VILNIUS (Reuters) – Lithuania on Thursday sent five Afghan migrants back to Belarus shortly after they had crossed the border despite the European Court of Human Rights earlier saying they should be allowed to stay.
The migrants had tried to enter Lithuania unsuccessfully at least 10 times since Aug. 29, their lawyer said. Their case had been brought to the European Court.
The Lithuanian border guard said the five had been detained and sent back into Belarus on Thursday before noon having just crossed over the border.
“We intend to not allow the illegal migrants into Lithuanian territory,” the Guard said in a statement.
More than 4,100 migrants from the Middle East and South Asia have entered Lithuania this year and the European Union has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of sending them over its borders with EU nations in retaliation for sanctions imposed by the bloc on the Minsk government.
Lithuania has been pushing back migrants since early August and only a few dozen have been allowed in.
On Wednesday, the European Court of Human Rights said the Afghan migrants were vulnerable following the Taliban’s takeover of power in Kabul on Aug. 15 and were seeking international protection.
“The applicants should not be removed to Belarus, provided that they are already on Lithuanian territory” before Sept. 29 pending fuher proceedings, it said.
Border Guard Chief Rustamas Liubajevas told BNS news wire that Lithuania was not obliged by the court to allow the migrants to enter from Belarus.
The migrants’ lawyer, Asta Astrauskiene, told Reuters they left Belarus on Sunday and had been hiding inside Lithuanian territory since then. The border guards were called to the location by the lawyer on Thursday but they pushed the migrants out into Belarus territory, she said.
“We will now inform the Court about the situation and will ask it to tell Lithuania to let them back in,” Astrauskiene said. She got into contact with the migrants after a request for help from another lawyer, she told BNS.
Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite told Reuters she saw the case as “an obvious attempt to open a new route for illegal migration, by manipulating the Afghanistan events”.
“Lithuania is ready to help Afghanistan citizens if they arrive legally. But we will not allow anyone to abuse our asylum system and to turn Lithuanian into a thoroughfare for illegal migration”, Bilotaite said via a spokeswoman.
(Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Editing by Angus MacSwan)