Interior minister: Migrant crisis is in our backyard - we must be prepared

Kristian Jaani.
Kristian Jaani. Source: ERR

As Poland and Lithuania are practically in Estonia's backyard, we must be prepared to see "migrant pressure" at the border, Minister of Interior Kristian Jaani (Center) said on Thursday.

Speaking on ETV's interview show "Esimene stuudio", he said there needs to be an awareness of what is happening in the wider region, not just in the Baltic states. Jaani said this starts on the Ukrainian border.

"The most important thing is how united we are in the European Union, in the European Union as a whole, in our bilateral relations with our allies. That is the most important thing. This is what Belarus is trying to break up today," the minister said.

He said Estonia must be ready for the crisis to move north.

"This thing is basically happening in our backyard. We have to take that into account, we have to be ready for it. And we have taken real action to be ready," Jaani said.

When migrants started crossing the Belarusian border into Lithuania and Latvia in the summer, it was assumed Estonia would be used as a transit country to the Nordics, he added.

Jaani said no threat is currently seen at Estonia's external border with Russia, which is well guarded, but at its internal EU border with Latvia. However, few migrants from Belarus have been found in Estonia so far.

He said construction on the external border started several years ago and in areas where illegal border crossings are thought to be most likely. At the same time, the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) is speeding up the process.

Jaani, a former high-ranking police officer, said it is also possible to quickly set up temporary barriers on the border if necessary and said Minister of Defense Kalle Laanet (Reform) has already allocated funding for this.

Agreements to send members of the Defense League and Defense Forces to the border have also been made.

No point talking about a hybrid attack anymore

Lithuanian-Belarusian border. Source: Erik Peinar

Jaani reiterated comments he made earlier this week saying the time to speak about hybrid attacks is over.

"We no longer have to talk about a hybrid attack. What is hybrid about it? Nobody's hiding it anymore, not [Alexander] Lukashenko, not Belarus. It's a direct attack to destabilize the situation in Poland, the European Union as a whole, between its neighbors, between its allies," he said.

The interior minister said the arrival of migrants at the Polish border is clearly organized. 

"They come there [to Belarus] as tourists, they pay a lot of money to get to Belarus, they believe in promises without any guarantees, as if it is access to Europe. There is no access, there is no direct access to the European Union," he said.

Jaani also drew focus back to the Lithuanian border, saying there is still a lot of pressure on it. The country declared a state of emergency in its border regions earlier this week.

He also said Belarus' actions are an attack on the unity of the European Union as a whole.

Background: Situation on the Polish-Belarusian border

Since Monday, thousands of migrants, mostly from the middle east, have been gathering at the Belarusian-Polish border near Grodno in northwestern Belarus.

The migrants, men, women and children, have mostly traveled from Iraq to Minsk on the promise they will be able to cross into the European Union. They have paid thousands of euros to do so but are now stuck at the border as Poland will not let them cross.

The situation is an escalation of events that has seen thousands of migrants cross the EU's eastern border since the summer, first in Lithuania and then Latvia and Poland.

After sanctions were placed on Belarus for human rights abuses by the EU, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko threatened to send "migrants and drugs" to Europe.

EU officials say the Minsk regime is responsible for facilitating and enabling irregular migration, calling it "hybrid aggression".

Estonia has sent support to Lithuania, including border guards and razor wire. It has also shown solidarity through statements and by raising the issue at the United Nations Security Council.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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