Migrants say Belarusians took them to EU border, supplied wire cutters

SULAIMANIYAH (Iraq) • The sudden surge of migrants to Belarus from the Middle East that is now the focus of a political crisis in Europe was hardly an accident.

The Belarusian government loosened its visa rules in August, making a flight to the country a more palatable journey to Europe than the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece.

It increased flights and then actively helped funnel migrants from the capital, Minsk, to the frontiers with Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.

And Belarusian security forces gave them directions on how to cross into countries in the European Union, even handing out wire cutters and axes for them to cut through border fences.

These moves, which European leaders have characterised as a ploy to "weaponise" migrants to punish Europe, opened the gates to 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 EU countries nor by the country that lured them there.

The human tide has turned cities like Sulaimaniyah, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, into bustling ports of departure for migrants eager to take an expensive and risky journey for the chance of a better life.

Mr Mala Rawaz, a travel agent in Sulaimaniyah, said he had been selling about 100 packages a week for trips to Belarus. The packages included airfare through a third country, transit accommodation and a Belarusian visa.

Belarusian state-owned airline Belavia had increased flights from the Middle East to Minsk, and the Belarusian authorities eased the issuance of visas through state-owned travel agency Tsentrkurort, European officials said.

Migrants who reached Minsk were put up in at least three government-owned hotels, and Belarusian intelligence agents helped transfer migrants to the borders, according to Latvia's Defence Minister Artis Pabriks.

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

European officials say these measures are part of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko's effort to retaliate against the EU for imposing sanctions after he claimed victory in a disputed 2020 election.

"Mr Lukashenko's rhetoric, the visa policy and the sudden influx of migrants this summer all point to the involvement of the Belarusian state and travel agencies," said Dr Gustav Gressel, a Berlin-based senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Several airlines have since taken steps to limit the number of people flying to Belarus from the Middle East.

For those who have already made it to Belarus, the situation is grim. At the border with Lithuania, several thousand migrants were pushed up against razor wire fences, prevented from moving forward or going back.

At least nine migrants have died in Poland over the past two weeks, according to Polish officials.

"We have food and water but not enough," said one Iraqi Kurd.

He sent videos showing pregnant women and small children. He also sent a video of himself and a small group of migrants politely holding a cardboard sign reading "Poland - Sorry".

"Today we apologised to the European Union and to Poland," he said. "Because we came to the border and we broke the fence."

But he had no apologies about trying to get into Europe. He said he had no plans to return to Iraq.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2021, with the headline 'Migrants say Belarusians took them to EU border, supplied wire cutters'. Subscribe