Insiders reveal fresh details about Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s inhumane smuggling system, comprised of a network of front companies that spreads to Syria, Turkey and Iraq, secret money transfers and the use of soldiers as traffickers.
By Jürgen Dahlkamp, Christina Hebel, Muriel Kalisch, Steffen Lüdke und Maximilian Popp
Ahead of him, Mhamad can see barbed wire and then Polish soldiers. Their faces are covered and they are armed. When Mhamad looks back, he can see Belarusian soldiers. They, too, are wearing masks and carrying weapons. Whenever Mhamad or his children need to relieve themselves in the forest, they have to pass the men who have taken up positions behind them. Mhamad explains over the phone that the Belarusians give them precisely five minutes to do so. “Don’t run away,” they admonish. “We will find you!”
Mhamad, a married 40-year-old and father of three, isn’t interested in running away. He wants to keep going. Mhamad fled the city of Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq, arriving in Minsk by plane via Dubai with his family in the hope of reaching the European Union and applying for asylum there – without having to risk his life crossing the Mediterranean. Now he’s stuck, trapped at the EU’s external border with his wife and three children. The youngest is less than two years old.
Around 4,000 refugees have been holding out for several days on the Belarusian side of the border fence near the Polish village of Kuźnica. They set off on foot last Monday, walking for miles along the M6 road toward the EU.
It was a march of desperation. Many have tried repeatedly in recent weeks to cross the border into Poland. And they say that Polish officials continually push them back – back into the hands of Belarusian security forces. They claim the Belarusians then take their possessions and force them along the fence, or they take them to other border areas.
Images from Polish military helicopters show the camp on the border. They show people seeking shelter in tents or lean-tos and lighting fires to stave off the cold. At night, the temperatures drop to below freezing. Mhamad sends photos of his shelter, which he built himself using metal parts, wire, green plastic and fir branches. He says the Red Cross has distributed bread, water and blankets – but his youngest child needs baby food.
As Mhamad speaks, the connection keeps breaking off. Loudspeaker announcements from the Polish border guards can be heard in the background. “Attention! Attention!” it screeches. “Crossing the border is legal only at border crossings.” But the official border crossing was closed long ago.
At night, blue lights flicker across the border area. Mhamad constantly keeps guard and barely sleeps. He hopes that the people at the fence will remain peaceful, adding that a few tried to tear holes in the border fence and threw stones at Polish soldiers. “We don’t need a fight here – neither with the Poles nor the Belarusians,” Mhamad says. The Belarusian soldiers, he says, fired off warning shots when refugees tried to return to the highway.
For the past several months, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has been flying people in from Turkey and the Middle East. The European Union looked on for too long as the ruler in Minsk issued tourist visas to people willing to flee, thus expanding the new route to the West. Initially, the Belarusians drove them toward Lithuania, but now they are being funneled to the Polish border.
It appears that Lukashenko is retaliating against the EU and the tough sanctions imposed against his regime after the forced landing of a Ryanair passenger jet in May. And the refugees are the perfect tool. There’s nothing right now that creates a bigger panic in the EU than a few thousand asylum-seekers at a border crossing.
In his desire to ratchet up the pressure on Europe, Lukashenko has created a shameful system that now stretches as far as Syria, Iraq and Turkey. A team of DER SPIEGEL journalists spent several weeks reporting in Minsk, Istanbul and along the Polish border. The reporters evaluated flight data and visa documents, interviewed smugglers and middlemen who bring migrants to Belarus for the regime. Their research reveals a smuggling system against which the EU hasn’t yet found a remedy. Every day, hundreds of people land at the airport in Minsk; every day, more and more people push towards the border.
So far, the Polish government has primarily been using force to stop the asylum-seekers. Around 15,000 troops have been deployed along the border, backed up by border guards and then the police. The security forces deploy water cannons and pepper spray.
The EU now has the choice of leaving people to their own devices – or opening up the gates. At least 10 people are reported to have died in the border area in recent weeks. Human rights organizations have long been warning of a humanitarian catastrophe, and believe the death toll could rise into the dozens.
Istanbul, Turkey: A Hotbed of Smugglers
The people arrive as night falls. Young men in tattered sweaters. Fathers and mothers with babies in their arms. They carry everything they have with them in plastic bags or backpacks.
