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Wednesday, 28 June, 2000, 18:39 GMT 19:39 UK
Lithuania: Back door to the West
Lithuanian border guard
A Lithuanian guard scans the border with Belarus
By Rob Parsons in Lithuania

It is a hot summer's day in eastern Lithuania and a heat haze quivers over a scene of bucolic charm. Two storks are nesting on the roof of a thatched farmstead and just a mile or so away a horse and cart disappear down a dirt track in a cloud of dust.

There is not so much as a fence in sight on Lithuania's border with Belarus - just a ditch and a few posts to mark the boundary.

Two Lithuanian border guards plough through knee-length grass. They are on patrol along a five-mile stretch of the border. A spotter high up in a watchtower helps direct them, but still it is arduous work.

This is a favoured crossing point for illegal immigrants making the long and dangerous passage from Asia to Europe.

A senior officer, Pyatras Shimkus, admits the problems, but says new equipment and better training are making a big difference.

"We've now got thermal cameras supplied by the European Union," he told me. "That helps us to detect intruders at night."

illegal immigrants
Detained immigrants: Lithuania has tightened up border controls

A few years ago, Lithuania's border was as porous as a sieve. A tide of illegal immigrants flooded across its borders, but today it is no longer such a soft touch.

EU impressed

The European Union's Ambassador to Lithuania, Henrik Schmiegelow, is impressed with the progress it has made.

"If we compare the situation now with the one that existed two or three years ago, it has improved dramatically," he said.

Afghan pop music fills the grounds of a detention centre for illegal immigrants on the outskirts of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

Lithuanian detention centre
A detention centre near Vilnius: Many of the immigrants come from Asia

The number of inmates is down on last year, but nobody really knows how many are slipping through undetected. A high percentage come from Asia.

Lin Xi Ming from China is adamant about one thing - he doesn't want to go home. About the rest he's rather vague. He told me his arrest had been a misunderstanding and that he had a business in Prague.

It emerged later that he had been imprisoned for his part in smuggling people across the border.

Trafficking business

The traffic in human beings is big business and much of it is organised in Russia and Belarus.

Farid Ahmad
Farid Ahmad from Afghanistan: Immigrants pay agents thousands of dollars
The number of illegal immigrants at a detention centre near the capital Vilnius is down on past years but nobody knows how many are slipping through undetected.

Farid Ahmad fled the war in Afghanistan last year in the hope of reaching Germany.

"There are agents who charge $3,000 per person - that's what I paid," he said.

"There are thousands in Moscow and Belarus illegally who want to come to the West. The ones who take them across are locals - Russians, Belarussians, ones who know the border best."

Poland-Lithuania border
Poland's border with Lithuania - a worry for the EU

The expansion of the European Union gives these new borders a critical importance. Poland is set to join within the next five years. Its border with Lithuania will form the outer frontier of the EU.

Paradoxically, it is Lithuania's best guarded border - with Poland - that is giving the EU greatest cause for concern.

And the pickings for organised crime are that much greater. The traffic in human beings is growing and much of it is coming this way.

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