RUKLA, Lithuania — The emigrants hitchhiked overnight to the Dysna River, the border of their native Belarus. They thought they could wade across the frigid waters, but the spot they chose in haste proved to be so deep they had to swim.
On the other side, at dawn two weeks ago, they found a house with a light on and asked for the police. They were fleeing the authoritarian regime of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, and seeking asylum in neighboring Lithuania, a member of the European Union. Taken to a makeshift camp at a border guard station, they joined about a dozen Iraqis, some Chechens and someone from Southeast Asia.
“We’ve been here for weeks, months,” a migrant told them, according to one of the Belarusians, Aleksandr Dobriyanik. “We know you’ll leave here in just a couple days.”
uprising against Mr. Lukashenko’s fraudulent 2020 re-election sparked a crackdown in which anyone who sympathized with the opposition is a potential target. It has approved 71 asylum requests from Belarusians this year. The U.S. State Department commended the country last week for “offering safe haven to many Belarusian democracy advocates,” including Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader.
clashes with Polish police have made worldwide headlines.
Amid the crush of migration, the paths of Belarusians and other migrants intersect at holding facilities across Lithuania. At one migrant camp, a Syrian barber explained to his Belarusian tentmate that his family spent their life savings to get to Europe and now had “no way back.” Mr. Dobriyanik met men fleeing their native Chechnya region of Russia, who railed against President Vladimir V. Putin.
Lithuania, with a population of less than three million, has struggled to manage the thousands of new arrivals, and this month the government declared a state of emergency. Lithuanian leaders have called the migrants a “hybrid weapon” wielded by Mr. Lukashenko to “attack the democratic world.”