They were among the thousands of people with tourist visas in recent months with the help of travel agents in Middle East working in collaboration with tour operators in Belarus, according to documents and testimonies.
A few days after his arrival in Minsk, the family traveled to Belarus-Poland border, joining a wave of Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans and others attempting the dangerous and sometimes deadly crossing of the European Union to start a new life.
“The planes carry tourists who do not go for tourism,” Mohammed said, speaking Thursday at his home in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniya.
“The Belarusian government knows very well that these people are not tourists, but that they are going to the Polish border.”
Mohammed and his family arrived in Poland, but only briefly. They were deported to Iraq on 5 October. 31, a reminder that spending thousands of dollars and risking lives is no guarantee to settle in European Union.
The migrant crisis has fueled tensions between the West and Belarus’ ally, Russia. Moscow has sent nuclear-capable bombers to patrol Belarusian skies, and nations bordering Belarus have expressed alarm that the discussion could escalate into a military confrontation.
The European Union has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of orchestrating the influx of migrants to force him to back down on the sanctions slammed against his government.
Poland and Lithuania have produced documents, seen by Reuters, that say at least one Belarusian state travel company has made it easy for would-be migrants to visit since May, while a state-owned carrier has more than doubled flights on a popular route with asylum seekers.
Lukashenko denies having facilitated the crisis, although he said he will no longer detain migrants due to EU sanctions following last year’s disputed presidential elections and subsequent crackdown on protesters.
Reuters spoke to more than 30 migrants or would-be migrants from the Middle East for this article in their homelands, on the border between Belarus and Poland, and in migrant centers in Poland.
About 20 specified which visas they were traveling with and all said they were for tourism. Documents issued by Poland showed that nearly 200 Iraqis received visa assistance from a state travel company in Belarus to visit for hunting and other travel.
Migrants and travel agents in Iraq and Turkey described the relative ease with which they have obtained documents for passage to Belarus in recent months.
Despite the cost – Iraqi migrants said they spent between $ 1,250 and $ 4,000 reaching Minsk – thousands made the journey, obtaining visas with the help of Belarusian firms and taking commercial flights that have become more frequent since spring.
The wave of migrants has been aided by a small industry of travel agents, companies, smugglers and chauffeurs looking to take a share of the profits, according to those traveling to or to the border.
Several migrants near the border told Reuters that Belarusian border guards helped them try to enter Poland or turned a blind eye when they did. Two migrants separately claimed to have handed them wire cutters.
Belarusian authorities did not respond to requests for comment on allegations of facilitating the migrant crisis.
But on Monday the Belarusian foreign ministry said that allegations that Minsk had engineered the crisis on its borders with the European Union were “absurd”.
Russia’s RIA news agency quoted the ministry as saying that Belarus has tightened border controls and that its state-owned airline Belavia has not transported illegal migrants.
Most migrants Reuters spoke to said they embarked on the journey because they saw no future for themselves or their children, whether in Syria or Iraq. A handful said they were trying to enter the EU to get together with friends or family.
They saw the possibility of arriving in Europe by land – less risky than by sea, especially when traveling with small children. As 2021 went by, they read on social media that visas were becoming readily available. Intermediaries and agents offered their services.
Hussein al-Asil is an Iraqi based in Ankara who provides travel services to would-be tourists and migrants.
He said he organized the invitations for his clients from three Belarusian partners and processed the passports sent from Iraq. Once returned, 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, according to him, made him one of the cheapest travel agents.
“The embassy (Belarus) obviously knows that this person doesn’t go for tourism,” 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 go to Europe. “
Flights to Minsk have become more frequent since spring.
Belavia, for example, flew 28 times from Istanbul to Minsk in February 2021 and 31 times in March. By July it had more than doubled to 65, according to data from Flightradar24.
Turkish Airlines flights on the same route also jumped to 64 in July and August from 32 in March and April. In October, both airlines operated 124 combined flights to Minsk.
The EU has moved to counter it. Due to pressure from Brussels, Baghdad suspended flights from Iraq to Minsk this fall.
On Friday, Belavia and Turkish Airlines confirmed that they will no longer take passengers from Yemen, Iraq or Syria to Minsk, with the exception of diplomats.
And on Saturday Cham Wings Airlines, a Syrian private carrier, told Reuters it had suspended flights to Minsk.
Once migrants arrive in Minsk, most move quickly to the border. City residents said they saw a large increase in people who appeared to be from the Middle East waiting in malls, sleeping on benches, and buying supplies for their onward journey.
Some migrants who arrived in Poland claimed they were beaten by Belarusian border guards and chased back and forth across borders. They faced fatigue, hunger, thirst and fear.
Belarusian authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment on their allegations.
Umm Malak, a 26-year-old Iraqi woman just weeks after giving birth, told Reuters that she and her family were diverted between Poland and Belarus six times before arriving at a migrant center in the Polish city of Bialystok.
She said she, her husband, and their three little daughters waded chest-deep water and hid in the cold forests.
A spokesman for the Polish police said the police did not carry out activities such as bringing migrants back to the border. Neither the Polish border guard nor the Belarusian authorities responded to requests for comment on his case.
Umm Malak can consider herself lucky.
Many migrants are unable 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 homeland. At least eight migrants have died trying to cross and fears for the safety of others are growing due to the harsh winter conditions.
Despite the crackdown on flights from the Middle East to Minsk, Fabrice Leggeri, director of the EU border agency Frontex, warned on Friday that the blockade must be prepared for an increase in the number of migrants trying to enter.
The numbers have already increased. The Polish border guard said over 17,000 illegal attempts were made to cross the border in October, more than double the attempts in September, and thousands of migrants camped near the Belarus-Poland border.
Back in northern Iraq, barber Warzer Ibrahim told Said Sadiq that dozens of people from his hometown have left the northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan for Belarus in recent weeks.
The 37-year-old father of two has decided to join them.
“I have an eight-year-old girl, she can’t write well. Why? Because school is not good. And I can see my children’s life doesn’t look good, “she said.
“I see 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’s everyday. “
The Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government told Reuters it was investigating local travel agents involved in the exodus and accused politicians and smugglers of aggravating the crisis.
Ibrahim said he paid $ 1,600 for each of his four family members to get to Minsk. Some would-be migrants said they sold land and houses to pay for tariffs, hotels, smugglers and bribes.
“Every day to see your good friend leave,” added Ibrahim. “They have known each other for 20 years and then they leave for Belarus and you don’t know what will happen to them. It’s difficult. But I still say go, and I go because it’s better than here “.