Estonia has already announced plans to erect a 2.5 metre barbed wire fence along its 136 kilometre border with Russia and Latvia has spoken about closing down parts of its 214 km frontier with Russia.
Ojars Eriks Kalnins, a member of the Latvian parliament European Affairs Committee, told Express.co.uk: “It’s unfortunate that we would need a border fence, but given the circumstances in Europe right now, the whole refugee crisis, it may be necessary.”
A growing number of European countries including Hungary, Macedonia and Bulgaria are constructing huge fences as a last-ditch attempt to halt the migrant flow.
Meanwhile Lithuanian officials say there are no grounds for panic, but the border service is sending additional guards to monitor the external EU border with Belarus.
Lithuanian officials note that recent incidents in Norway and Finland have shown that migrants from Syria and Afghanistan are venturing to cross the border illegally even after having lived in Russia for several years.
“Russia has always been our biggest supplier of illegal migrants. Virtually all of them come [to Lithuania] from Russia – via Belarus or Estonia and Latvia,” a border guard service officer, who spoke to DELFI on the condition of anonymity, said. “Naturally, if you squeeze in one place, pressure moves to another spot.”
Last week, Lithuania’s border guard service launched a training exercise, practising how to efficiently reintroduce controls on the internal EU border with Latvia. Lithuania will also be holding exercises on how to protect external EU borders.
Lithuania’s Minister of the Interior Saulius Skvernelis said that the exercise was meant to prepare the service to meet potential pressures on the country’s eastern border, not just from illegal migrants, but from smugglers as well.
“The exercises are about preparing for different possibilities, whatever they may be,” according to Skvernelis.
“If pressures mounted to the extent of those in Greece, we need to be ready to handle the situation, to have all measures at our disposal,” he added.
He confirmed that the training and broader preparatory exercises of Lithuania’s border guards were in part in response to incidents on the Norwegian-Russian border and the Finnish-Russian border.
Media in Finland reported in January that Russia’s Federal Security Agency, the FSB, was facilitating refugees crossing into Finland at the Russian border and this was unofficially confirmed by a Russian border official,.
Something similar has happened on the Norwegian-Russian border with some 5,500 migrants crossing into Norway from Russia in 2015. With some of them legal residents of Russia, Norway attempted to send the migrants back to Russia but the country would not accept them back.
“You know, we have to be ready,” said Interior Vice-Minister Elvinas Jankevičius. “Five years ago, no one could have predicted that Europe would have a migrant crisis, so we just want to be prepared. If something happened and an unmanageable flow of migrants reached Lithuania – this is why we are conducting the exercise, not because the threat is here and now.”
Unofficial controls on Latvian border?
Jankevičius goes out of his way to stress that the EU, including Lithuania, will distinguish between refugees from countries like Syria and Iraq, who are legally entitled to asylum, and so-called economic migrants who overwhelmed southern EU states.
As several Balkan countries have closed down their borders to migrant transiting via Greece and a recent EU-Turkey agreement could stem migration to southern Europe, the EU’s eastern border could become the next target of human traffickers.
According to Frontex, over the third quarter of 2015 illegal crossings on the EU’s eastern border totalled 1,866, including smugglers – this was up 32% on the previous quarter and up a massive 87% on the same period in 2014.
Forty-nine percent of the illegal crossings were performed by Ukrainian, Russian and Moldovan nationals and in 51% of the cases, the migrants came from Vietnam, Afghanistan or Syria.
Most of the crossings were attempted along the Hungarian-Ukrainian and the Latvian-Russian borders.
Lithuanian officers hint that there are some concerns about the Lithuanian-Latvian frontier, which is an internal Schengen border and therefore not subject to checks, due to poor protection of the neighbouring country’s frontier with Russia. It has been relatively susceptible to both smuggling and illegal migration.
“I do not want to say so out loud, but Latvians are not very good at protecting their borders,” a Lithuanian officer said, commenting on the purpose of the training exercise on the Lithuanian-Latvian border.
“We will be facing more intense migration relatively soon, perhaps this summer, from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan,” the unidentified officer added.
He also said that similar training exercises of border guards could turn into an unofficial reintroduction of border controls, performed in rotation by Lithuanian and Latvian officers.
Lithuania’s 679 kilometre border with Belarus is relatively well protected, he said, although the situation fluctuates depending on Vilnius-Minsk relations. When the two governments are on good terms, Belarusian officers catch more illegal migrants and accept those who need to be returned; when the relations are more tense, cooperation suffers.
One of the problems, the officer said, was that Lithuania – and the EU as a whole – does not have a re-admission treaty with Belarus, which means that illegal migrants who come from this country cannot be sent back.