- Middle Eastern migrants arrive in Belarus on tourist visas
- State travel agency, airline made their travel easier
- Belarusian President denies easing migrant crisis with EU
- EU accuses him of orchestrating the influx of thousands
- Border crisis deepened, with Russia backing Minsk
SULAIMANIYA, Iraq / HAJNOWKA, Poland, November 15 (Reuters) – When Kamaran Mohammed traveled with his wife and three children to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, last month from their home in northern Iraq , they went there as tourists.
They were among thousands of people who have been granted tourist visas in recent months with the help of Middle Eastern travel agencies working in partnership with tour operators in Belarus, according to documents and testimonies.
Days after arriving in Minsk, the family traveled to the Belarus-Poland border, joining a wave of Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans and others attempting the dangerous and sometimes deadly crossing to the European Union to start a new life.
“The planes carry tourists who are not sightseeing,” Mohammed said, speaking Thursday at his home in the town of Sulaimaniya, in northern Iraq.
“The Belarusian government knows full well that these people are not tourists, but are heading for the Polish border.”
Mohammed and his family arrived in Poland, but only briefly. They were returned to Iraq on October 31, a reminder that spending thousands of dollars and risking lives does not guarantee settling in the EU.
Reuters was unable to independently verify his account.
The migrant crisis has fueled tensions between the West and Russia, Belarus’ ally. Moscow has sent nuclear-capable bombers to patrol Belarusian skies, and countries bordering Belarus have expressed concern that the dispute could escalate into a military confrontation.
The European Union has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of orchestrating the influx of migrants to pressure him to back down in the face of sanctions imposed on his government.
Poland and Lithuania have produced documents, seen by Reuters, which they say show that at least one Belarusian state travel agency facilitated the visit of potential migrants from May, while a carrier d The state has more than doubled its flights on a route popular with asylum seekers.
Lukashenko denies facilitating the crisis, although he said he would no longer detain migrants due to sanctions imposed by the EU after a contested presidential election last year and the subsequent crackdown on protesters.
Reuters spoke to more than 30 Middle Eastern migrants or would-be immigrants for this story in their home countries, at the Belarus-Poland border and at migrant centers in Poland.
About 20 specified which visas they traveled with and all said they were for tourism. Documents released by Poland showed that nearly 200 Iraqis received visa assistance from a state-run travel agency in Belarus to travel for hunting and other travel purposes.
Migrants and travel agents in Iraq and Turkey described the relative ease with which they obtained documents crossing to Belarus in recent months.
Despite the cost – Iraqi migrants said they spent between $ 1,250 and $ 4,000 to reach Minsk – thousands made the trip, obtaining visas with the help of Belarusian companies and taking commercial flights that became more frequent since spring.
The rise in the number of migrants has been aided by a small industry of travel agents, businesses, smugglers and drivers seeking to cut profits, depending on who travels to or across the border.
Several migrants near the border told Reuters Belarusian border guards helped them enter Poland or turned a blind eye when they did. Two migrants separately declared that they had given them wire cutters.
Belarusian authorities have not responded to requests for comment on accusations they have facilitated the migrant crisis.
But the Belarusian foreign ministry said on Monday that the allegations that Minsk had organized the crisis on its borders with the European Union were “absurd”.
Russian news agency RIA quoted the ministry as saying Belarus has tightened border controls and its state-owned airline Belavia has not transported any illegal migrants.
SAFER ROUTE TO EUROPE
Most of the migrants interviewed by Reuters said they made the trip because they saw no future for themselves or their children, either in Syria or Iraq. A handful said they were trying to enter the EU to reunite with friends or relatives.
They saw it as a chance to get to Europe by land – less risky than by sea, especially when traveling with young children. During 2021, they read on social media that visas were becoming readily available. Intermediaries and agents offered their services.
Hussein al-Asil is an Ankara-based Iraqi who provides travel services to tourists and potential migrants.
He said he organized invitations for his clients from three Belarusian partners and processed passports sent from Iraq. Once back, their owners could travel to Minsk via Turkey. According to Asil, it was much more difficult for Iraqis to obtain visas for Belarus before this year.