This is when the work begins for Ibrahim. He strolls through the marketplace in Istanbul’s Aksaray district, seemingly aimlessly. At some point, he stops in front of a café with an Arabic name. He recognizes his customers by the look on their faces, and gives them a brief wink.
Ibrahim, 34, fled the war in Syria to Turkey seven years ago. He says he tried twice to get to Greece, but failed both times. Now, he smuggles other people into Europe on behalf of, he says, Turkish mafia groups.
Ibrahim leads the way through a maze of alleys, past exchange offices, kebab stalls and hotels that charge by the hour before taking a seat in a tea garden. Before agreeing to an interview, he insisted that his real name not be mentioned. He doesn’t want his Turkish employers to know he’s talking to a journalist.
Aksaray has been a gathering place for smugglers and refugees for many years. Ibrahim says he used it as a staging ground to smuggle hundreds of people from here to the EU, almost always through Greece.
But the business has changed in recent months. After Greece sealed its borders with Turkey, there were few ways left for refugees to get through. But the route via Belarus to Poland has now opened up, and Ibrahim has adjusted his strategy. Instead of Greece, he is now increasingly sending asylum-seekers to Belarus. He says there have been just under a dozen since the summer, mainly Syrians and Iraqis who are trying to get to Europe. Some, he says, have been living in Turkey for several years, others have just arrived. Turkish aid organizations estimate that several thousand refugees have traveled from Turkey alone to Belarus.
Ibrahim created a series of Facebook and Telegram accounts under fake names, posing as a migrant and enthusing about the journey to the EU via Minsk, the capital of Belarus. “The easiest route to Germany,” reads one page. “To Berlin in five days,” reads another.
Ibrahim’s strategy is to build trust. He messages back and forth with the migrants several times before arranging to meet them in Aksaray. He says that by then, the conversations are generally just about finalizing details. How much does the trip cost? When can we go? And where to?
If everything goes smoothly, Ibrahim refers his customers, in return for a commission, to a company disguised as a “travel agency” in Istanbul that in turn works with similar “travel agencies” in Minsk. The Belarusians issue the visas – and the Turks, Syrians, Iraqis and Lebanese handle the business locally. Since the summer, dozens of similar “travel agencies” have sprung up in Istanbul, in the northern Iraqi cities of Erbil and Dohuk, in Beirut, Lebanon, and in Damascus, Syria.
Ibrahim says the Turkish authorities are fully aware of the business, but still tolerate it. On the one hand, you have a mafia that is bribing the police. On the other, you have Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who wants to promote migration to the EU to keep the pressure up on the Europeans. Erdoğan actually did try to pressure the EU into making concessions in the Syria conflict as early as spring 2020 by busing migrants to the border with Greece. Now, Lukashenko is mimicking the tactic.
Initially, any company in Belarus was able to issue visas to migrants from Turkey and the Middle East. Since the end of September, though, only 12 companies have been permitted to do so. At least that’s what the smugglers say. Lukashenko’s regime apparently wants to ensure that it earns enough from the human-trafficking. Smugglers and refugees say the fee for a visa has risen from $1,200 to $1,700 to as much as $2,500, in addition to the cost of a plane ticket, which can be as much as $1,000 on Turkish Airlines from Istanbul to Minsk.
Ibrahim’s work is done once his clients reach Minsk. He says they have to organize the onward journey themselves.
Minsk, Belarus: Trapped in Transit
Shimal, 36, sits with a lowered head on a bench in the center of Minsk. He’s from Dohuk in northern Iraq, and he doesn’t know where to take himself and his family. A few meters away, his wife is leaning against the façade of one of the buildings, seeking shelter from the cold wind that sweeps across the pavement. Their son and daughter, three- and five-years-old, kick an empty plastic bottle across a patch of grass.
Shimal had thought he would be in Germany with his family long ago. That’s what the smugglers back in his home country had promised him. But now he is sitting together with his wife and children on the streets of Minsk, without a valid visa or a place to get in out of the cold.
At the end of October, they weren’t the only ones stranded in Minsk. More refugees squat outside the Galleria shopping center. Most, like Shimal, are from Iraq, while others are from Syria.
