Migrants say Belarusians took them to EU border and provided wire cutters

SULAIMANIYA, Iraq – The sudden influx of migrants to Belarus from the Middle East, which is now at the center of a political crisis in E...


SULAIMANIYA, Iraq – The sudden influx of migrants to Belarus from the Middle East, which is now at the center of a political crisis in Europe, was no accident.

The Belarusian government relaxed its visa rules in August, Iraqi travel agents said, making a flight to the country a more enjoyable trip to Europe than the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece.

He increased the flights of the public airline, then actively helped channel migrants from the capital, Minsk, to the borders with Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.

And Belarusian security forces gave them instructions on how to cross the countries of the European Union, even distributing wire cutters and axes to cut border fences.

These measures, which European leaders have called a cynical ploy to ‘militarize’ migrants in an attempt to punish Europe, opened the doors for people desperate to flee a region plagued by instability and high unemployment.

Now thousands of people are stranded or hiding along the border in freezing conditions, unwanted by the countries of the European Union or, the circumstances make clear, by the country that lured them there in first place.

The human tide has turned cities like Sulaimaniya in the Iraqi Kurdistan region into bustling departure ports for migrants eager to make an expensive and risky journey for the chance for a better life in Europe.

As rumors went viral on social media that Belarus offered a route to Europe, the number of migrants snowballed.

Mala Rawaz, a travel agent in Sulaimaniya, said he sells around 100 packages per week for trips to Belarus. The packages included airfare through a third country, transit accommodation and a Belarusian visa.

At the town bazaar, Bryar Muhammad, 25, was getting a good deal on Thursday selling warm clothes.

“Good clothes for Belarus! he cried, waving thick acrylic sweaters and winter jackets from a cardboard box. “For the Belarusian snow!”

Even as young families in Iraq pledged their homes as collateral to raise funds for the trip, evidence has accumulated that The autocratic leader of Belarus, Alexander G. Lukashenko, orchestrated migration to create a crisis for the European Union.

Belarusian state-owned airline Belavia has increased its flights from the Middle East to Minsk, EU officials said. Belarusian authorities have relaxed the issuance of visas through the state travel agency Tsentrkurort, according to the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry.

The migrants who reached Minsk were accommodated in at least three government-owned hotels, according to Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks and Franak Viacorka, senior adviser to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

Mr Pabriks said Belarusian intelligence agents were involved in the transfer of migrants to the borders and that military buses were used.

Several Iraqi migrants said Belarusian security forces provided them with tools to cross the Polish border fence.

Bayar Awat, an Iraqi Kurd stranded on the Belarusian side of the Polish border, said Belarusian guards helped his group reach the border by pointing to a road that bypassed the official border post and came out near a breach in the border fence .

“The Belarusian police guided us towards the forest, then gave directions to lead us inside the forest to get away from the official border post,” he said.

On Thursday, a Belarusian soldier was heard on the phone ordering an Iraqi Kurd to lead a group of 400 to 500 migrants from the Lithuanian border to the Polish border.

“All the people who settle here go to Brest,” the soldier told him in broken English, referring to the Belarusian town on the Polish border, as there were too many migrants on the Lithuanian border.

When some migrants attempted to leave the frozen forest to return to Minsk, many were turned away by Belarusian guards, leaving the migrants stranded at the border, they said.

EU officials say the measures are part of Lukashenko’s efforts to retaliate against the European Union for imposing sanctions after claiming victory in a contested 2020 election.

“Lukashenko’s rhetoric, visa policy and the sudden influx of migrants this summer all point to the involvement of the Belarusian state and travel agencies,” said Gustav Gressel, Berlin-based senior researcher at the European Council of foreign relations.

In order to stem the crisis on Friday, several airlines took action to limit the number of people flying to Belarus from the Middle East. Travel agents in Iraq said Turkey and Iran began canceling tickets to Minsk for Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni passengers on Thursday, and the government had blocked travel agents from even selling tickets. transit to Belarus earlier in the week.

But that didn’t matter to the desperate Iraqis, who were already finding other routes via Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

“I heard that the situation is not good in Belarus, but I have to go because there is no life here, no job opportunities, no human rights, no ‘equality and justice, no joy at all,’ said Amer Karwan, a carpenter who went with three friends to a travel agency in Sulaimaniya on Thursday to collect tickets they hoped to bring to Belarus.

Mr. Karwan, who turned 20 on Thursday, had borrowed $ 3,500 from a relative for the trip. He said the group were not deterred by the travel agent’s warning that tickets through Iran and Turkey were non-refundable and that there was no guarantee that they would travel to Belarus.

Ironically, the largest source of migrants, the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, is considered the most stable and secure region in the country.

Unlike many of their parents who became refugees during Saddam Hussein’s time, this time Iraqi Kurds are not fleeing war or genocide. They are looking for a future that even the relative peace of the country has not offered them.

Despite the external prosperity of Iraqi Kurdistan, young people especially despair of the lack of jobs, corruption, repression and tribal conflicts which often prevail over the legal system.

They take out loans and borrow from family members to make the trip.

The crisis has increased the price of visas to Belarus, which used to cost around $ 90 and now cost around $ 1,200. Most migrants said they paid around $ 3,000 for packages that included visa, plane ticket and a few days of accommodation.

Many migrants also leave thousands of dollars in deposit at currency transfer shops to be sent to smugglers who promise to take them across the border. Several said the contraband costs were around $ 3,000. But often, the migrants said, the smugglers do nothing more than point out which direction to walk through the dense forest.

That is to say not to mention the emotional costs that a migrant has to face when he leaves his home and his family.

Mr Karwan, dressed in a new olive-green winter jacket and gloves, left his home to take a taxi to Erbil Airport, a four-hour drive away.

Seeing him leave for Sulaimaniya, Mr. Karwan’s mother and his two sisters stood at the door sobbing. Her father stuck Iraqi dinars in her hand and waited for the taxi door to close before wiping away his tears.

“I feel bad,” said his mother, Bayan Omar. “He’s my only son. If I prevented him from leaving, what would he do? He said to me: ‘Can you guarantee me a house, a car, a life, the chance to get married?’ I can’t stop it.

Later that day, Mr. Karwan’s flights through Tehran and Istanbul were canceled. He was waiting for Erbil to be re-let via Dubai.

For those who have already arrived in Belarus, the situation is grim. On the border with Lithuania, several thousand migrants were pushed against razor wire fences, prevented from moving forward or backing.

Young men and families with young children who had walked for days in the deep forest were clustered around makeshift camps, burning wood in an attempt to warm themselves, according to videos uploaded by the migrants. Some had small pop-up tents, others tucked into sleeping bags on the icy ground.

At least nine migrants died in Belarus over the past two weeks, mostly due to exposure.

“We have food and water but not enough,” said an Iraqi Kurd, who asked to be called by his nickname, Bahadino. He sent videos showing pregnant women and young children, some of them disabled.

He also uploaded a video of himself and a small group of migrants politely holding a cardboard sign saying “Poland – Sorry”.

“Today we have apologized to the European Union and to Poland,” he said. “You know because we got to the border and we broke the fence at the border. We apologize for that. “

But he did not apologize for trying to enter Europe. He said he did not intend to return to Iraq.

Jane arraf reported from Sulaimaniya, Iraq, and Elian Peltier from Brussels. Sangar Khaleel and Barzan jabar contributed to Sulaimaniya reporting.

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