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Lithuania Welcomes Belarusians as It Rebuffs Middle Easterners

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RUKLA, Lithuania — The emigrants hitchhiked in a single day to the Dysna River, the border of their native Belarus. They thought they might wade throughout the frigid waters, however the spot they selected in haste proved to be so deep they needed to swim.

On the opposite aspect, at daybreak two weeks in the past, they discovered a home with a lightweight on and requested for the police. They have been fleeing the authoritarian regime of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, and in search of asylum in neighboring Lithuania, a member of the European Union. Taken to a makeshift camp at a border guard station, they joined dozens of Iraqis, some Chechens and somebody from Southeast Asia.

“We’ve been here for weeks, months,” a migrant advised them, in response to one of many Belarusians, Aleksandr Dobriyanik. “We know you’ll leave here in just a couple days.”

Two streams of migration, and two types of human desperation, are converging within the swamps and forests of northeastern Europe. There are the Iraqis and others whom Mr. Lukashenko is channeling by Belarus into Lithuania and Poland, a migration disaster orchestrated by an autocrat keen to impress the West. And then there are Belarusians fleeing Mr. Lukashenko, amid a wave of repression inside Belarus that has produced hundreds of arrests.

Crossing from East to West, the 2 teams briefly share the identical destiny, bunking collectively in border camps and migrant facilities. But quickly their lives diverge once more: Most Belarusians are shortly assured of staying in Lithuania and are allowed to maneuver freely, whereas the others spend months detained in cramped containers, awaiting near-certain rejection of their asylum claims.

The differing therapy underscores the West’s staunch assist for the Belarusian opposition — and illustrates the tough ethical decisions being made by European nations decided to withstand migration from different continents. Lithuania, a small, ethnically homogeneous nation, is on the entrance strains of each migrant waves, casting itself as a bulwark of the West, sheltering Belarusian dissidents whereas refusing entry to others.

“They blend in and society accepts them,” Evelina Gudzinskaite, the top of Lithuania’s migration division, mentioned of Belarusians. “We are quite xenophobic,” she mentioned, including that she was half-joking, “but also quite rational, I think.”

Lithuania has issued greater than 6,700 “humanitarian” visas for Belarusians for the reason that rebellion in opposition to Mr. Lukashenko’s fraudulent 2020 re-election sparked a crackdown during which anybody who sympathized with the opposition is a possible goal. It has authorized 71 asylum requests from Belarusians this yr. The U.S. State Department recommended the nation final week for “offering safe haven to many Belarusian democracy advocates,” together with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition chief.

By distinction, of the two,639 asylum requests Lithuania processed from non-Belarusians for the reason that begin of the inflow, Ms. Gudzinskaite mentioned, solely 10 have been granted. Most of the arrivals got here earlier than August, when Lithuania began blocking entry into the nation at unofficial crossing factors, even by individuals in search of asylum — a coverage of “pushbacks” extensively criticized by human rights teams.

Migrants have been prevented from getting into the nation some 7,000 occasions since August, in response to Lithuania’s border guard service. But Belarusians usually are not pushed again; when they’re caught getting into the nation illegally, they’re allowed to remain and request asylum, the commander of the service, Rustamas Liubajevas, mentioned.

“This is a totally different situation from the migrants coming in,” Gen. Liubajevas mentioned. “In many cases, those people are just looking for a better life.”

Migrant advocates argue that the excellence between financial migrants and refugees is usually false, that many individuals touring by Belarus are fleeing failed states and violence, and will qualify for worldwide safety. But even Caritas, a Roman Catholic charity supporting detained migrants, mentioned that many could not.

“The big problem with this migrant crisis is that among these migrants there are a lot of economic ones, and they are being used for political purposes,” mentioned Deimante Bukeikaite, the overall secretary of Caritas in Lithuania.

This summer season, Mr. Lukashenko’s authorities added flights from Middle Eastern locations and loosened visa necessities in what seemed to be a calculated effort to draw migrants who would then search to cross into the neighboring E.U. nations, Lithuania, Poland and Latvia. Most search to journey to nations farther west, like Germany.

