Ten Outriders journalists in seven countries are checking the routes of migrants from several countries leading via Belarus to the European Union.
There is a key component: social media in the trips of refugees looking for a new life in Europe. In Lebanon, several people explained that they learned on the trips from Beirut to Minsk on social media or entered into contact with the smugglers on Facebook. There are even Youtubers showing how to cross the border safely: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1SEOHHng0eJ9bpJprSLBS0q_jeZ0GKmGf/view?usp=sharing
Like this channel, which is named "Germany in Arabic". In the tutorial, the Youtuber recommends bringing food "both nutritious but light in weight", such as dried fruits, "for example
cashews, almonds, raisins or for example dates." (01:28).
The Youtuber also explains people bring many phone chargers with them, such as portable mobile phone manual dynamo chargers (02:36).
In addition, the Youtuber advises (03:04), "as for solar chargers, you will not benefit from them because at the Belarusian border, it is very cold and there is a little sun".
"One last very important advice: do not trust people who tell you "give me money" or who say "pay me now" or even "I beg you"; they are all liars who steal your money, whether they belong to Arab agencies or even to Belarusian, Polish or Lithuanian agencies," he adds (05:43).
"The road is not easy" (…). If you have children or a family or very young children, I do not advise you to set out and put their lives in danger. You can do a much better job for your wife and children by going alone. For example, once you arrive in Germany or Holland, you wait a year or a little over a year, the time to gather all the necessary elements to bring your wife and children safe," warns Muhammet Tammo, another Youtuber, on his channel (07:27).
In another video called "From Belarus to Europe: the route in detail for less than
4000 dollars (2021)", another YouTuber explains how to make the trip cheaper; he recommends taking taxis since the driver does not know their legal status and they will
not talk with them. He explains that this is a way to save money instead of paying smugglers (04:28).
In Beirut, we checked how migrant tourism works and the current prices of visas to Belarus there. Moreover, we have also found several travel agencies in other countries that offer "tours to Belarus".
Zakros Travel from Jordan, Al-Nayzak from Iraq, Mehan Türk and Alkabidda from Turkey and the Belarusian travel agency UllaBel are just some travel agencies offering "trips to Belarus''. Officially or less officially. Some agencies, such as UlaBell, Mehan Türk and Alkabidda, have tours on the website; others do it more subtly.
Such information can be found on social media sites. We signed up for the Facebook group "Migration via Belarus to Europe'' (today, it turned out that either the group had been recently closed or we were blocked). For two weeks, we have been following the exchange of contacts and recommended travel agencies. The protagonist of our story, Jamila and Kadhim, also showed us the agencies they used.
Jamila bought an invitation to Belarus in UllaBel. The flight from Beirut to Minsk via Dubai, the invitation and the hotel cost her 2000 dollars.
UllaBel is a tourist agency for Arabic-speaking tourists that has been operating for several years. The owner of UllaBel, Uljana Kuznetsova (Ульяна Кузнецова) studied Arabic at the Minsk State Linguistic University. For several years she has been running an Arabic-language YouTube channel about Belarus. Our interlocutors in Germany also confirmed that they used UllaBel's services.
On the other hand, Kadhim, who fled Iraq at the end of July 2021, used the services of the Baghdad office of Al-Nayzak. Officially it doesn't offer direct "trips" to Belarus but continues to carry them out.
Pictures from the Minsk airport, where migrants were crammed together, appeared in the media many times. People we spoke to shared such photos with us willingly. Now the situation has changed. We flew from Dubai to the capital of Belarus with the migrants. They were taken by border guards in front of the passport control gates to a particular queue – we got off at the airport tarmac and didn't go through the jet bridge. After that, they could not be found anywhere. No matter if it was the departure lounge, arrival hall, or transit zones. We also did not see any buses or cars that would take them. And a dozen or so days ago at the Minsk airport, there were about 500 people crammed in one place, waiting up to 48 hours for documents and transport to the hotel purchased as part of their "trip". We spent the whole night at the Belarusian airport. In the morning, a plane from Istanbul landed in a thick fog. We were supposed to fly that plane to the capital of Turkey. That one did not set up the jet bridge either after landing. Passengers, just like us, disembarked at the tarmac; most of them were migrants. Only when everyone got out was the machine connected to the jet bridge.
At night, we tried to ask the airport staff about newcomers from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Iran and Jordan. But Belarusians are also afraid to talk about it. Only the lady who made tea for us said she didn't not know what happened to the migrants, but it happened very quickly. And not not so long ago, crowds of migrants were camping at this airport.
The border guards checked our documents very carefully, asked where we came from, where we were going to and what for, but it is evident that they were much more involved in the matters of migrants. When we flew from Minsk to Istanbul, the Internal Security Agency (ABW) informed the public about the detention of a Polish man suspected of collaborating with the Belarusian intelligence service. He has already been charged. The court decided to arrest him for three months. He is a former ZOMO, the Militia and the Polish Border Guard officer. He left his service twenty years ago in the rank of lieutenant.
Olaf Jansen, the head of the Eisenhüttenstadt pre-removal detention facility, says that "typically, around 300 people a month were sent to Brandenburg. Since April 2021, it has increased to 500 people, and we expect 3500 people in October." Even so, he says, the situation is "difficult, but not dramatic."
The German refugee organization system is similar to the popular stereotype about Germany – it is just very well structured. The resort is filled with green military tents and containers that have been hastily delivered. Usually, the migrants spend the first night in tents, the next two in containers, and then they are moved to the buildings (it applies to single men, families are usually located in the buildings straight away). Even the pandemic does not interfere with the functioning of the system or letting in the journalists.
Pavel, a former Iraqi policeman, says the conditions are good. – "We got a room, three meals a day. They treat us well. "
Some people complain – everything works "temporarily", so someone who feels bad after closing the medical surgery has to wait until morning.