Backpacks and sleeping bags are piled up on the floor around the migrants. If you try to talk to them for any length of time, men in athletic outfits crowd around and interrupt with provocative questions. Ultimately, they begin issuing threats that you’d better move along or “something will happen.”
DER SPIEGEL was one of the last Western media outlets that was still able to work in Belarus at the end of October. Independent international media – as well as critical Belarusian media – are hardly welcome in the country any longer. Dictator Lukashenko has also had dozens of Belarusian journalists arrested.
The reporting now done at the refugee camp on the Polish border near the M6 comes primarily from representatives of the state media. They’re supposed to be documenting how badly Poland treats the thousands of refugees. The Kremlin has demonstratively backed Lukashenko, condemning the “harsh actions of the Polish side toward peaceful people.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has even called on the EU to provide aid to the Belarusian regime.
However, documents viewed by DER SPIEGEL show that it is the Lukashenko regime itself that set up the Belarus route. The state-run company Zentrkurort began issuing dozens of tourist visas to Iraqis in May. The company reports to Lukashenko’s presidential administration. A short time later, the government gradually transferred the visa business to private companies, including Oscartur in Minsk, which first organized entry permits in Iraq and then in Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries. Oscartur is also active in Syria now.
In Minsk, the companies accommodate the refugees mainly in hotels that also have links to Lukashenko’s presidential administration. It’s a profitable business: It is estimated that there are currently around 15,000 asylum-seekers in Belarus.
And more people are arriving every day. A representative of FlyDubai reports 200 refugees a day on the airline’s flight from Dubai alone. One employee at the Minsk airport spoke of up to 400 new arrivals a day as early as October.
By now, there are likely to be many more. With the recent introduction of the winter timetable, there are now around 40 connections a week from cities in Turkey and the Middle East. Flights from Istanbul, Dubai, Beirut and now Damascus are all listed. Cham Wings regularly flies to Minsk from the Syrian capital – five times in the first week of November alone, as listed in the FlightRadar24 flight tracker lists.
The demand has become so great that the Belarusian Embassy in Damascus is temporarily no longer accepting visa applications – officially for “technical reasons.” Currently, 2,200 passports are being processed, according to a Facebook post.
The state-run Belarusian news agency Belta has reported that the government in Minsk is planning to add more international flights directly to regional cities in the country as well. Both Grodno and Brest, cities located near the EU border, have airports.
Shimal paid a total of $14,000 at a “travel agency” in Dohuk for himself and his family to fly from Istanbul to Minsk in addition to visas and lodging in a hotel. A friend had put him in contact with the right people. The trip consumed almost all of his savings, plus money from the sale of his minibus. “I’m ashamed that I let myself be deceived like this,” he says, adding that he doesn’t want to go to the border. It’s “too dangerous,” he says, “especially for the children.”
On the fifth floor of the Galleria shopping center in Minsk, the mood among refugees is tense. Older men walk around with mobile phones, and one is wearing a T-shirt with “Germany” emblazoned on it.
A man who introduces himself in fluent Russian as an Iraqi from Erbil accompanies three Kurds aged 18, 21 and 24 years old. He says he’s helping the men and that he’s been in Minsk for two months. He later admits that he is receiving money for his services. And where did he learn Russian? He went to college in Moscow and was married to a Russian woman, he explains. But he doesn’t want to say any more than that.
The shopping center is an important meeting place for refugees in Minsk. People warm up at one of the round tables next to cafés and a Chinese restaurant, eat fries and chicken from KFC and drink tea.
Some people who just arrived carry bags with sleeping mats, warm clothes and bright new orange sleeping bags with “-25 degrees Celsius” written on them. Others sleep with their heads on the table, with battered backpacks lying on the floor in front of them. They’re asylum-seekers who have already tried four or five times to reach Poland – unsuccessfully.
Many spend several days stuck in the border area until they find a way to get back to Minsk. The refugees often have to pay Belarusian officials hundreds of dollars to let them pass back through.
There are increasing reports of Belarusian security forces forcibly dragging migrants into cars and taking them farther north to the border with Lithuania. Some refugees claim that Lithuanian border guards deliberately used stun guns against them in order to drive them back.
In the meantime, the Belarusian authorities have switched to issuing only group visas with a few days’ validity for the “tourists” from the Middle East. The group visa for Shimal and his family was only valid for eight days. If the travel visa expires, they get kicked out of their hotels.
