Estonia's border preparedness has been boosted, particularly on its eastern frontier, in response to the migration crisis facing Lithuania which has seen a surge in the number of people crossing its border illegally from neighboring Belarus in what foreign affairs committee chairs from inside and outside the European Union have called the use of migrants and the curtailing of their human rights by the Alexander Lukashenko regime aimed at attempting to reach political goals.
ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported Saturday that Estonia has the capacity to accommodate an influx of displaced persons, with the main issue being a potential lack of interpreters.
Cooperation with private residents in border districts is key in Estonia, including on its southeastern border with the Russian Federation and Latvia – the three frontiers actually converge in a heavily forested and depopulated zone in the far southeast of Estonia.
Mayor of Setomaa Raul Kuldre noted this was not the first time heightened awareness had been called for, and forthcoming, in recent years. Setomaa is not one of Estonia's 15 counties and the Seto region is an historic one, which straddles the Estonia-Russia border.
Kuldre said: "We are also prepared for this, as a few years ago a large migration crisis exercise took place in Koidula, where all the authorities were ready for it and were done several times when 100 or more people come across the border."
Local resident Ingrid Kalam told AK that: "Cooperation with the border guard is needed, and if you spot anything, you must to speak up about it and inform [the authorities]."
The sparse population and close-knit nature of the region make it hard for outsiders, not least those from far-off lands, to blend in unnoticed, she added.
Kalam told AK that: "There aren't many people here, and as they know and recognize one another, then every stranger will stand out."
Border checks have been stepped up too on Estonia's EU/Schengen Zone border with its southern neighbor Latvia, a demarcation line which has already seen far more scrutiny since the coronavirus arrived in spring 2020, while monitoring of ports has also been stepped up, AK said.
Around 150 people per day have been reported to have crossed into EU state Lithuania from Belarus in recent days, a rate about 20 times last year's and a development which former Estonian foreign minister and current MEP Urmas Paet (Reform) has called a type of hybrid warfare.
Tensions between Minsk and the EU have been running high for nearly a year now since the re-election of Alexander Lukashenko for a sixth term in polls widely condemned as rigged, and followed by violent crackdown on dissenters in Belarus ever since and, in May, the forced landing of a civilian airliner destined for Vilnius and carrying an opposition figure in Belarus.
Tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions have been ongoing between the Baltic States and both Belarus and Russia.
Estonia imposed a flight ban to and from Belarus in late May, and the appointment of a new Estonian ambassador to Belarus, to replace Merike Kokajev, whose term finishes at the end of this month, has met with controversy.
Estonia does not have a land border with Belarus, but fears nonetheless abound in the southeastern corner of the country.
"There is already a small, if tacit, fear of a larger mass of people breaking in somewhere," one resident of the village of Litvina told AK.
Another resident, of Saatse village, said: "It is quite risky for the locals in terms of security … and politicians should, I think, take this on board in order to better guard the border, and ensure that they do not come."
The migrants entering Lithuania are predominantly of Middle Eastern and African origin, AK reported – public broadcaster LRT's English-language page said the largest national grouping originate from Iraq – and are, AK said, searching for a route into the core of Western Europe.
A change of direction northwards is not ruled out, however the Police and Border Guard Board's (PPA) head of borders Egert Belitšev told AK, meaning Estonia has updated its contingency plans regarding mass immigration
Belitšev said: "We are building up our infrastructure on the eastern border, which is also one of the signs that entering Estonia would be as difficult as possible. In other words, not only this area, but actually the entire set of monitoring equipment, which will give us a complete picture of what is happening on the border."
PPA patrols and visible presence have already been stepped up both on the eastern border and the border with Latvia, he said.
As reported by ERR News, Estonia is also planning to send border guard personnel to the southernmost Baltic State to help out in the crisis.
LRT: Lithuania border being augmented with barbed wire installations
Much of the eastern border away from the far southeast consists of Peipsi Järv and, north of that, the Narva River, which flows into the Baltic.
LRT's English-language portal reports that the Druskininkai border guard station in the far south of that country hosts over 500 of the over 1,500 which have been detained so far this year, while that country's government declared a state-level emergency over the issue, which it says is being driven by the Lukashenko regime.
Lithuania's border infrastructure will also see fencing and the use of concertina wire, LRT reports.
Estonia foreign ministry: Joint statement condemns Lukashenko 'human trafficking'
The foreign affairs committees of all three Baltic States and of Poland, along with those of several other EU nations, the U.K., the U.S. and Ukraine, have issued a statement condemning what they call politically motivated human trafficking.
The statement, issued Friday, reads that: "We, the Chairs of our respective national parliament's Foreign Affairs Committees, condemn unequivocally the use of trafficked migrants by the illegal Lukashenko regime to undermine neighboring states.
"Using the most vulnerable as leverage in a political dispute is shameful and draws comparison with the act of air piracy we witnessed in May," the statement continues, according to an Estonian foreign ministry press release.
"The attempt to push migrants over the border of Lithuania is a criminal and inhuman act aimed at undermining the solidarity and support of the Lithuanian people towards those in Belarus who crave liberty and reject the stolen elections of last year. This is a new and pernicious assault on a EU member state and NATO ally. It should be met with solidarity and a national, European and transatlantic response."
"We call for sanctions on those involved in this state-organized people trafficking across international borders and the Lukashenka regime that controls it," the statement adds, calling also for a flight ban to and from Belarus – one which Estonia installed in any case in the wake of the Ryanair hijacking.
The statement also calls for a joint commitment to end the people trafficking across EU borders, plus support to the union's border guard, visa and asylum-related organizations, including Frontex.
Reform Party MP and chair of the Rigiikogu's foreign affairs committee Marko Míhkelson signed on behalf of Estonia and co-signatories included Žygimantas Pavilionis (Lithuania), Rihards Kols (Latvia), Charlie Flanagan TD (Ireland), Tom Tugendhat MP (U.K.) and Sen. Bob Menendez (U.S.).
The statement also said the governments of Iraq, Turkey and "any other state used by the Lukashenko regime in the abuse and instrumentalization of migrants" should be appealed to by both the EU and NATO.
The reconstruction of Estonia's border infrastructure, particularly in the southeastern region where in places it is not at all clearly demarcated and where even using Google Maps could potentially land individuals in hot water, has been ongoing for some years.
Editor: Andrew Whyte