Jansen moves freely around the centre. He tells about the process of verifying the identity of people arriving. Fingerprints are taken from everyone, the so-called "background check" is made. There is also a federal agency office on the premises where the asylum application process begins. Jansen advises journalists to take photos only of those who agree.
You can leave the centre at any time. Security standing at the entrance prevents any unauthorized persons from entering the centre, and migrants move freely around the area. If they leave it, they will stop the asylum process. If the police catch them in town without documents, they'll probably bring them back there too.
However, the dream of staying in the EU will end in a disappointment for most.
"Typically, 25 to 30% of asylum applications are successful. (...) If there is no civil war or political upheaval in a country, it is difficult to prove the discrimination or persecution of which you have been a victim. (...) Iraqis, who now constitute the majority, have little chance, and so do Pakistanis. Afghans, Syrians and Yemenis? Well, they have a greater chance. Everyone has a chance, but that's how it is."
The migrants in Eisenhuettenstadt seem not to realize all of that. Many of them do not even think of seeking legal help from non-governmental organizations. They seem to put their faith in the system as they move to another migrant centre – where they are about to wait for an asylum questioning.
Pabradė is a small town in Lithuania, almost 50 km northeast of Vilnius. That is where the Foreigners Registration Center and the migrant reception centre are located. Moreover, it was Pabradė, where the first tents for refugees in Lithuania appeared this year.
The centre is divided into two blocks: the first one is for isolating people, the second is for the accommodation of migrants. The first block can accommodate up to 60, and the second up to 290 people. Lithuanian authorities emphasize that the camp has "necessary amenities such as showers, toilets, washbasins and dining areas". Outside we see a black man walking in a towel (it's 5 degrees Celsius) to take advantage of the conditions inside the building.
We can't go inside, but the border guards tell us we can take pictures outside. We shouldn't talk to the people on the other side. However, you can see a lot through the fence. You can see military tents, a playground and a sports field. People walk, run, play football and talk. People who bring bags full of clothes enter the centre, and such aid is accepted. A State Border Guard Service car arrives, and three people get out.
Life seems to go on peacefully here, with no apparent discontent, such as in June 2021, when the State Border Guard Service reported that officers had used tear gas and fired shots into the air. People who were staying in the migrant reception centre at the time tried to get out by force without permission. Well, you can leave this place, but only if you apply for asylum. Then you get a day pass. However, not everybody comes back.
The centres in Lithuania are guarded by the State Border Guard and the Public Security Service. They are supported by police patrols, military police, volunteer soldiers, and even a Shooting Association and the Prison Department officers.
Do you remember the story of Syrians – Jamilla, who is an engineer, and Ahmed and his sister suffering from thalassemia? When we reached them, they were after several unsuccessful attempts to cross the Polish border. They managed to return to Minsk, which wasn't easy.
"We offered Belarusian soldiers 1000 dollars to let a group of ten people go to Minsk, but we failed," Jamilla says. Later, as the girl claims, a superior officer gave women and children a chance to return. Others from her group did not want to return to Minsk; she decided otherwise. The cost of return to the Belarus capital was 150 dollars.
"God is watching over me. We had a serious car accident on the way back. I was fine, but the girl sitting nearby was hospitalized in a terrible condition," Jamilla says.
Why didn't she try to run away with the others? – "I didn't have the strength anymore. There were many families with children in the forest, one eight-month pregnant woman, and the other one was for sure taken to the hospital (she was a Syrian woman from Iraq). As far as I can remember, these people were mainly from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Kurdistan, Tajikistan, and Egypt. One girl had nothing, and I gave her my phone to call the family and say that she is still alive", she says.
When I landed in Minsk, I immediately sent a message to Jamilla, but she didn't receive it. So I asked her brother, who lives in Lebanon, what was going on. It turned out that Jamila had just managed to get to Germany. He couldn't get in touch with her either, but the information was confirmed by an acquaintance whose brother was with Jamila. The girl applied for asylum in Germany, and the whole procedure has started.
Ahmad and his sister left Minsk by train, but they are still in Belarus (we do not disclose their location for security reasons). It turned out that he was taken to a local hospital. – "We haven't had a blood transfusion in 20 days, and that's a very long time" – the Syrian from Douma explains. The siblings suffer from thalassemia.
The Belarusian hospital did not admit Ahmad due to the lack of medical insurance. We have medical records to support the severe type of anaemia the siblings suffer from. They both declare that they apply for asylum in Poland so that they can be treated. They called the consulate, but they didn't understand the commands in Polish and Russian.
"The UN promised to help us. That's why we left Minsk to X because it's safer that way. But so far, they haven't done anything," – Ahmad says. How did they end up in the hospital? They both felt terrible already. – "An ambulance was called for my sister and me. They examined us and decided to take us to the hospital, and there they carried out a thorough examination, analyzes and echocardiograms" – he says.
According to the medical documentation, blood tests and abdominal ultrasound were carried out. An appointment with a haematologist was recommended "at the place of residence".
"But the doctor did nothing because we do not have insurance, and they sent us back, although they admitted that our condition is serious," Ahmad adds. He and his sister fled Syria to treat their progressive thalassemia disease. They can die without professional medical care.
On Monday morning, I landed at the airport in Istanbul. It took me a while to figure out that huge airport filled with masses of people. Within an hour, I was able to get in touch with Warsaw and get a response from the person with whom I most wanted to meet on the spot in Istanbul. Then I boldly set off for the city, which never ceases to amaze me with people and with all its enormity.
Between Hagia Sophia and the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, I met the person I was looking for. We started talking in English, but a personal translator immediately came into play. He is a Syrian from Aleppo, and his house was bombed during the war. Three years ago, he left for Turkey alone, and then his wife and children came along. For the last two years, he has been applying for asylum in one European country through the embassy in Turkey.
He has been working for humanitarian organizations for ten years, helping Syrians on the Turkish border. He said he faces the death penalty in his homeland because he is an enemy to several conflicted parties.
