With the EU putting pressure on Belarus in the form of sanctions, the country’s autocratic president, Alexander Lukashenko, has responded by funneling refugees from Iraq and elsewhere into Lithuania. The situation on the border is worsening.
When Sleman climbed over the fence marking the border between Belarus and Lithuania, he thought he had made it. Now, though, four weeks later, he’s no longer so sure.
Sleman, a 27-year-old refugee from Iraq, wipes off the water dripping down his face. It’s raining – again. Just as has so often in recent days in the forest near Rūdninkai, a town located 38 kilometers south of the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. The tents are lined up one after the other in the mud on this former military training ground. Sleman, though, refers to it as a prison. The compound is surrounded by a metal fence, and there are security personnel on hand to keep watch.
Hundreds of refugees are sheltered here, most of them men from Iraq, but there are others from Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Cameroon. They all arrived in Lithuania via Belarus.
The mood in the tent is tense. Rain is seeping through the canvas walls and many of the men, including Slemen, hardly have a change of clothes. His jacket is soaked through. Much of the food they eat comes out of a can, and they heat it up on an open fire. And buses full of asylum-seekers keep on coming.
Nobody tells them anything, the men in the camp complain, all talking at once. “We need help!” one of them calls out. “We aren’t weapons, we don’t want to hurt anybody,” another of the refugees says.
Sleman, who is standing off to the side, says quietly: “Just because we came through Belarus doesn’t make us bad people.” He would have used any opportunity available to get out of Iraq and find his way to a safe EU country, he says. And that opportunity, he continues, was offered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
“A political weapon”
For months, the dictator in Minsk has been allowing migrants with tourist visas to fly into the Belarusian capital before helping them on their journey westward. It is his response to the sanctions that the European Union has implemented against his government. The pressure has been felt most acutely by the neighboring country of Lithuania.
The EU member state’s border guards have already intercepted 4,100 refugees this year. That may not sound like much, but the small country, with just 2.8 million inhabitants, is having trouble coping. Last year, Vilnius recorded a total of just 81 asylum-seekers.
Lithuania declared a state of emergency in July as a result of the influx, and there are now soldiers manning the border along with officials from the European border patrol agency Frontex. They have reinforced sections of the border with fencing and are also guarding the refugee camps.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis calls Lukashenko’s maneuver “hybrid warfare,” saying the Belarusian leader is using the refugees as a “political weapon.”
It’s no surprise that Lithuania is the target. The government in Vilnius was one of the first to demand harsh penalties for Belarus after Lukashenko forced a Ryanair commercial flight en route to Lithuania to land in Minsk. Hundreds of Lukashenko opponents have fled to safety in Lithuania, including Belarusian presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has her entire staff in Vilnius. She believes Lukashenko is using the migrants to “take revenge on Lithuania.”
The government in Vilnius simply watched for several weeks as the numbers of refugees arriving climbed higher and higher. On one day this summer, 131 refugees were intercepted at the border, then it was 144, and then 171. When officials reported 294 refugees on a single day in early August, the government moved to act. Now, Vilnius is doing all it can to stop them from coming into the country.
Since then, officers from a democratic country find themselves standing face to face at the border with their counterparts from an authoritarian regime, though the tools at their disposal are similar. The Lithuanian forces have dogs and truncheons while the Belarusian border guards wear helmets, carry shields and also wield batons. Trapped in the middle are the refugees.
“What is wrong with people?,” wonders Vytautas Valentinavičius, the human rights commissioner for Lithuanian parliament, who visited the border and watched as Belarusian officials fired warning shots into the air to push back a group of refugees.
“Lukashenko invited the people in with tourist visas, so he should take care of them himself,” says Lithuania’s deputy interior minister, Arnoldas Abramavičius. “Our border guards were acting as a kind of hotel reception for the migrants for a long time. That has to stop,” he says.
Lithuanian border guards emphasize that the refugees are turned away before they cross into the country and say that exceptions are made for the sick and for children. “We aren’t using any violence,” says Rokas Pukinskas, a spokesperson for the Lithuanian border control agency.
It is hard to verify if what he says is true. Five refugees from Iraq told members of the aid initiative Alarm Phone that they were turned away even though they had explicitly requested asylum in Lithuania.
Some of the refugees have made short video clips to document the difficulties they are facing. “Please, my friend, please,” begs one man in such a clip. He is standing in high grass in front of four Lithuanian border guards wearing camouflage uniforms and riot helmets. They have a dog with them. One of the border guards is holding a truncheon in his hand and says: “Go back to Belarus. Do you understand? Go back.” The man calls out: “I don’t want to go back.” On the other side, Belarusian security forces are in position. The refugees can’t move forward and can’t go back. The standoff goes on for several hours, with the men saying they have no water or food. Images show them soaked by the rain and freezing cold. They light articles of clothing on fire to warm up.
The Iraqis ultimately spent three days in no-man’s-land, says Hamza, one of the men, in a phone call. Then, they were forced to turn back to Belarus, where they were beaten by a Belarusian unit and forced to march through the forest, allegedly toward Latvia. Ultimately, they reached a village and were able to ask for help from a contact. They are now back in Iraq.
