Lankan (10) and Syrian (8). 56% of respondents as the main migration reason indicated violence and persecution in their home country, while economic reasons and war/conflict took second place (each 14%).
More than 58% reported that they did not have documents anymore (they were taken by smugglers or as a deposit in hotels in Belarus and not returned), while other had handed them over to Lithuanian state authorities for the purpose of international protection procedure. It is important to note that a person can get asylum only in that country where he/she asks for it. It means that it’s not possible to be granted asylum both in transit and destination countries. That’s why those migrants, whose aim is to get to Germany (27%) or any other EU country, don’t request to grant asylum in Lithuania.
However, after crossing the border illegally, they can’t simultaneously be released to go further and have to wait for the government’s decision. This situation puts illegal migrants into long waiting which will be discussed in more details in the following passage.
The mentioned above final report included only 110 respondents (62 male and 48 female) but the current number of migrants coming from Belarus is bigger.
By 7th August 2021, there were more than 4 thousand illegal migrants. 

Number of illegal migrants crossed Belarus—Lithuania border 2021 (by 7 August) 4,112 

According to Lithuania’s Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite, “Those flows of the illegal migrants who travel to Lithuania are not just random cases, they are well organized. There are flights from Baghdad and Istanbul to Minsk.”
The migrants pay huge money in order to reach European border. As because of sanctions the current economic situation in Belarus is really bad, by providing this service Belarusian government tries to benefit and compensate the loss.
Seeing that the number of illegal migrants crossing the Belarus-Lithuania border was not decreasing but, on the opposite, increasing every day, from 3rd August 2021 border guards in Lithuania have begun turning them back.
Also, because the 679km Lithuanian-Belarusian border was mostly without physical barriers making it extremely easy to cross, in order to keep out migrants, a 4 meters height razor-wire fence has been constructed. It is estimated that by September 2022, the planned structure will be finished.

The representation of space-time in migrant camps in the readings  

Migrant camps serve as temporary home for those who ‘illegally’ crossed the border. They become spaces of waiting and uncertainty. An American anthropologist Ruben Andersson in his article “Time and the migrant other: European border controls and the temporal economics of illegality” (2014) perfectly illustrates the concept of time in migrant camps. According to the author, “...irregular migrants are not only subjected to extended periods of waiting, as migrants often are; they also face an active usurpation of time by state authorities through serial expulsions and retentions.” Time is used as a tool of migration control. By forcing migrants to wait, the state authorities express their power over newcomers. While migrants feel stuck being in a state of limbo. Having no other choice except of waiting puts into a position of helplessness. Time as immaterial wealth, a form of capital, taken by others, empower them to control your life. As a French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said “...making people wait [...] is an integral part of the exercise of power’. Time exposure, ‘when time is either arbitrarily wasted or simply negated, is a form of nontime, a testimony to one’s social insignificance... as such, it is time to be killed” (Andersson 2014:13). Another important topic to discuss is a concept of space which is closely related with time. In migrant camps both time and space are in control of higher authorities. Razor wire fence, sensors, cameras and the soldiers watching over camp’s inhabitants are the measures of space’s control which is called ‘safety’. Globalization plays an important part in reorganizing time and space. Borderlands are both smoothly traversable and limiting movement at the same time: if crossing the border physically might seem easy, migrants get stuck at the border control. Time there appears suspended and not in one’s own control anymore. 

The relation between time and space as well as a concept of crisis was also examined by a social anthropologist Eirini Avramopoulou in her article “Decolonizing the Refugee Crisis: Palimpsestous Writing, Being-in-Waiting, and Spaces of Refuge on the Greek Island of Leros”7 (2020). She did her ethnographic research on the island of Leros during the so-called refugee crisis. According to the author, a term crisis is not new at all: “...crisis is normally perceived in mainstream media, public analyses, and social policy as a new phenomenon or as a straightforward outcome of the logics of neoliberalism —but these perspectives fail to account for other complexities. Instead of reiterating popular media discourses on the so-called crisis  and its aftermath, or instead of presenting it as a contemporary and tangible problem that can be managed and hence resolved, this paper seeks to understand the complex historical, cultural, and social processes pertaining to such essential changes and transformations, when different experiences of crisis become entangled, affect, and define each other” (Avramopoulou 2020:535) of migrant camps where people are usually allocated in old abandoned buildings not suitable for living. By being forced to wait not knowing what’s next, migrants find themselves in a state of limbo. One’s time is colonized leading to feeling of powerlessness and the loose of control over one’s own life.  