In Turkey, he is not in touch with anyone. Some of his family stayed in Syria, and he doesn’t expect them to come soon due to the situation in the country.
He is sceptical about the current situation with refugees going to the EU via Belarus. According to him, wealthy people who have been loyal to the government in Syria can afford a flight to Belarus. They have the needed conditions, so they take advantage of the opportunity and look for a better life in the countries where they have their connections. The entire opposition left the country in previous years. Those who cannot afford it – the poor ones – are still trying to cross the Turkish border. Neither in Syria nor at the border will they find a better future.
To a similar degree, it applies to those escaping from Lebanon or Jordan, as their governments cooperate with Bashar al-Assad. According to my interlocutor, the Syrian president does not want people to stay in his country due to the difficult economic situation. Many people are starving there.
We continue to speak with people from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. Syrian refugees who live in tents and have not studied or worked for years. If yesterday they explained to us WHY they are going to Belarus, today, two people told us HOW they are going. The process.
We spoke with Farah (pseudonymous), a 28-year-old math teacher, and she is the only one who works in her family. Her father died seven years ago, and she supports her mother and siblings. Her brother does not have a job and made the difficult decision to leave and travel to Belarus.
This teacher explains that most Syrians who leave are between 20 and 30 years old; on average, they have spent 5 or 6 years in Lebanon, "here, they don't do anything; if they get a job, the money is barely enough to buy some food." "We do little jobs to survive, but we can't study or have a real job."
A report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF in Bekaa Valley in 2015 found that the average monthly income per capita among the Syrian refugees here was 50 USD. These conditions force many children to work. According to ILO, the majority of these working children work in agriculture (around 75%).
The maths teacher knows some young people who are currently in the middle of the forest in Belarus. They left five days ago. "They have no water," she says. She worries about what might happen to her brother if he travels, but she understands the reasons to leave.
Farah explains that they found out about the trips to Belarus thanks to a friend who told them they could fly to Minsk and go by car to Germany with the help of a smuggler. "They told us that there are also agencies in Beirut that do it and in Chtaura, in the valley," she says. They were told that the agencies arrange the flight tickets and they do the visa in Syria.
We spoke with another young couple. The husband, Khalil (pseudonymous), is going to travel to Belarus in about 30 days. The wife is terrified, but they see no other way out of their lives. "There is no future here," the husband says.
Khalil explains the process to travel to Belarus. "It is not difficult," he says. He explains that he showed up at the travel agency, handed over the passport and the money for the visa fees. "Then a person from the agency goes to Syria to get the visa and comes back with him in about 15 days."
Some friends also told them about the process. Once he arrives in Minsk, he will have to spend a few days in a hotel, and there he hopes to buy winter clothes.
From there, he hopes to travel to Europe "and build a future for myself and my family."
Another source explains that most of the information is found on social media where people who have travelled previously give directions. Some share the secure coordinates on Facebook. Our source can't confirm the nationality of the smugglers, "but they speak Arabic", he explains.
Lebanon is the country with the highest per capita proportion of refugees in the world. Syrians account for over 20 per cent of Lebanon's population. However, the Lebanese government limits access of Syrians (not registered with the UNHCR) to the formal labour market, except in the fields of agriculture, construction and cleaning. Those UNHCR-registered refugees are ineligible to work in Lebanon as they are receiving humanitarian assistance.
"If we could study and have an opportunity here and be safe as is the case with the refugees in the Emirates, we would not leave," says the math teacher. Someone in Germany told them that the government supports people to study and have accommodation, "while here the refugees can't study, can't work, we have no future."
Over a hundred – so many pairs of scared, uncertain, or maybe just tired eyes look uncertain in the queue to the B4 entrance at Terminal 3 in Dubai scheduled for a 6:50 p.m. flight by FlyDubai. They are mostly men of very different ages, but most of them are young. There are also families with children. I look at passports with boarding passes (mainly Emirates) in their hands. Recently, Outriders have learned to recognize the passports by their covers. On that flight, the overwhelming majority of passengers are from Iraq, Yemen and Syria. But I can't see everyone. The man in the blue sweater tells people where to go. Iraqis, Yemenis and Syrians stand in a long line. The man in the sweater directs the Belarusians to the shorter line. He looks at me. I say – "Poland". – "Go" – he decides, adding that I have to prepare the result of the PCR test for coronavirus. – "My brother studies in Warsaw" – the man at the check-in proudly says. – "I also want it like that" – someone says from the queue. They don't let me stay. I have to go downstairs.
They packed us into two buses, and I'm sitting in the second one. The vast majority of passengers are Arab males of different ages. They laugh, joke; one has a whole bag of onions, the other full bag of buns. When the women appeared on the bus, the men immediately left their seats for them. They mostly wear jeans, others only T-shirts, and sometimes elegant shirts. Others wear additional sweaters and even thick jackets. Some wear masks; some don't. I don't know what they talk about, but they try to lower the tension. The girl who looks at me with her brown eyes is maybe 12-13 years old. She keeps people under observation. It isn't fear but rather an attempt to understand the situation in which she found herself.
My companions wear sports shoes – they know they need comfortable footwear. Some shoes look like brand new ones. People take pictures of themselves when boarding the plane, and after boarding, they take pictures during traditional mess with the seats because families cannot seat next to each other. Everyone speaks to me in Russian. Behind me, somewhere in the crowd, the Belarusian, looking at me, swears, impatiently saying that he cannot get to his place. A few-year-old boy at the back of the plane is worried that the entertainment onboard is paid, so there will be no fairy tales during the flight.
Although boarding started 70 minutes before the take-off, at the scheduled departure time, which is 6.50 p.m., we are still seated on the plane. The plane is full of people. We take off with a 40-minute delay. I fell asleep. After 40 minutes, I am awakened by a scream. In front of me, a Belarusian woman fainted because it was stuffy on the plane. The crew asks if there is a doctor on board. No one answers, so they take action themselves. The situation is getting tense because there is a possibility of an emergency landing, but luckily all comes under control.