Lithuania, a two-hour drive from the Belarusian capital, Minsk, has been a chief vacation spot, although in current weeks, Western officers have mentioned, Belarus directed most migrants towards Poland, the place their clashes with Polish police have made worldwide headlines.

Amid the crush of migration, the paths of Belarusians and different migrants intersect at holding amenities throughout Lithuania. At one migrant camp, a Syrian barber defined to his Belarusian tentmate that his household spent their life financial savings to get to Europe and now had “no way back.” Mr. Dobriyanik met males fleeing their native Chechnya area of Russia, who railed in opposition to President Vladimir V. Putin.

Lithuania, with a inhabitants of lower than three million, has struggled to handle the hundreds of latest arrivals, and this month the federal government declared a state of emergency. Lithuanian leaders have known as the migrants a “hybrid weapon” wielded by Mr. Lukashenko to “attack the democratic world.”

Eyad, a 25-year-old Syrian who made it from Belarus to Lithuania in July, mentioned he doesn’t see himself that manner. “On Facebook, it is written that refugees are weapons,” he mentioned in an interview at a migrant heart in Rukla, in central Lithuania. “But this doesn’t mean that that is what I am.”

Eyad, who requested that his final identify not be revealed to guard his dad and mom in Syria, fled that nation for Russia in 2018. Frustrated at scraping by as an undocumented immigrant in Moscow, the place he mentioned he labored at factories and shawarma stands, Eyad learn on Facebook over the summer season that Mr. Lukashenko had opened his nation’s borders with the E.U.

He and two fellow Syrians discovered a driver to take them to Minsk. Eyad then studied satellite tv for pc imagery to search out what gave the impression to be a porous spot on the Belarus-Lithuania border, took a cab there from Minsk, and walked throughout.

“It was a chance for me,” he mentioned.

Eyad is without doubt one of the handful of non-Belarusians whose asylum software has been authorized. He was moved a couple of weeks in the past from a migrant heart in a former jail to the middle in Rukla, the place greater than 100 blue, grey and white containers home greater than 700 migrants.

When Andrei Susha, a Belarusian, arrived on the Rukla heart in April, iit held fewer than 100 individuals. Mr. Susha, going through jail for derogatory on-line posts in regards to the authorities, made one in every of this yr’s extra daring escapes from Belarus: After receiving a summons to the police station, he grabbed his motorized paraglider, received a experience to a area about 10 miles from the border, and took off.

He flew low over the treetops to evade detection, confirmed he was in Lithuania when the language on highway indicators modified, and went as far into the nation as his gas may take him. After turning himself in, he stayed on the Rukla heart as a result of he didn’t have the cash to go elsewhere.

In the summer season, the middle began filling up. Mr. Susha’s room, house to simply him and a roommate at first, housed seven individuals by August, the beds stacked on high of one another. Some of his new neighbors appeared like real refugees: the Uyghur from China, the Kurd from Turkey, the Sikh from Afghanistan, the Muslim from Myanmar.

“My nerves gave out,” Mr. Susha mentioned. “The conditions were unbearable.”

In August, he managed to discover a room to hire within the close by metropolis of Kaunas and moved out.

Mr. Susha’s asylum request was authorized final week — a course of that has been delayed for a lot of Belarusians due to the crush of candidates. At the Rukla heart, a number of Eritreans have been among the many small group of non-Belarusian migrants given asylum.

A 21-year-old lady mentioned she had first fled to Ethiopia to keep away from indefinite navy service in Eritrea, then flew to Belarus as civil conflict flared in Ethiopia. The lady, who didn’t need her identify used as a result of she feared for her household in Eritrea, stayed in Belarus for months till she discovered a option to enter Lithuania.

“We came running from a dictator government,” she mentioned, “and we were stuck in a dictator government.”

Tomas Dapkus contributed reporting.