Asil said he charged $ 1,250 per person, which he said made him one of the cheapest travel agents.
“The (Belarusian) embassy knows of course that this person is not sightseeing,” he said. “What kind of tourism would it be, booking a plane ticket for $ 800 and getting a visa for $ 1,250?” They know these people are coming to Europe.
Flights to Minsk have become more frequent since the spring.
Belavia, for example, flew 28 times from Istanbul to Minsk in February 2021 and 31 times in March. By July, that figure had more than doubled to 65, according to data from Flightradar24.
Turkish Airlines flights on the same route also jumped from 32 in March and April to 64 in July and August. In October, the two airlines made a total of 124 flights to Minsk.
The EU has acted to counter this. Under pressure from Brussels, Baghdad suspended flights from Iraq to Minsk this fall.
Belavia and Turkish Airlines confirmed on Friday that they would no longer take passengers from Yemen, Iraq or Syria to Minsk, except diplomats.
And on Saturday Cham Wings Airlines, a private Syrian airline, told Reuters it had suspended flights to Minsk.
“EVERY DAY, FRIENDS GO”
Once the migrants arrive in Minsk, most move quickly to the border. Residents of the city said they saw a surge in the number of people who appeared to be from the Middle East waiting in malls, sleeping on benches and buying groceries for their trip.
Some migrants who arrived in Poland said they were beaten by Belarusian border guards and chased across borders. They faced exhaustion, hunger, thirst and fear.
Belarusian authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment on their accusations.
Umm Malak, a 26-year-old Iraqi woman weeks before giving birth, told Reuters she and her family were displaced six times between Poland and Belarus before going to a migrant center in the city Polish woman from Bialystok.
She said that she, her husband and their three little daughters waded in chest-deep water and hid in the cold forests.
A Polish police spokesperson said the police did not carry out activities such as returning migrants to the border. Neither Polish border guards nor Belarusian authorities responded to requests for comment on his case.
Umm Malak can consider herself lucky.
Many migrants fail to enter the EU and are forced to try to return to Minsk – sometimes having to pay a bribe to do so – or to their country of origin. At least eight migrants have died trying to cross and fears grow for the safety of others as harsh winter conditions set in.
Despite the crackdown on flights from the Middle East to Minsk, Fabrice Leggeri, director of the European border agency Frontex, warned on Friday that the bloc had to prepare for an increase in the number of migrants trying to enter.
The numbers have already increased. Polish border guards said more than 17,000 illegal attempts to cross the border were made in October, more than double the attempts in September, and that thousands of migrants were camping near the Belarusian border with Poland.
Back in northern Iraq, in Said Sadiq, barber Warzer Ibrahim said dozens of people from his town had left the northern Iraqi Kurdistan region for Belarus in recent weeks.
The 37-year-old father of two decided to join them.
“I have a child who is eight years old, she can’t write well. Why? Because school is not good. And I can see that my children’s life does not look good.” , did he declare.
“I see the pictures every day, of people in the forest, but I’m not afraid. The difficulties in Belarus are temporary. One week, two weeks. But here it is every day.”
The Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government told Reuters it was investigating local travel agents involved in the exodus and accused politicians and smugglers of exacerbating the crisis.
Ibrahim said he paid $ 1,600 for each of his four family members to travel to Minsk. Some potential migrants said they sold land and houses to pay for tickets, hotels, smugglers and bribes.
“Every day to see your good friend go,” Ibrahim added. “You’ve known each other for 20 years and then they go to Belarus and you don’t know what’s going to happen to them. It’s difficult. But I still say leave, and I’m going because it’s better than here.”
Charlotte Bruneau reported from Suleimaniya and Joanna Plucinska and Yara Abi Nader reported from Hajnowka; Additional reporting by Ako Rasheed and Ali Sultan in Sulaimaniya, Alan Charlish in Warsaw, Abdallah Issam in Beirut, Can Sezer in Ankara, Natalia Zinets in Kiev, Dmitry Antonov in Moscow and Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Written and edited by Mike Collett-White
Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.