During the entire flight, passengers are noisy and chaotic. A young boy, about six years old, approaches me (he doesn't have upper central incisors, like my daughter) and bursts out with a laugh as he manages to pull the strings of my sachet, which is tightened around my belly. In turn, my Iraqi fellow passenger apologizes for just hitting me with his head on the shoulder while I was sleeping.
Talking on the plane is difficult, as we have no personal translator without the Internet. But I manage to find out that some decided to leave their home countries because they want to study, others want to stop being afraid or stop being hungry. There has been a war in Yemen and Syria for years. Many people in Poland are beginning to realize this only because of the cross-border crisis. Do they understand? I know that if I couldn't feed my children, I would do anything to keep them from being hungry. Everything.
We landed in Minsk in fog at midnight. Life was not easy for the crew. – "Sit down" – they shout in Arabic, Russian and English because some of the passengers started to go out right after the landing. Finally, we get off and walk to the terminal. – "No photo, no filming" – the Belarusian guard politely informs us, seeing everyone with their phones in their hands.
Border guards wait at the entrance. They ask for an invitation or a visa. Almost everybody goes to the left. Belarusians and I go for passport control. Where do I travel? To Istanbul, and then to Warsaw. I flew in from Dubai. – "OK" – says a lady in the window, asking only for the insurance documents and the coronavirus test. I get a passport stamp, and I lose sight of my fellow passengers. The second flight ticket is on the new booking, so I have seven hours to enter the transit zone. I didn't find my travel companions all night.
In the morning, at the passport control, it turned out that I could, and even should, go to my transit zone, and the guard apologized to me that the ladies working at the information desk had made a mistake. In the transit zone, while waiting for the flight to Istanbul, I had the opportunity to see the arrival (I mean, it was just a jet bridge in that fog) of the Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul. The plane was full of passengers. And again, like in the case of the cruise from Dubai, the exit was via the airport apron, and we got on the plane by the jet bridge. Where did Lukashenko hide the migrants who until recently had filled the corridors? We do not know. However, we do know that they keep coming. While following the social networks, we are sure that they are increasingly looking for connections and visa options via Ukraine and Russia.
Ahmad from Douma near Damascus (Syria) and his sister are still in Belarus.
My sister and I both have thalassemia. Had it not been for this disease, we would not have left our country, but the hostilities that had been going on since 2011 meant that we lost access to treatment and our health deteriorated. We learned from friends about the route to Europe via Belarus. Our entire family had to contribute to this trip, which cost 7000 dollars (3500 dollars per person). We lived in Douma, near Damascus, and from there, we were constantly pushed out by the regime. When we found out about the possibility of escaping, we found smugglers and bought an invitation. I do not know their names or faces; we contact them via messenger and social media. They are hiding, and after agreeing on the price, we transferred the money to a third party. Then we got instructions on when to check-in for the plane, and we flew directly from Damascus to Minsk on September 25th. We are working people. I graduated from high school and started my studies in commerce and economics, but I had to quit because the education system in Syria is not fair and efficient. I also had to work.
My ambition is electrical engineering. I have worked with generators, motors and solar energy. My sister had a beauty salon. When we arrived in Belarus, we drove by car to the border. We tried to go to Lithuania and Poland several times because we wanted to go to Germany. However, our health deteriorated, and we returned to Minsk. Now our visas have expired. I know the situation is complicated and pathetic, but you are a human rights country. You must protect us. We have been deceived. I did not come here to live in European countries for benefits and aid given to refugees. I am a person who can learn quickly and integrate well with society. I have all the skills. If embassies opened their doors, it would facilitate and accelerate the pace of immigration. We know that Europe is the only beneficiary of refugees because it needs workers and people to work, pay taxes, use electricity and pay bills. If I wanted to travel, I would have come with the immigration wave in 2015. I am a life-experienced person, and I learned in that school that a good heart is the greatest pain for a human being.
Editor's Note: Brother and sister left Minsk and moved to another city. Due to their safety, we do not disclose where they are, but we know.
Ahmad was hospitalized in a critical condition because he had not had a blood transfusion in 20 days, his sister informed me. He was not admitted because he has no health insurance. They want to apply for asylum in Poland and then for thalassemia treatment.
At the end of September, a migrant reception centre was opened in Vilnius. It is a former homeless shelter in Naujininkai, a district of Vilnius, very close to the train station. The property is fenced, surrounded by a high wall. Initially, 80 people had been admitted there. Another 200 people, mainly families with children, are about to come there in October 2021. "Yesterday [09/26/2021], the first migrants arrived. There are about 80 people in the camp, including 32 children and nine infants," Monika Navickienė, the Minister of Social Security and Labor, had told journalists. There is a doctor's surgery in the centre, and each person receives a monthly allowance of 77 euros. Most of the migrants living in Naujininkai are Iraqis, but one can also meet Syrians and Afghans. They were transferred to Vilnius from tent camps, incl. from Medininkai. Most of those people have already applied for asylum. According to the official letter sent to us by the Lithuanian State Border Guard Service, asylum seekers cannot speak to journalists. However, they can go outside, and when they do so, you can hear voices coming from everywhere, especially children playing.
On our way to Dubai
Here comes the flight from Baghdad, Cairo, Beirut, and at 06.00 a.m. is the flight to Minsk with FlyDubai – we checked this flight.
