Lithuania’s parliament has passed new legislation to limit the influx of migrants crossing its borders from Belarus.
Vilnius has declared a state of emergency due to the increase in new arrivals in recent days and has accused Belarusian authorities of orchestrating the migration.
On Tuesday, Lithuanian MPs voted to pass legal amendments that include a fast-track procedure to deport migrants more quickly.
The law now also cuts the processing time of asylum applications from several months to just 10 days.
Eighty-four lawmakers approved the amendments in Lithuania’s 141-seat Seimas, while one voted against and there were 58 abstentions.
But the legislation, which also prevents the free movement of migrants and restricts their rights, was strongly criticised by human rights groups.
Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said migrants arriving in Lithuania are not fleeing either “war plague or famine” but are a “tool” used by Belarus.
Instead, he said, the arrivals are students in Belarus with long-term visas, who have been living in “completely safe conditions”.
“They are being sent on a compulsory basis as a weapon against us, we must repel the attack,” Landsbergis told parliament on Tuesday.
Lithuanian Interior minister Agne Bilotaite also stated that the country must envoke a “swift, dissuasive and united” response to the increase in migration.
In a joint statement, non-governmental organisations have expressed concern that the new amendments would violate human rights.
The groups said the law would allow migrants to be detained for an undetermined period of time without a court ruling and would also restrict NGO access to detention centres.
Relations between Lithuania and Belarus have remained tense following the disputed re-election of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in August 2020.
The vote result triggered months of protests and a harsh crackdown on the opposition by Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime.
Lithuania, which has granted refuge to Belarus opposition figures, has accused Belarusian authorities of organising border crossings of people mainly from Iraq, other Middle Eastern nations, and Africa.
The European Union’s border agency, Frontex, has pledged to step up its support to Lithuania to help stem the tide of migrants.
Lukashenko has said his country will halt cooperation with the EU on stemming migration, in retaliation for fresh economic sanctions on Minsk.
More than 1.700 people have been detained at Lithuania’s border with Belarus this year so far, more than a twenty-fold increase compared to all of 2020.
Lithuania began building a 550-kilometre razor wire barrier on its frontier with Belarus on Friday.