Those with Middle Eastern features now have to pay more than double for lodging, say Shimal and other refugees. Often, they end up handing over $20 or more per night for a bed in a crowded shared room in a run-down apartment or hostel. Many migrants, though, can’t even afford that and sleep in parks or on the streets of Minsk.
After significant hesitation, Shimal applied with the International Organization for Migration for a return trip to his homeland. And last Thursday, he flew back to Erbil via Dubai. He is afraid. He says he has been threatened because his family had a falling out with his wife’s family. Until the very end, he had hoped that Poland would change its approach and open its border. That outcome, though, still doesn’t appear likely.
Siemianówka, Poland: The Death Zone
It is shortly after 10 a.m. when Franek Sterczewski receives the geocode. He puts on his sunglasses and heads out on this Monday morning, off to the forest. A group of refugees has apparently spent more than two weeks stumbling through the area – which, with its bewildering maze of swamps, presents a greater danger than the border crossing itself.
A 33-year-old with a degree in architecture, Sterczewski went into politics in the hopes of improving Poland’s infrastructure. But ever since Belarus has been sending increasing numbers of people across the border, his focus has shifted to looking after refugees. This is his second trip to the border, and he is joining a group of activists to help those who have made it across into Poland. He is hoping that his presence will mean the people will be given an opportunity to apply for asylum.
The border between Poland and Belarus stretches for 400 kilometers (248 miles). Since August, there have been 30,000 attempts to illegally cross that frontier – far away from the well-guarded border crossings.
The Polish government declared a state of emergency for the region in early September, with the restricted area extending three kilometers from the border. Checkpoints are under military control, and only residents and security personnel are allowed in. Activists say it has become a lawless zone.
One video depicts what frequently happens out of sight of reporters and activists. Masked Polish and Belarusian border guards armed with automatic weapons stand face-to-face across the border. It is a tense standoff, and the two sides are filming each other. The Belarusians push asylum-seekers – men, women and children – over the border to the Polish side, where the Polish border guards refuse to let them through.
But even when groups of refugees make it far into Poland, they still aren’t safe. People have reported over and over again that they are brought back into the forest by Polish border guards and abandoned there.
Even parliamentarians like Sterczewski aren’t allowed into the restricted area. The migrants have to cross the strip either on their own or with the help of locals. Only then can Sterczewski provide his assistance to the exhausted, shivering asylum-seekers.
Sterczewski reaches his destination after one-and-a-half hours, his car turning onto a narrow country road that leads through the thick pine forest. Eight people from Somalia are crouched behind a leafless bush. They aren’t wearing any shoes, even though temperatures in the forest drop below zero at night.
One woman is lying on the ground, gasping for air in a panic. She is suffering from a heart problem, say her companions. The refugee activists who Sterczewski has called give them water, a couple of energy bars and slips of paper reading: “I want asylum in Poland.” The migrants say that they have already been forced back into Belarus by Polish border guards on seven occasions.
It takes about 30 minutes for the border guards to arrive. Four men climb out of the van and one of them strides over to the refugees. He has a round face and friendly-looking blue eyes that harden when he speaks to the asylum-seekers. “How did you get across the border? Illegally or legally?” he yells.
The refugees, sitting on the ground in front of him, stare and him and hesitantly lift their signs. “I want asylum in Poland,” says one of them. “Why didn’t you go to the border crossing where you could have entered Poland legally?” asks the border guard. Sterczewski intervenes: “They know that that is only possible in theory. The Belarusians push them across the border all over the place.” The border guard barks: “I’m asking them, not you.”
Those who have been examined are loaded up, either in the ambulance or in a military truck. The border officials say that the healthy ones are to be brought to a reception center for asylum-seekers. When two medical workers start leading one man toward the ambulance, his eyes fill with tears. “Please, I don’t want to go back,” he says. “I want asylum in Poland.”
When nobody is listening, the border guard says to Sterczewski: “These people are like rocks. The Belarusians throw them over, and we throw them back.”
The national-conservative Law and Justice party, which heads up the Polish government, is doing its best to pose as the guardians of Christendom. “The border is sacred,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote on Facebook early last week. The blood of an entire generation, he wrote, was spilled to defend it, and he accused Lukashenko of waging a “hybrid war” and using the migrants as weapons.