Where are you from? – From Warsaw. – "How are you?" – asks a friendly Polish flight attendant at FlyDubai. – "We have been flying there since September, and I have not had the opportunity to see the city yet, and it is said to be beautiful", – he adds. FlyDubai, low-cost Emirates, has recently been flying from the Polish capital to Dubai. From Warsaw, despite the scheduled six hours, we arrived at five. The seat occupancy rate was about 40 per cent. Passengers are mainly Poles. However, at the giant airport in Dubai, it gets international. I've landed in Terminal 3, so I cannot check the arrivals of Belavia planes from Minsk in another terminal before noon, nor the departure at 1 p.m. to the capital of Belarus. Still, I can guess the seat occupancy rate in both directions after the flights arriving at my terminal. And the one to Minsk was full. An Emirates plane from Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, arrived at my terminal. There is a large group of passengers for this flight only at the airport transfer desk. And the word "Minsk" was easy to catch. FlyDubai is due to depart to Minsk from my terminal, but only in the evening.
Because of pressure from the EU, Iraq has suspended direct flights from Baghdad to Minsk, but there is no problem getting to the Belarusian capital from Baghdad via Dubai. Such flights are carried out by, among others, Emirates. Previously, Iraqi Airways planes flew directly from Baghdad to Minsk. That is how Khadim got to Minsk and now is waiting for his better tomorrow in the Lithuanian camp, about which we told you yesterday.
– Baghdad, Baghdad! – shouts an employee from the 12.00 Emirates flight, wearing a characteristic uniform of these airlines. The board showed "last call" from 11.40 a.m., and from 12.00 the "gate closed" was displayed, but until 12.20 p.m., with the accompaniment of a muezzin calling for prayer, the plane was probably full.
I decided to check the seat occupancy rate on the Dubai-Istanbul flight operated by Emirates. Only 20 minutes walk to the other end of the terminal, and I could do it. It was crowded, but looking at the passports, mainly Turks and UAE citizens were about to board on that plane.
Planes with migrants from Beirut also arrive in Dubai (for example, this is the route that Syrians take, like Jamila, the heroine of our reportage Jamila) and Cairo.
You could meet the citizens of, among others, Yemen, Iraq and Syria, waiting for a flight to Minsk, FlyDubai. They were standing in small groups everywhere – both families with children and men of different ages.
Is the fact that FlyDubai and Belavia do not fly to Minsk from the same terminal related to the current refugee crisis and the gold-dripping Emirates does not want to spoil its image in "their terminal"? Not really. That division results from assigning individual lines to given terminals at such large airports to ensure the order. But it definitely made our work difficult.
"My name is M. I am from Yemen. I am twenty years old.
I had lived in Yemen until 2018, and then I went to Malaysia. I worked there for a while, but then I couldn't stay there any longer. There is a war going on in Yemen. You do not control your life, and after the ninth grade, they take you to the army. Either that or they'll kill you or arrest you. You can avoid the army, but it costs 10 000 dollars.
We learned about the route from social media – Facebook and Twitter. It started with an invitation to Belarus. It took about ten days to organize it. Then I came to Minsk, spent the next three days there and then they told me to take a cab. The driver was supposed to leave me close to the border, but he didn't. He demanded 300 dollars extra to take me to the right place, and when I refused, he told me and the others to get out.
We walked about 20 kilometres, two more people and me before Belarusian soldiers stopped us. They shouted at us. My companions did not speak English, so I was trying to translate.
They took our cigarettes, asked if we wanted to get to the border. They told us to wait for the truck to take us there. But the truck didn't come. After an hour and a half of doing nothing, we just started walking. It was 6 p.m., and at 10 p.m., a black car stopped next to us with five men wearing balaclavas. They caught the other two, and I started running away. One of the masked men caught me, and we got into a fight. Then came the second man. They beat me and kicked me, dragged me to the ground. They took our money and broke our SIM cards, and left food and phones. They ordered us to go back to Minsk.
I don't know where they were from. I believe they spoke Russian among themselves. One of them hit me in the face. I didn't understand what he was saying to me, so at one point ... I took out my phone and used the personal translator to understand it. It was the Russian language. We returned to the forest and hid, and then we went to sleep. They came back at 2 a.m. I have no idea how they knew where we were. They were probably working for the army, but they were dressed like you, jeans and sweatshirts. They beat us again and told us to go back to Minsk. One of the people I was with broke his leg.
We called the police. The officers arrived 20 minutes later, took us to the police station and questioned us. We showed our injuries, that broken leg too, but they wouldn't want to listen to us. They locked us in custody for the night. In the morning, when we were released, they said that if we wanted to go to Poland, we should not call the police anymore. They said that the Belarusian army and border guards would help us to get to Poland.
We tried again. We met the Belarusian army again. They took 600 dollars from us and showed us which way we should go. We went there. There were twelve of us. They took us by truck to the camp on the Belarusian side. It was somewhere beyond Brest. There I met new people, and there were already 22 of us. There were over 300 people in the camp itself, maybe 400. There were children and women. They cried a lot. They weren't given water or food, and people only had what they took.
They said we could only go to Poland and try to get there again and again, but we could not go back to Minsk.
During the night, they gathered everyone from the camp and took them abroad. They told us to be quiet, not to smoke, and if we saw the light, we should fall to the ground. That's what we did. The Belarusians cut the wire at the border and told us to go, group by group. We were in this forest for four days. We ran out of water and food. We heard people with dogs, maybe the Polish border guards, but we hid from them.
Then we called the cab. To get that cab number, we had to pay 2 000 euros. Per person. Each of the 22 people had to pay 2 000 euros [for transport from the Belarusian border on the Polish side of it - editor's note.]. The people who organize it are Syrians and Yemenis. The driver told us to go to one point and then to the next. We knew how to get there, thanks to the GPS. We used the "share location" option to let him know where we were. When we met, the driver asked where we wanted to go. We said "Berlin". The journey took about 7 hours. He dropped us off at the bridge on the Oder. He said we had to pay 1,750 euros per person to bring us to Berlin. We didn't have that kind of money. We wanted him to take us anyway, but he refused. Out of the whole group, only two people decided to pay. He took them and dropped us off.
We had been without food and water for three days, so we called the German police. They came and picked us up. They gave us water, food and clothes. They took one person from the group to the hospital, bringing us here [to the centre in Eisenhuttenstadt - editor's note]. The conditions are fine here.
