VEREBIEJAI – Mustafa Hussein Hamad kicked a dirty ball between two old tires in the schoolyard where he spends most of his time. He and dozens of other migrants are fenced in at an old school after walking at night through the thick woods into Lithuania from neighboring Belarus.
“I paid 1,400 bucks after a friend pointed out this new way to Europe," said the 20-year-old from Baghdad as he waited at the shabby two-story school housing 160 people. Recounting his journey from Iraq for a better life in the European Union, he added: "They said it is a nice shortcut by plane to Minsk.”
The building is one of many facilities that Lithuania quickly converted to hold hundreds of people from the Middle East and Africa — an influx that officials in the Baltic country say was unleashed by Belarusian authorities in a “hybrid war” against the EU.
Daily arrivals sometimes reach triple digits as migrants cross the frontier and appear in the woods in front of Lithuanian border guards, encounter locals picking mushrooms, or simply walk into towns. More than 1,700 have arrived in recent weeks, compared with only 80 for all of 2020.
Lithuania says the influx is an act of retaliation by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Since the authoritarian leader's reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the West denounced as rigged, he has cracked down on opposition protests in his country.
In May, Belarus diverted a passenger jet to Minsk to arrest a dissident journalist, and the EU responded to what it deemed an act of air piracy with tough sanctions. Lukashenko, in turn, ordered a halt to cooperation with the EU on stemming illegal migration.
“If some think that we will close our borders with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine and become a camp for people fleeing Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Tunisia, they are mistaken,” he said last week. “We won’t hold anyone. They are coming not to us but to enlightened, warm and cozy Europe.”
At the same time, authorities in Minsk have barred most Belarusian citizens from leaving the country.
The migrants at the school in Verebiejai, a village about 140 kilometers (85 miles) west of Vilnius, are under police surveillance and aren't allowed to leave. Some tested positive for COVID-19 and have been isolating inside.
On Tuesday, six migrants fled a compound in the nearby Lazdijai district, triggering a search by police with dogs and helicopters.
Like other Iraqis, Hamad used an agency that arranged direct flights to Minsk.
"The plane was full,” he said.
Iraqi Airways has two flights a week to Minsk on Boeing 747s that can hold up to 500 passengers. Its website showed that a flight Wednesday is full, as are the next two.
Once in Minsk, Hamad said he and others were taken to a hotel where their passports were seized. Four days later, cars picked them up in groups of three.
“The driver spoke Kurdish. He dropped us at dusk in the middle of the forest and pointed in the direction towards the European Union,” Hamad said.
Another Iraqi, Haidar al-Garawg, said he paid $1,500 to reach Minsk and had hiked with others through a forest and even a swamp, "but we kept walking through the water.”
"We faced wild animals and all other things. I thought we are going to die in that forest. But thanks to God! He saved us and made it possible for us to arrive here,” al-Garawg said.
None of the 160 housed at the Verebiejai school has a passport. Some say they lost their documents on their trek, while others say they were confiscated in Belarus.
Lithuanian authorities are using the migrants' phones to identify them while overwhelmed regional courts process their asylum applications.
On Tuesday, Lithuania's parliament passed legislation to speed up deportations of those crossing the border illegally. Critics say this might violate their human rights, but the government and lawmakers dismiss that.
“This is an extreme situation," Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite said. "This is not a normal migration, it is not a normal migration path. It is a hybrid war against us, so the response must be adequate.”
Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis will visit Turkey and Iraq this week to try to open repatriation channels for those denied asylum in Lithuania.
Frontex, the EU’s border agency, has pledged to bolster its support “due to the growing migratory pressure at the border with Belarus.” New sections of barbed wire fence were erected this month, with plans to invest 41 million euros ($48 million) to reinforce the entire 678-kilometer (421-mile) border with Belarus.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said that by encouraging the flow of migrants, Lukashenko is seeking to pressure her country’s infrastructure and politics.
"The organized mass immigration is revenge,” she told The Associated Press.
“Immigrants are being used not only by criminals but also by regimes,” Simonyte said. “This is a great pity that I feel for them because they are instrumentalized for the sake of those who do not care about people."
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Lukashenko and fled to Lithuania under official pressure in Minsk, shares Simonyte's view.
“It’s obviously an attempt of revenge by (Lukashenko’s) regime to Lithuania and the whole European Union for their support of the civil society in Belarus,” she said.
Simonyte charged that Russian President Vladimir Putin used similar tactics in 2016, encouraging migrants to cross into Norway and Finland. Russia denied the allegations at the time.
"Putin and Lukashenko really do not care about people from Iraq or African countries. They just want to use them as a tool to increase pressure on the EU and potentially inspire unhealthy political debates,” she said.
Belarusian opposition activist Pavel Latushka alleged that a recent Lukashenko decree offering visa-free entry to Belarus for nationals from 73 countries to get vaccinated against COVID-19 was aimed at increasing the migrant influx. He said a special unit of the Belarusian border agency was taking migrants to the Lithuanian border and helping them cross in lightly guarded areas.
Belarus’ Border Guard Committee wouldn't comment.
Simonyte said the migrant influx "easily triggers some people” in Europe, especially those on the far right.
“Even if there are no strong such parties in the country, there are movements and some of them are financially linked to the sources from the same regime,” she said.
Verebiejai residents expressed worry over the migrants.
“We know very well what will follow these first birds," farmer Jonas Bredikis said. "We do not want to see terrible things here that are happening in France, Spain and elsewhere.”
An anti-migrant group of more than 50 vehicles organized last weekend in the Raigardas border district was turned away by police. More actions are planned, and social media was buzzing with warnings of “possible threats.” In the port of Klaipeda, tenants in one apartment building organized a rally after rumors spread that hundreds of migrants would be housed in their neighborhood — a claim that proved false.
As he passed the time by watching a family of storks nesting on a pole at the school in Verebiejai, Hamad said the birds reminded him of those he used to see near his home in Iraq, “but now they are gone.”
Of his own journey, he said: “I left because this is a chance for a new life.”
Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau contributed to this report from Kyiv, Ukraine.
Follow AP stories on migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration