Utena County and Alytus County, Lithuania – On June 10, Mohammad Elias Safi, a 47-year-old Afghan, went to Kabul’s airport to catch a flight to Moscow.
From the Russian capital, he travelled “sometimes by walking, sometimes by car,” to try and reach the Belarus-Lithuania border.
On July 5, he arrived with other hopeful refugees and migrants and tried to enter the Baltic country.
But they were stopped by border guards.
The trip, advertised as an easy way to Lithuania, cost him $15,000 – a sum paid to “an agent” in Afghanistan.
Safi ended up in one of Lithuania’s migrant centres, where he remains now, still unsure about his future.
He is one of more than 4,000 people who has entered Lithuania in recent months, a record number. The rate of migration is 55 times higher than last year.
Most are from the Middle East, mainly Iraq, while others have travelled from Africa.
The Lithuanian government says that irregular migration rates sharply peaked after May 26, when Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko threatened to flood neighbouring states with migrants and drugs.
Lithuanian and European Union officials have described this move as a “hybrid” attack and migrants are now caught in the middle.
The clash over migrants is the latest episode in a battle between Russia-backed Belarus and Western nations, which has seen a tense war-of-words grow and sanctions imposed after last year’s disputed presidential election handed Lukashenko another term.
The United States and many European countries have condemned a crackdown on the Belarusian opposition, which at its height saw swaths of protesters arrested and allegedly abused.
Lithuania, which hosts several high-profile Belarusian dissidents, has accused Minsk of pushing migrants over the frontier, while Belarus has tightened its side of the border in a bid to stop people returning.
Fences have been built to fortify the border, more are planned, and troops – including in Poland, which also shares a border with Belarus – have been deployed.
‘Concerning’ conditions and migrant centres
Migrants in Lithuania have been placed in various locations across the coutry, from a refugee reception centre in Rukla, a small central town, to former school buildings alongside the border with Belarus.
The humanitarian conditions differ and in some sites, the situation is “concerning”, especially when it comes to drinkable water, sanitation and medical services, said Elisabeth Haslund, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR.
Safi is at a former school in Kazitiskis, an eastern village near the Belarusian border, which has become a temporary home for 130 migrants and refugees, including women and children.
He shares a room with 16 others and sleeps in a bunk bed.
In the schoolyard, Bekhal Hama Saeed, a 42-year-old woman from Iraq, watches her children play. They are nine, seven and six years old. Her family shares a room with 20 people.
Conditions here are “very bad”, she said. “I cry my heart out every day.
The UNHCR’s Haslund said that it was concerning that “some of the vulnerable groups, such as unaccompanied minors, and families with young children, persons with disabilities, have been placed in some of these facilities that are working above capacity.”
There is also a sense of confusion, which Lithuanian Red Cross programme manager Egle Samuchovaite described as an “informational vacuum”.
With few interpreters around, migrants and refugees are unable to get information about their current situation, which leads to anxiety and stress.
“I’m in prison and they are mentally torturing me. They don’t let us go out, they don’t give us [information on] our status,” said Khan Farooq, from Afghanistan. “We don’t care what’s going on between you and Belarus. I am from Afghanistan, 10,000 miles away.
“I’m a civilian. If I can go to Europe, I go through anywhere. This is not how Europe should be.
“We were betrayed again. We were sold again. Like always in history.”
General Rustamas Liubajevas, head of the state border guard service, acknowledged during an August 17 news conference that there may be a lack of information.
But he added that people should not have expected to travel across the Schengen area, immediately after arrival.
They had this belief, he said, because they were “misled by the organisers”.
But Lithuanian authorities have made some promises.
Arnoldas Abramavicius, deputy interior minister, has said that since Iraqi airlines suspended flights and new entry procedures were enforced, authorities have been able to take a break and “improve conditions”.
From August 2, migrants have only been able to cross the border at official checkpoints.
Approximately 80 migrants entered Lithuania on humanitarian grounds, between August 2 and 17.
Meanwhile, migration officers have started visiting accommodation facilities to provide migrants with more information and hold about 300 interviews a day.
On August 19, a team visited Vydeniai school, a site with 146 people, mainly from African countries.
On that day, Buay Lual, a 23-year-old from South Sudan, was exercising in the school’s sports hall.
He said that he had been living in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, since March.
He watched videos online of people crossing into Lithuania and decided to make an attempt.
Conditions in Vydeniai are good, he said, adding that everyone is treated “like a human being”.
“I appreciate this country because they brought me here, they give me water and food three times [per day]. So how can I say this country is not good?” Buay said.
He was informed about an option to voluntarily return, a scheme under which migrants are given travel tickets and 300 euros ($352).
But Buay is not interested.
“I told them even if they give me one million, how can I go back to the fire?
“I’m here not because I just need money, I am here because I want to have my life.”
He was told that it might take up to six months to know his status.
UNHCR spokesperson Haslund said that “we need to be very careful” when discussing possible future scenarios for thousands of new arrivals, as this “is a very diverse group“ and each case needs to be assessed individually.
While some may need international protections, others may not.
“Then they can be returned home, in dignity and with respect of their human rights,” she said.
As of August 20, Lithuania had registered more than 1,600 asylum applications.
The head of the migration department, Evelina Gudzinskaite, said that only a fraction will be granted asylum. The majority will be deported back to their countries of origin. So far, from 200 examined cases, none were granted asylum.