We want to stay safe in Germany or any other country here. We want to learn a language and study. It is important that we are safe.
My family stayed in Yemen. I wish they would come here and be safe too.
The road is very dangerous, you can die, but I had to take the risk. It makes no difference to me if I die trying to get here or while staying in Yemen."
We have travelled from Beirut to a refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon to understand why people, even couples with babies, risk their lives in a cold forest in Belarus trying to enter Europe.
In a white tent covered with black tires in a dusty camp, there is a family whose son and neighbour will travel to Belarus in the next few days. Son’s name is Ibrahim, he is 25 years old, he has spent ten years in this refugee camp in Lebanon, and in a few days, he will travel to Belarus. He says that he has nothing to lose. Next to him is his mother. "My family is worried but understands the situation." Since he arrived in Lebanon a decade ago, when civil war broke out in his country, he has not studied. He sometimes does small jobs.
His neighbour Hassan, 35, is also travelling this month. "I have to do something for my family," he explains, pointing to his child with disabilities and playing next to him with a ball during the interview.
Hassan learnt from other Syrian refugees that some people are reaching Germany from Lebanon by flying to Belarus. "Some of them told me it is difficult." He has read that the bodies of two people were found in the forest. Others have given him advice, "as bringing winter clothes and small sweet food little like dates to endure in the forest."
Like these Syrians, the lack of opportunities for young people has led many of them, including couples with babies, to book vacation packages to Belarus and then pay smugglers to bring them closer to the Polish border. A new migration route to Europe.
"Share with the world how Syrians live here. I have reported my 13-year-old son was raped in this camp, and no one does anything," a neighbour says. She explains that sometimes there are raids at night, and they take all the men out of the houses. "One night, they made an older man run, just to laugh at him."
In another tent, another family and another story of the loss of hope. While doing these interviews, a Syrian girl gazes excitedly at the notebook of the reporter. "My children can't even write their names, and they are 13 and 18 years old," says Hussein, 57, a Syrian man from Daraa, the city where the Syrian revolution and then the civil war broke out ten years ago.
Hussein explains that for years they have told them "schools are full". He says they have made several requests, "and once they came from an NGO, they took our details and took photos, but they never came back." There are some 488,000 school-aged Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, according to UNHCR. More than half of refugee children in Lebanon are still out of school.
For the refugees who study, the future is not hopeful either. Sedra goes to school and likes "Arabic, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry ...", she lists. "I would like to be a lawyer, but as Syrian refugees, we cannot be lawyers in Lebanon, so I am going to study nursing," she concludes.
At 7:10 a.m. local time at the Istanbul airport where I spent the last night, the first flight to Minsk with Turkish Airlines was about to take off. There was a queue at the boarding gate. At first glance, the passengers seemed to be Slavs. Only later did everyone sitting around me go to the corridor. They were mostly young men of Arab origin; some were Africans.
Ten minutes before departure, there were only empty chairs left and a white rosary under one of them.
The following cruise was smaller. Belavia took off at 1.20 p.m. The queue to the boarding gate was pretty hard to notice. After the last call announced by the airport staff, I saw people rushing to the gate from time to time. Interestingly, there was no one around me. Initially, two people had been turned away from the flight, but they managed to get on board after a few phone calls. There were some families, and I saw two young Arab women. After all, most of those who boarded were young Arabs. I was observing them: they were young and well-dressed. However, a few days after landing in Belarus, they will probably get dirty in the mud somewhere near the Polish-Belarusian or Lithuanian-Belarusian border.
The next flight at 05.40 p.m. is Belavia again. In the lounge, a young man in his twenties is sitting next to me, holding his passport and some papers with a purple cornflower between the passport's pages – that is the logo of Belavia. I, an Indian woman and her daughter are looking at the preparation of the plane before taking off. The young man is taking lots of photos of his black Yemeni passport and the plane ticket. I can't help but pay attention to his white sneakers looking brand new. A young family from Iraq sits next to me, and they have their COVID tests done in Turkey. The waiting room is slowly getting full of passengers. Belarusians will be in the minority during this flight.
Fifteen minutes before the departure, only a few people remained in the lounge, either late or waiting for the queue to end. The last call for Minsk and another Arab family is trying to board.
Ten minutes later, and no one else is there. It only remains to observe the plane with people looking for a better life. However, they won't find it.
Verebiejai is a village in Alytus County in Lithuania, located 12 km north of Simnas. In a July article in africanews.com, one can read that "hundreds of refugees" stay in that small village in an abandoned school building. We are going there.
In the meantime, we learn Lithuanian words like "school" because, without that knowledge, we would not be able to get anywhere. "Mokykla" - that is the building we are looking for. We suppose it shouldn't be difficult to find it in the countryside, but we have two empty schools here. We're going to the store. The shop assistant tells us where the school is. She says, or rather writes using Google Translate, that there were about 160 refugees during the last three months: women, men and children. We are going to school. There is a library on the other side.
The librarian confirms what we know and says that the refugees were transferred to another reception centre two weeks ago. They had been here since July. "Most of them were from Iran and Africa," she says. When we ask about the locals' reactions, she adds: "They were afraid at first, but then they got used to it." In front of the building, there are three garbage cans filled with good quality clothes. The librarian confirms that they belonged to migrants. She also says the clothes will be recycled because "they don't need them anymore."
We cannot enter the school grounds.
In Słubice, we accosted a passerby on the Polish side of the Oder. He claims that the last events are "a lot of fuss about nothing". "Rarely you can see people being caught on the bridge. Besides, they [the police] are just slacking off, sitting in the car and doing little."
Our data shows that the police are pretty effective in their actions. A few days earlier, a police spokesman Jens Schobranski had claimed that they had known about most attempts to cross the border well in advance. They get information about migrant routes and places where people cross the border and send the units there. We also learned that most of the transport to Germany is made using vans or cabs. However, the traffic is so massive that it is difficult to estimate the number of people crossing the border every day.