Members of the government have claimed in past comments to reporters that they have found animal pornos and jihadist materials on mobile phones belonging to the asylum-seekers. And Warsaw is planning on building a border wall that will allegedly cost 350 million euros. A model of the wall depicts metal bars over five meters tall topped with razor wire.
The government’s severe approach to the migrants is popular in Poland. In Brussels, meanwhile, many are concerned that it could represent a further erosion of refugee protections. Countries like Greece and Croatia, to be sure, have been conducting illegal pushbacks for the past several years – but most such activities have taken place largely out of the public eye.
Poland is among the first to have dared to legalize pushbacks, and it has been joined by other Eastern European countries. According to Polish law, border guards can decide for themselves if they allow migrants the opportunity to apply for asylum.
It is often the case that refugees are intercepted deep inside Poland, only to be brought back to the border. At that point, according to a German federal police officer, the Polish border guards cut a hole in the fence and push the people through back into Belarus. Polish border personnel have even begun keeping an official count of the “forced departures.”
Both European law and in the Geneva Refugee Convention hold that asylum-seekers who have made it into EU territory have the right to fair asylum proceedings. In Poland, however, this right to asylum has been severely curtailed. As a consequence, members of European Parliament from the Left Party, the Greens, the Socialists & Democrats and some Liberals have been demanding for weeks that infringement proceedings be launched.
The European Commission is examining the relevant laws in the Eastern European countries involved, but has yet to reach a decision. In principle, though, many in the EU welcome the approach being taken by the Polish government. Indeed, a debate has erupted in Brussels as to whether the EU should pay for the new fence on the Polish border.
Opposition politicians in Poland, NGOs and refugee activists are concerned that if the EU doesn’t act, the border could become a death trap in the winter. The swampy forests at the border are among the coldest regions in the country, with snow often piling up to depths of a meter or more and temperatures plunging to minus 20 degrees Celsius. Most migrants move at night, without flashlights, so as not to be intercepted by the border guards. Residents in the region are fully aware of the dangers, and some of them hang green lights on their homes at night as a signal to refugees that they are welcome.
Human rights organizations believe it is possible that some of the 10 people who have thus far died at the border had previously been pushed back into the forest by either Polish or Belarusian border guards. The true number of victims could be even higher. Migrants have reported seeing dead bodies in the border region, though such reports are impossible to verify.
Activists and politicians like Franek Sterczewski want to avoid additional victims, and are distributing extra clothes and power banks. The Polish parliamentarian never calls the official emergency number, fearful that the migrants could then be forced back across the border. And many of them want to travel onward to Germany anyway. Sometimes, the activists see the vans belonging to the human smugglers, who drive around in the border region near the restricted area.
Alaa Halabi, whose name has been changed for this article, is one of the men who drives such a van. DER SPIEGEL reached him by phone.
Halabi says he spent three years taking people from Greece to Austria or Germany. But when the borders were largely closed during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, he quit. There were suddenly too many checks and it grew too dangerous.
When he heard about the new route via Belarus, he says, he called his boss and offered to serve the new passage. Halabi says his boss has excellent connections to the Turkish mafia – and they have solid links to criminal groups in Europe. His boss, says Halabi, agreed, and since then he has again been working as a human smuggler, bringing people from Poland to Germany for $2,000. It takes him about 14 hours to get to the border.
The refugees send him their location, says Halabi, and deposit the money with an “insurance office” in Turkey. Halabi’s boss and the other middlemen work together with around five offices, and only those who deposit their money with an office they trust will be picked up. Once they do, he then calls somebody who knows people at the border, who can say if the refugees are in a safe location or not. Only then will he pick them up, Halabi says.
On the way to Germany, Halabi has to avoid the German federal police. Eight units patrol the German border with Poland, and they pay special attention to vans. They have managed to arrest several hundred human smugglers thus far. Halabi has a friend drive out in front to warn him of controls or roadblocks.
Halabi is only paid once he has brought the migrants to their destinations. They then give him a code with which he can claim the money deposited at the insurance office in Turkey.
That money transfer is the last in a long series of payments. If all goes well, the migrants exchange their savings for the opportunity to start a new life in Germany. But if it doesn’t, they find themselves trapped at the EU’s external border, struggling to survive