Migrants say Belarusians took them to the EU border and provided wire mowers

SULAIMANIYA, Iraq – The sudden rise of migrants to Belarus from the Middle East, which is now the focus of a political crisis in Europe, was hardly an accident.

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

It increased the flights of the state-owned airline and then actively helped guide migrants from the capital Minsk to the borders of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.

And Belarusian security forces gave them instructions on how to cross into EU countries, even handing out wire cutters and axes to cut through border fences.

These measures, which European leaders have characterized as a cynical trick to “weapons” migrants in an attempt to punish Europe, opened the gates for people who desperately wanted to flee a region plagued by instability and high unemployment.

Now thousands of people are stranded or hiding along the border in freezing conditions, which are not wanted by the EU countries or, as the circumstances make clear, by the country that lured them there in the first place.

The human tide has transformed cities like Sulaimaniya in the Kurdistan region of Iraq into busy ports of departure for migrants eager to embark on an expensive and risky journey to get the chance for a better life in Europe.

When the news went viral on social media that Belarus was offering a route into Europe, the number of migrants slipped.

Mala Rawaz, a travel agency in Sulaimaniya, said he had sold about 100 packages a week for travel to Belarus. The packages included airfare through a third country, transit accommodation and a Belarusian visa.

At the city’s bazaar, Bryar Muhammad, 25, was running a lively business on Thursday selling warm clothes.

“Good clothes for Belarus!” he shouted, holding up thick acrylic sweaters and winter jackets from a cardboard box. “For the snow of Belarus!”

Even when young families in Iraq provided their homes as security to raise money for the trip, it was proved that Belarus’s autocratic leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, orchestrated the migration to create a crisis for the EU.

Belarussian state-owned airline Belavia has increased the number of flights from the Middle East to Minsk, European officials said. According to the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Belarussian authorities facilitated the issuance of visas through the state-owned travel agency Tsentrkurort.

Migrants reaching Minsk were placed in at least three government-owned hotels, according to Latvia’s Defense Minister Artis Pabriks and Franak Viacorka, a senior adviser to a Belarusian opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

Sir. Pabriks said Belarusian intelligence agents had been involved in transporting migrants to the borders and that military buses were being used.

Several Iraqi migrants said Belarus’s security forces provided them with tools to break through the Polish border fence.

Bayar Awat, an Iraqi Kurd stranded on the Belarusian side of the Polish border, said Belarusian guards had helped his group reach the border by pointing to a route that bypassed the official border crossing and appeared in near a hole in the border fence.

“The Belarusian police guided us to the forest and then pointed out directions to lead us into the forest to keep us away from the official border crossing,” he said.

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

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

As some migrants have tried to leave the cold forest to return to Minsk, many have been pushed back by Belarusian guards, leaving the migrants stuck at the border, they said.

European officials say these measures are part of Lukashenko’s efforts to retaliate against the EU for imposing sanctions after he claimed victory in a disputed 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, a Berlin-based senior politician at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

In an effort to stem the crisis, several airlines on Friday took steps to limit the number of people flying to Belarus from the Middle East. Travel agencies in Iraq said Turkey and Iran had begun canceling tickets to Minsk for Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni passengers on Thursday and that the government had stopped travel agencies from selling even transit tickets to Belarus earlier in the week.

But that did not mean much to desperate Iraqis who already found alternative routes through Dubai, the United Arab Emirates.

“I have 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 took three friends to a travel agency in Sulaimaniya on Thursday to pick up tickets they hoped would get them to Belarus.

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

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

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

Despite the external prosperity of Iraqi Kurdistan, young people in particular despair over the lack of jobs and over corruption, oppression and tribal conflicts that often override the judicial system.

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

The crisis has raised 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, including visas, airfare and a few days’ accommodation.

Many migrants also leave thousands of dollars on deposit at currency exchange shops to send them to smugglers who promise to get them to the border. Several said the smuggling fee was around $ 3,000. But often, the migrants said, the smugglers do nothing but point out which direction to go through the dense forest.

It does not say anything about the emotional costs a migrant faces when leaving home and family.

On Friday, Mr Karwan, dressed in a new olive green winter jacket and gloves, left home to take a taxi to Erbil airport, four hours away.

When Mr Karwan’s mother and two sisters saw him in Sulaimaniya, he stood at the gate and sobbed. His father stuck Iraqi dinars in his hand and waited until the taxi door closed before wiping the tears away.

“I’m awful,” said his mother, Bayan Omar. “He’s my only son. If I stopped him from leaving, what would he do? He tells me, ‘Can you guarantee me a house, a car, a life, the chance to get married?’ I can not stop him. “

Later that day, Mr. Karwan’s flights through Tehran and Istanbul canceled. He was waiting in Erbil to be rebooked through Dubai.

For those who have already reached Belarus, the situation is bleak. At the border with Lithuania, thousands of migrants were pushed up against barbed wire fences, prevented from moving back or forth.

Young men and families with young children who had walked for days through the deep forest were gathered around makeshift camps and burning wood to try to keep warm, according to videos posted by the migrants. Some had small pop-up tents, others buried themselves in sleeping bags on the freezing ground.

On Saturday, Polish authorities accused Belarusian soldiers of destroying part of a border fence near the village of Czeremcha and of trying to distract Polish border guards with laser beams and strobe lights to help migrants cross into the EU. However, the Polish report on the events could not be confirmed because the Warsaw government has prevented all non-residents, including journalists and doctors, from entering the border area.

At least nine migrants have died in Belarus over the past two weeks, most of them from exposure.

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

He also posted a video of himself and a small group of migrants politely holding a cardboard sign with the caption “Poland – Sorry.”

“Today we have apologized to the EU and Poland,” he said. “You know, because we came to the border and we broke the fence at the border. We’re sorry.”

But he had no excuses for trying to enter Europe. He said he had no plans to return to Iraq.

Jane Arraf reported from Sulaimaniya, Iraq, and Elian Peltier from Brussels. Sangar Khaleel and Barzan Jabar contributed reporting from Sulaimaniya, and Andrew Higgins from Warsaw.

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