At night in Frankfurt, you can only run into groups of drunken youth. Whoever tries to cross the bridge at this time would be very visible. However, there were media reports of groups trying to get to Germany via a railway bridge at a cargo station a few kilometres away. The road leading there seems to be perfect – of good quality, almost untravelled, leading to the city's outskirts and covered by trees.
On the shore, right at the beginning of the bridge, the grass on the slope is heavily trodden down. You can see some footprints. There were at least a few people walking there, maybe more. However, tonight, we don't see anyone crossing the bridge.
When we come back, a police patrol stops us. It took the officers 5-6 minutes to react. They say they saw us on the cameras hanging around next to the bridge. 5-6 minutes to react. Whoever tries to get to Germany here hardly goes unnoticed. Crossing large bridges and massive car traffic must be the most effective method.
Kadhim Mazin from Iraq is now in a camp in Lithuania (we have his pictures from inside a camp and if we can’t go inside, we have permission to use them).
“It was a direct flight (Iraqi Airways) from Baghdad to Minsk with the AL-Nayzak travel agency. The Lithuanian government does not support LGBTQ, but I had to apply for asylum there or they would accuse me of entering their country illegally. My destination was Finland or Germany because these countries offer protection for LGBTQ individuals and people are more tolerant of gay people.”
It is also important that Iraq has just stopped direct flights from Baghdad to Minsk (but it is still possible to go via Dubai).
Jamila story - I flew through Dubai
"I decided to leave Lebanon because living in Lebanon is very difficult for Syrians. It is difficult to obtain documents to work legally, and it is difficult to get anything. They do not want us there. I am an engineer. I want to work in my profession. A friend of mine went to Germany via Belarus in August and said it was easy. Maybe it had been easy, but it has definitely changed since then. It is not true that it is easy now. I am telling you my story, so people don't spend money on these nightmare journeys. When I was In Beirut, I learned from my friends that it is easy to get to Europe via Belarus. Many travel agencies in Beirut offer such services. But I didn't cooperate with a travel agency, I just got a telephone number, and a woman was in charge of the whole operation.
The invitation and flight through Dubai cost two thousand dollars. We flew FlyDubai to Dubai (departure from Beirut on September 18th at 10.00), we waited 15 hours at the Dubai airport, and on September 19th, we landed at the Minsk airport at 11.30.
Since we only had an invitation, we still had to get a visa. As it turned out, we had to pay an additional fee of 250 dollars. And there were a lot of people at the airport. We were all gathered together on the second floor, about 500 people. We spent 48 hours without food or water. In that chaos, some people lost their passports, as was the money "for a visa", when the papers were taken away.
After two nightmarish days at the airport, we were taken to Hotel Willing in Minsk.
Are many people surprised that our phones work? Before leaving, we also got a list of things to take: incl. water, cookies, the strongest power banks (30000-40000 Milliamps each), raincoats and wire cutters, scissors to cut the border fence. I bought a Belarusian SIM card, and that's why we had cell phone reception and internet access.
On September 23rd, 2021, at 15.30, some cars arrived at the hotel. The transport to the Polish border cost another 200 dollars per person. The time was chosen especially to reach the border in the evening because you can cross the border only in the dead of night. We walked through the cornfields for many hours, we knew that we were 3 km from Poland."
Jamila, despite several attempts, did not manage to get to Poland. She stayed in Belarus.
What is happening now on the Polish-Belarusian border cannot be called a migration crisis. It does not meet such criteria. The migration crisis took place six years ago.
Back then, for several months, refugees had been reaching Europe. Most of them went through the Balkans Route (Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia to Austria and Germany).
At the beginning of September, 2015 photos from Hungary and Budapest went viral. The Hungarian government had been running an anti-migrant campaign on billboards across many countries for a long time.
However, Hungarian authorities did not foresee that the inhabitants would organize themselves so well when they saw people in need. They organized food, clothes and many shelters in Budapest. There were also special civil patrols to protect refugees from the police and take them to apartments where they could spend the night.
The authorities did not like those solidarity gestures and quickly started building a wall to their border with Serbia.
As it is easier to make you feel scared of someone you cannot see.
We are in Kybartai, Lithuania, a town located right on the border with the Kaliningrad Oblast. Until recently, there were prisons and correctional facilities here (prisoners were transferred to other prisons).
Currently, the raised barrier encourages entry to the area where refugees live behind a high wall with barbed wire.
In August 2021, a decision was made that people from the tent camp at the training ground in Rūdninkai (approx. 800 migrants) would be transferred here. We are waiting for the morning.
We talk to N. in front of the gate of Eisenhüttenstadt pre-removal detention facility. He came with an Iraqi who had recently arrived there.
"I came to Germany on January 3, 2016," says N. That same year, over 700 000 people applied for asylum in Germany.
Today, there are over a million migrants in Germany, and some claim that almost two million. Often they are the initial contact for those who are trying to get to Europe via Belarus.
The experience of 2015 means that Germany has developed a whole system aimed at dealing with the influx of people. By the end of 2018, 72% of those who had applied for asylum were given protection and had a full job opportunity. Another 17% could find a job, but with certain restrictions.
From all of the refugees who came in 2015 and 2016, initially, only one in a hundred declared a good or excellent command of the German language. After a few years, almost half of them spoke German. And although at one point nearly 70% of Germans believed that the influx of foreigners was the most significant challenge for their country, at least 50% always claimed that German authorities were in control of the whole process. Needless to say, in 2019, German citizens identified climate change as a more critical problem.
Anyway, that's just data. An activist at a legal aid centre for refugees in Berlin says that it is "hell" for migrants to go through the bureaucratic machinery of Germany.
