Increased flow of illegal migrants on the Lithuanian border with Belarus has brought on multiple challenges – one of them being the spread of potentially harmful content. DebunkEU.org analysis has revealed that those who choose to cross the border might find themselves in an information vacuum and thus resort to social media as one of their main sources.
In the end of May, Aleksander Lukashenko voiced a clear threat to EU. As quoted by The Times, Lukashenko warned Europe: “We stopped drugs and migrants. Now you will eat them and catch them yourselves.”
This threat has materialized soon enough and the flow of illegal migrants intensified immensely – by the end of August, the number of people who crossed the border surpassed 4000 (most of them from Iraq). To compare, last year 81 people crossed the border illegally, in 2019 border guards stopped 46, and in 2018 - 104 migrants.
An investigation carried out by the Dossier Center and Dier Spiegel provides evidence that Lukashenko’s regime is encouraging immigrants to travel to Lithuania by coordinating with a Belarusian travel agency to offer tourist visas, setting up flights and then transporting people from Minsk to the Lithuanian border.
While Lithuanian and European leaders have voiced their concerns over the Belarusian authorities using migrants as a means of hybrid warfare, increased rates of illegal migration have also triggered a flow of information on this topic.
DebunkEU.org analysts found at least 122 public groups and pages on Facebook in Arabic language which shared information about illegal migration from Belarus to Lithuania. The number of members variates from 2,655 to 20,937,417 (Facebook page of Arabic news website SkyNewsArabia). DebunkEU.org looked through 283 posts from these groups and pages to analyse messages concerning the migration through the Lithuanian/Belarusian border.
Those wishing to embark on this journey did their homework – the has analysis shown that Facebook users were mostly interested in general information about the situation of illegal migration to Lithuania, living conditions in the refugee camps, measures taken by the EU and Lithuania to cope with the migration crisis. However, it is clear that many people are confused what to do after they step to the other side of the border and what actions would increase their chances of staying in Europe.
Here is one example from July 25, where a man was asking for information needed to travel through Belarus to Lithuania (prices, what kind of documents are needed, citizenship etc.). “Do we need to just let them catch us?” – he asked, “them” being the border control. He was also asking, what would happen with his documents, if they will be taken from him, or given back.
However, there are quite a lot of tips on how to enter Lithuania – around 15% of all detected Facebook posts spread or asked for such information. Based on DebunkEU.org data, such messages reached almost 133 279 contacts worldwide. Moreover, the analysis revealed that other social media platforms such as Telegram, WhatsApp or YouTube are also popular communication channels.
For example, in this post from July 12 (see on the left), a man is giving all the main information about migration to Lithuania through Belarus (the post has been deleted since). He emphasizes that the journey to Lithuania is not difficult at all: “you simply need to step over the border to Lithuania”. In his post he also writes that if one was to successfully walk to Vilnius without getting caught, then they can get a bus, a taxi, or ask help from their friends and continue their journey to some other European country.
Illegal routes to Lithuania through Belarus are shown in a positive light, however, claims that it is easy to enter any European country undermines the approach taken by the EU to protect its borders. One of the conclusions which arises after having analysed communication on Facebook, is that the route Belarus-Lithuania is viewed as one more window to enter the EU.
Some posts clearly show that in many cases, Lithuania is just a temporary stop, as most migrants aim to reach other European countries. “Is [Lithuania] the end? No, we have Great Britain [in mind],“ one person states. Another Facebook user asks for more information on how it is best to reach Europe – is it through Turkey, or Belarus and Lithuania.
There are more examples of posts with misinformation which encourage people to travel to Lithuania. This example on the left talks about how Lithuanian employers are happy to welcome and hire migrants to work (post published on July 8).