August 19, 2022
I regret many things," Idris told me over the phone

I regret many things," Idris told me over the phone

How Belarus is helping ‘tourists’ break into the EU

Belarus has been accused of taking revenge for EU sanctions by offering migrants tourist visas, and helping them across its border. The BBC has tracked one group trying to reach Germany.

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The mobile phone camera pans left and right, but no-one moves. The exhausted travellers lie scattered among the trees.

Jamil has his head in his hands, his wife Roshin slumped forward next to him. The others look dead.

Late afternoon light slants through the forest, the pine trees forming a dense natural prison. They’ve been walking since four in the morning.

“We’re shattered, absolutely shattered,” Jamil’s cousin Idris intones, almost mechanically.

The Syrian friends have fought through thickets and waded through foul-smelling swamps to get here. They’ve already missed their first rendezvous with a smuggler, and they’ve run out of food and water.

The Syrians are numb with cold but don’t dare light a fire. They’ve crossed from Belarus into Poland, so have finally made it to the EU. But they’re not safe yet. Thousands of others, encouraged by Belarus to cross into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, have ended up in detention instead. At least seven have died of hypothermia in the Polish forest.

We’ve been tracking Idris and his friends since they left northern Iraq in late September. Idris has recorded their progress on his phone and sent us a series of videos along the way.

The group are Syrian Kurds, in their 20s, looking to Europe for a better future. They are all from Kobane, the scene of ferocious fighting between Kurdish fighters and Islamic State militants in late 2014.

But while their motives – political instability at home, fear of conscription, lack of employment – are the familiar refrain of migrants the world over, the route they have taken is new.

Idris admits he might not have tried to leave Syria if Belarus’s autocratic leader, Alexander Lukashenko, had not offered a new, apparently safer route.

“Belarus has an ongoing feud with the EU,” he told me, when I asked him why he had decided to attempt the journey to Europe. “The Belarus president decided to open its borders with the EU.”

Idris was referring to Mr Lukashenko’s warning earlier this year, that he would no longer stop migrants and drugs from crossing into EU member states.

The Belarus president had been infuriated by successive waves of EU sanctions, imposed following his country’s disputed 2020 presidential election, the subsequent hounding of political opponents, and the forced diversion of a RyanAir jet carrying an opposition journalist and his girlfriend.Officials in neighbouring Lithuania say they saw warning signs as early as March.

“It started as indications from the Belarusian government that they are ready to simplify visa proceedings… for ‘tourists’ from Iraq,” Lithuania’s Deputy Minister of Interior, Kestutis Lancinskas tells us.

Instead of taking hazardous journeys by boat across the Mediterranean, all migrants now need to do is fly to Belarus, drive for several hours to the border, and then simply cross on foot into one of the three neighbouring EU countries – Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

In July and August, Lithuania saw 50 times more asylum seekers than in the whole of 2020.

“The route is obviously a lot easier than going through Turkey and North Africa,” Idris said.

He and his friends had started out from Irbil in northern Iraq on 25 September. Idris had been working there and left his wife and twin baby daughters in Kobane, promising they could eventually join him in Europe if he made it.

They are part of a generation of Syrians whose lives have been blighted by 10 years of civil war. Idris has already spent time as a refugee in neighbouring Turkey.

“It’s a long story, my friend, and I regret many things,” Idris told me over the phone when I asked him what motivated him.

“But nothing’s in our control. There’s no future for me in Syria.”

In one of Idris’s first videos, recorded outside Irbil airport, he is clearly upbeat about the journey ahead. They’ve got their tickets, and seven-day tourist visas for Belarus. They’re ready to go.The process so far had been relatively simple. To find out just how simple, we flew to northern Iraq to meet the people involved.

Irbil is the bustling capital of the country’s autonomous Kurdish region. A city of more than one-and-a-half million people, it’s home to hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighbouring Syria, as well as other parts of Iraq.

For many, it’s also where the journey to Europe begins.

Not that you’d know that immediately. There are travel agents, to be sure. Lots of them. But this is a word of mouth business, with travel tips disseminated online in Facebook and chat groups.