In Eisenhüttenstadt, we meet, among others, Afghans who have been there for over half a year. The local centre is one of the so-called "initial reception centres", where migrants intercepted by the German police end up, including an Iraqi who came with N. In the centre, there are now many more residents than free places, so military tents have been set up.
We'll go inside there tomorrow.
Arriving in Lithuania – what do we know?
More than 4100 migrants from the Middle East and Central Africa have illegally arrived in Lithuania since the beginning of 2021. According to the Ministry of the Interior data of the Republic of Lithuania, since August 2021, almost half of them have come from Iraq and travelled by air from Baghdad to Minsk. Two hundred migrants came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and 131 from Cameroon – they are the two most numerous nationalities arriving in Lithuania after the Iraqis.
A migration crisis of this magnitude is a new phenomenon in Lithuania, with 2 700 000 inhabitants and bordering Belarus, Poland and Latvia. Throughout 2020, 74 illegal arrivals were recorded there, and a year earlier – only 37. The Lithuanian government, concerned about the number of migrants, decided to start building a wall along the border with Belarus and accused Alexander Lukashenka of deliberate actions and retaliation for EU sanctions and support for Belarusian opposition, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is in Lithuania. On July 2, 2021, a state of emergency was declared throughout the country.
Outriders reporters came to Lithuania to get to know, understand and learn more about the routes of people who migrate and end up in Lithuania.
A Syrian in Lebanon: “Migrating is not just about money, we started the Syrian revolution calling for respect, and we did not get this respect here”
“My parents do not know that my sister is in a forest in Belarus. They are old, I do not want to worry them,” explains a Syrian man in a café in Beirut. He shows us some videos of a group of people hidden in the forest. “She sent me these videos today,” he adds. We ask him if he is worried about her: “She will go ahead, she has nothing to do here”. Her sister is a 30-years old woman who studied engineering, she has nothing to do here”. So when she knew there was a travel agency in Beirut offering a package to travel to Belarus, she did not hesitate and she did it.
Syrian refugees in Lebanon are living a crisis within a crisis
This Syrian family came to Lebanon in 2013. As for them, hundreds of thousands of Syrians who flee their country find themselves amidst financial, political and health crises in Lebanon, without anything to lose. At the end of 2020, some 865,531 Syrian refugees were in Lebanon, according to the UNHCR, in a country with a population of fewer than 7 million people. According to the World Bank, Lebanon is experiencing one of the most severe global crises, which estimates that in 2020 real GDP contracted by 20.3 per cent, and GDP per capita fell by around 40 per cent.
But still, why are there families with babies risking their life in a forest in Belarus?
"The main reason is that even before the crisis, the Syrian refugees in Lebanon could work just in three fields: agriculture, construction work and garbage collection, and if you think about their future, there are no chances for development," explains a researcher working on the field in Bekaa Valley, one hour from Beirut. For the last months, she has heard some stories about friends of a friend who know someone who travelled to Belarus. Some of those trips were successful, and they are currently in Germany, some of them did not, and they are trapped in the middle of the Belarusian and Polish border. However, some people are still trying the dangerous trip.
"I think only half of the school-age go to school and those who attend school go in the afternoon. They are not mixed with Lebanese children," the researcher continues. "So if you are a parent and you can't guarantee a decent life and education for a future for your kid, you are going to try it," she continued.
This researcher explains that the current conditions of Syrian living amidst the crisis in Lebanon is one of the reasons which pushed them to travel. In addition, "another reason is that the trip is feasible, it is not cheap, but 2,000 USD is something that families can get." "Also, people think the forest is not as dangerous as the sea, even if it is not true."
But there is another reason. This researcher explains that when the situation was getting much worse on the Belarus/Poland border, she talked with a friend, a Syrian doctor. She asked him: "If these people have 2,000 USD, why don't they stay? They could survive for a few months in Lebanon. And the Syrian doctor replied: "It is an issue of human dignity and respect. It is not about money; we started the Syrian revolution not because of money. We started calling for freedom, dignity and respect, and that respect we did not get here, so some people are willing to risk their lives to find a place where they were treated with respect.
While we were talking with the Syrian man whose sister is currently at the Belarusian border, the only light in the street was the lamps of this restaurant. Lebanon's electricity system collapsed on Saturday since the government struggled to pay the rates for fuel. The sound of the streets is the sound of the power generators of the hotels and the lucky ones who can afford it. The rest of the city is in darkness.
My name is Jamila. I am from Syria. I came to Minsk from Beirut, Lebanon. I decided to share this story as a warning to others. So that people don't spend their life savings on a trip during which they and their money can drown in the swamps on the Belarusian - Polish border.
Belarusian soldiers took us somewhere. They even tried to joke that they would help us get to Poland. However, it turned out that they weren't joking. They took us another 2-3 km away and showed us how to cut the border fence. It was all happening during the night. We managed to cut a hole and get to Poland one by one. It was September 28th at night. There was a field and some trees around us. We were paddling in a river for about 300 meters. We wanted to hide in the forest and not scare people living there because there was a little village nearby.
We didn't want them to call the police. I was so tired that I practically fell asleep while walking. Despite being cautious, we found Polish soldiers. They took us to the border fence and pushed us to the Belarusian side at 3.30 am. They were very aggressive. We were exhausted, so we went back to the forest, made a fire and went to sleep.
For the next nine days, 10 Outriders journalists in seven countries are checking the routes of migrants from several countries leading via Belarus to the European Union.
The #VisaToNowhere # WizaDonikąd project aims to show from the beginning to the end the migrants’ trail through Belarus. Friday (October 15th) is the finale of our project.
Outriders journalists will be at the airports, planes, borders, and asylum centres to help you understand what this trail looks like.
Coverage prepared several times a day will be published in Outriders social media and on the Gazeta.pl. The final #VisaToNowhere #WizaDonikąd report from Outriders will be published on Friday.
Join our membership programme Outriders World to support our journalism from all around the world. We believe in world based on science – but we cannot do it alone!