On Lithuania’s plea, Iraq to probe human smuggling to Europe

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s foreign minister pledged Thursday that his country will investigate human trafficking networks responsible for smuggling hundreds of Iraqis into Europe, specifically to Lithuania from Belarus.

The announcement by Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein came after a meeting in Baghdad with visiting Lithuanian counterpart, Gabrielius Landsbergis. Lithuania, which recently had to declare a state of emergency due to the rising influx of migrants, had appealed on Iraq to act in the matter.

Hussein said Iraq will form a committee with representatives from the Foreign Ministry, Migration Ministry, as well as intelligence and the Civil Aviation Authority to clamp down on the smuggling networks. He spoke to reporters in a joint press conference with Landsbergis.

Landsbergis said there was a “mutual need” to disrupt the network from Iraq into Europe that was being perpetrated by “malign actors” using criminal elements. He blamed neighboring Belarus for encouraging migration into Lithuania.

In the past two months, more than 1,500 people have crossed into Lithuania — 20 times more than in the whole of 2020. In response, Vilnius declared a state of emergency and accused Belarus of organizing border crossings by people, mainly from Iraq.

“An unfriendly country to us, our neighbor, is using migrants, mostly Iraqi people, to pressure my country, to pressure the European Union in order for us to change our policy,” Landsbergis said.

“We feel Iraqi people are becoming a victim of the Belarusian regime,” he said. Landsbergis added that he had recounted to Hussein some of the testimony collected by Lithuanian authorities from 800 Iraqi migrants about how they were trafficked into Lithuania.

“Iraqi people are being promised an easy trip to Europe, a European paradise of sorts, but the problem is, they end up in a Lithuanian forest in a refugee camp,” he said. “We think those people were lied to, they had to pay a lot of a money to get to the border.”

Relations between Lithuania and Belarus soured after the August 2020 elections in Minsk, which was won by long-time President Alexander Lukashenko but has been condemned by the West as rigged. The vote results triggered months of protests and a harsh crackdown on the opposition by Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime.

Hussein said the committee would investigate the issue inside Iraq and take action based on its results.

Migrants in Verebiejai, Lithuania, told The Associated Press earlier this week that they came to Minsk from Baghdad.

“I gave somebody $1,400 to bring me to the woods. I think it was the border. They showed me the way. They told me: go this way. Then I walked,” an unnamed migrant said.

Another told the same story and added that he booked a hotel in Minsk and after that, “started trying” to cross the border into Lithuania.

Associated Press writer Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.