While Europe’s fight against ‘illegal’ migration shows how globalisation again reorganises time and space. Those people fleeing war and persecution and crossing the border usually with no documents, are automatically given a label ‘illegal migrant’ even though there were no other ‘legal’ possibility for them to come. As it is said in the article: “...people could not apply for asylum directly but instead had to undergo a process whereby their eligibility to apply for asylum would be assessed. This process not only nullifies the essence of human rights laws but leaves people waiting in a state of limbo and an increasingly stressful situation regarding their present status and fate” (Avramopoulou 2020:541). The same applies for family reunifications which often take a few months and with no guarantee to be activated. Relating this active usurpation of time with the situation in migrant camps in Lithuania, a story of 45 years old Murad is a perfect example: this man, who lives in Paris during the last 12 years, visited his relatives in Chechnya, lost his documents on the way and decided to enter EU from Lithuanian border. He needs help to reach France, but is unhappy that already spent almost two months in the camp, but nobody listens yet to his calls for help.It can be seen here that time again becomes an immaterial wealth, a form of capital taken over by those in power. 

An American architect and scholar Irit Katz in her article “Between Bare Life and Everyday Life: Spatializing Europe’s Migrant Camps”9 (2017) examines the dynamic relations between the built environment and the changing human condition in Europe’s migrant camps. Undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are usually seen as a threat to state’s security. For this reason, they are placed in isolated camps in rural areas for easier control. These unwanted newcomers are kept away from society and forced to create completely different life from the one they used to live before. 

The situation of migrant crisis at the Belarus border in 2021  

On 2nd December 2021 the European Union, Great Britain, Canada and the United States imposed new sanctions on Belarus. Belarusian airline company Belavia was accused of flying in migrants from Middle Eastern countries to Minsk and in such a way supporting destabilisation of European states. Due to these travel bans, EU companies can no longer lease planes to this Belarusian airline. It seems that for now this decision really works as expected: citizens from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen are not allowed to board flights from Uzbekistan’s Tashkent to Minsk anymore. A lot of Iraqis came back to their home countries from Minsk. However, still many refugees refuse to come back home. Belarusian President Lukashenko suggested to cooperate in resolving the migrant crisis if the European Union takes in 2,000 migrants while Minsk will send 5,000 others back to their countries. He discussed this proposal with German Chancellor Angela Merkel who agreed to consider it with the EU.
While the continuous migrant flow to Lithuania slowed down, since November 8th thousands of migrants and refugees have turned to Belarus-Poland border where the situation became extremely difficult. Those people got stuck at the border denied either entry to Poland or return to Belarus. Being forced to wait for weeks in harsh conditions, they constructed informal makeshift camps. People were left in freezing cold with no water and food, the number of deaths due to hypothermia increased. Even though Polish-Belarus border crossings decreased Belarusian forces continued provoking Polish security services by throwing firecrackers over the fence. However, Belarus denied the accusation.   


Due to EU imposed sanctions on Belarus, ‘illegal’ border-crossings significantly decreased, however, the situation at the Polish-Belarus border remained tense. While hundreds in temporary migrant camps in Lithuania were forced to wait not knowing what decision the state authority will make concerning their asylum application or further move to other EU countries. Those people were stuck in a state of limbo, uncertain what tomorrow will bring. Time appears suspended: state authorities being in power though serial expulsions and retentions use it as a tool of migration control. Europe’s fight against ‘illegal’ migration shows how globalisation reorganises time and space. Landscape of time is both the product of ever higher speeds and connectivity, yet also creates a migratory experience of slowness and stasis. Migrants’ time in the camps become a form of capital, immaterial wealth taken away from them. Camps serve as spaces of bare life where human’s life turns into nothing else than biological existence. Although they are externally secured with razor wire fences and cameras, what’s happening inside the territory is left for migrants to manage themselves. 

Gintare Bieliauskaite
[maggio 2022]

Gintare Bieliauskaite is a first-year master's student of I-CONTACT. She is from Lithuania and did her bachelor in Sociology and Anthropology. The main topics of her interest are migration, human rights and women’s empowerment through education. In the future she would like to work as an anthropologist in the field by conducting interviews, writing articles and books about the personal stories of migrants and refugees as well as to open a school for ladies and women from rural areas which will offer them free, high-quality education.

Per la foto: credit Archivio Redazione