The refugees in the tent camp near Rūdninkai have seen the videos made by the five men. Many of the asylum-seekers there are now afraid of being deported. The Iraqi government repatriated 370 refugees from Minsk this week.
But what about the many others who are still on the way? Lithuanian officials estimate that it could be up to 5,000 refugees.
There are more and more signs that Lukashenko could be planning on sending them to a border with a different EU member state. Groups of migrants, including children, have arrived at the Polish border to the west and at the Latvian border to the north. The police in Germany have also intercepted a few people.
Lukashenko doesn’t seem willing to take in the people he has allowed to fly to Belarus from Baghdad and Istanbul. Should the situation on the border to Lithuania not quiet down, he says, he plans to introduce harsh counteractive measures.
How far will Lukashenko go?
European Union interior ministers plan to discuss the situation on the bloc’s eastern borders this Wednesday. Lithuania is insisting that the flights be stopped and has pointed out that the incoming refugees generally intend to continue their journeys onward to Finland, Germany and Austria. Iraqi Airways has temporarily suspended flights to Belarus, but it isn’t clear for how long. And what about the flights from Turkey?
Human rights activists say that Lukashenko has taken a page out of the book by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who temporarily opened the border to Greece in spring 2020 to increase pressure on the EU. The question is: How far is Lukashenko willing to go?
The Belarusian leader insists that he is merely allowing the refugees to pass through. In truth, though, his regime has systematically ensured that the number of refugees seeking to cross into the EU through its eastern border continues to rise.
Documents obtained by DER SPIEGEL from the London-based Dossier Center, founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, show that the state-owned Belarusian company Zentrkurot ensured that dozens of visas were handed out to Iraqis in May. Zentrkurot is under the control of Lukashenko’s presidential administration. When contacted, the company insisted that it doesn’t work with visitors from Iraq, Syria, Libya or Afghanistan.
A woman who worked for Zentrkurot until May and whose name is mentioned in the papers, however, confirmed the authenticity of the documents. She says the number of visas for Iraqis arranged by the company is actually in the hundreds. The woman organized the visa invitations for the migrants, who then arrived in Minsk on direct flights operated by Fly Baghdad and Iraqi Airways. Drivers from a transportation company hired by Zentrkurot were waiting for them there and brought them to hotels in the center of Minsk, the woman says. “I quickly realized that they weren’t tourists,” she says. “I understood that it was all illegal and I quit in May.”
Another name is also mentioned in the documents from the Dossier Center – a Minsk-based company called Oscartur. The company’s director was included as a contact person for the Iraqis in the visa list along with the former Zentrkurot employee who quit in May. There is evidence to indicate that the company was charged with ensuring that more people came to Belarus from Iraq. In the emails, there is a draft of a cooperation agreement with the state-owned company Zentrkurot. The draft agreement addresses the “development of international tourism between countries in the Arab world and the Republic of Belarus.” When DER SPIEGEL contacted the director of Oscartur to discuss the documents, he hung up.
Lithuanian security officials believe that Zentrkurot plays a central role in the effort to raise Belarus’s profile as a springboard into the European Union. On social media channels especially, more and more posts are popping up that contain ads for trips to Belarus. Iraqi refugees in the Rūdninkai tent camp confirm as much. Sleman says that he saw such ads on Facebook. He says he paid $1,000 to a travel agent in Baghdad for the flight, a tourist visa and a stay in the three-star hotel Planeta in Minsk.
Help from Belarusian border guards?
Thus far, refugees from the Middle East have primarily come to Europe via Turkey and the Aegean Sea, a journey that has proven deadly for many of the asylum-seekers who attempt it. Lukashenko’s newly established route is safer, leading as it does from Minsk to an overland border with the EU. Often, the border is only marked with two boundary posts, one for Belarus and the other for Lithuania. Even in places where the border is protected by a fence and surveillance cameras, as is the case near the Lithuanian border post of Medininkai, it doesn’t slow down the migrants much.
It seems likely that the migrants don’t choose their path across the border themselves, but have help from smugglers and from Belarusian border guards. In a country like Belarus, nothing happens without official involvement, particularly when foreigners are involved, says a former regime official.
The Lithuanian Interior Ministry released a video that was filmed from a Frontex helicopter. It shows an off-road vehicle accompanying a group of refugees to the Lithuanian border. The ministry says that such vehicles are used by Belarusian border guards.
“We are people, too”
The refugees in the Rūdninkai tent camp, though, claim that they have had no help from smugglers or Belarusian officials. “We came by ourselves,” the men say. Only very few of them still have their passports. Sleman says that the travel agency in Minsk held on to his papers, while others claim to have lost their documents along the way.
The Iraqi is hoping that he will soon be able to apply for asylum. But he says he isn’t particularly optimistic. A few men have been able to leave the camp, but they were all refugees from Belarus who had the support of an aid agency.
Sleman doesn’t understand why they were helped and he wasn’t, saying it is unfair. “We are people, too, and we also need protection,” he says. No matter what happens, he insists, he refuses to return to Baghdad, where he would be under threat. He fears that he and the other refugees might have to spend several more months in the tents in the forest near Rūdninkai. Fall, though, is right around the corner and temperatures will drop. “What then?” he wonders.