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Lithuania began building a 550-kilometer barbed wire fence on its border with Belarus (REUTERS/Janis Laizans)

As they try to make their way to the European Union to seek asylum, migrants from Iraq and Africa face greedy smugglers and perilous land and sea crossings.

According to the New York Times, some immigrants now find themselves caught up in a geopolitical battle between the European Union and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

The New York Times says that “this battle has intensified” since his government forced a Ryanair airliner to land and arrested an opposition activist, drawing global condemnation and leading to European Union sanctions against Minsk.

These battle lines appear to have been drawn on the Belarusian-Lithuanian border in recent weeks, as the number of migrants crossing into Lithuania, an EU member, from Belarus has surged.

Lithuanian officials accuse Lukashenko of encouraging migrants to cross the border, using them as “weapons”.

In response, last Friday, Lithuania began building a 550-kilometer barbed wire fence on its border with Belarus.

According to Reuters, about 1,700 migrants entered Lithuania illegally from Belarus this year, including more than 1,000 migrants in July alone, according to the Lithuanian Border Guard Service.

Half of these migrants said they were Iraqi citizens.

And last week, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fouad Hussein said that his country would investigate the smuggling of Iraqi migrants into Lithuania.

In a joint press conference he held with his Lithuanian counterpart Gabrielius Landsbergis in Baghdad, Hussein said that the two sides discussed the issue of “Iraqi refugees in Lithuania,” stressing his “refusal to have human traffickers in Iraqi society.”

The Iraqi minister confirmed, according to what was quoted by the official Iraqi News Agency, that “the government will investigate the smuggling of Iraqis to Lithuania via Belarus.”

The Lithuanian foreign minister and the European Union’s foreign policy chief accused Belarus of using illegal immigration as a political weapon to put pressure on the union because of the bloc’s sanctions against Minsk.

During a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels last Monday, Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that Belarus transports migrants from abroad by air, and sends them across the border to the EU countries.

“Refugees are being used as a political weapon… I will talk with my colleagues so that the European Union has a common strategy,” he added.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, made similar statements later, and said, “Using migrants as a weapon and pushing people at the border is unacceptable.”

© The Eastern Herald