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AP team finds first evidence of Belarus facilitating migrant wave

Lithuanians sell goods to migrants standing behind the fence at a refugee camp in the village of Verebiejai, Lithuania, July 11, 2021. European Union member Lithuania has declared a state of emergency due to a recent influx of migrants from neighboring Belarus. Migrants told AP that Belarus is facilitating the migrant surge, apparently as political retaliation against the EU. in the last few days. Lithuania's interior minister said late Friday that the decision, proposed by the State Border Guard Service, was necessary not because of increased threats to the country of 2.8 million but to put a more robust system in place to handle migrants. (AP Photo / Mindaugas Kulbis)

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Neosanhare Esone Queen, a migrant from Nigeria, stands behind a fence at a refugee camp in the village of Verebiejai, Lithuania, July 11, 2021. – AP Photo / Mindaugas Kulbis

The cross-format team of freelance reporter Liudas Dapkus, video journalist Mstyslav Chernov, photographer Mindaugas Kulbis, Belarus reporter Yuras Karmanau and Moscow journalist Vladimir Isachenkov collaborated on an “Only on AP” package documenting Belarusian authorities’ involvement in a recent surge of immigration from Belarus into Lithuania. In the past two months more than 1,700 have crossed the border — 20 times the total for all of 2020.

Lithuanian and European Union officials have accused Belarus of assisting the migration in retaliation over EU sanctions against the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko, but no evidence had been provided and no media outlets had been able to speak to the migrants themselves, who are held in heavily guarded, makeshift camps in Lithuania.

The determined AP trio of Chernov, Dapkus and Kulbis wanted to hear from the migrants themselves, so they decided to drive from camp to camp, more than 600 kilometers (375 miles). The bigger camps closer to Vilnius were very heavily guarded — contact with the migrants was impossible.

They then tried a smaller, more remote camp in a rural area, unknown even to local media. Here the police were more relaxed and allowed the journalists to speak to some of the migrants through the fencing. Finally they got the detail that they needed — the migrants were making payments to be taken via Belarus to Europe and they corroborated the accusations that the Belarusian authorities were, to some extent, involved in the operation.

At a second small camp they secured another scoop by gaining access inside,briefly making photos and video of the living conditions inside the camp. Migrants there also confirmed that Belarus was helping migrants get to Lithuania.

With Karmanau reporting from Belarus and Isachakov pulling all the reporting into a cohesive piece, the resulting all-formats AP exclusive revealed how migrants have once again been caught up in a game of political brinksmanship.

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