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Tourist visas and flights from Syria – the route to Europe via Belarus | Global development

On a darkish forest street final month, Polish police had been in pursuit of a dashing automotive that had skipped a checkpoint. The automotive’s driver was a folks smuggler, and his passengers three Syrians who had paid 1000’s for him to take them to Germany, the remaining leg of their journey from the Center East via Belarus. A truck coming in the wrong way tried to dodge them however couldn’t. Ferhad Nabo, 33, a married father of two from Kobane, was killed immediately in the crash.

“He left Syria, like many others, to attain Europe,” mentioned his cousin Rashwan Nabo, a Syrian humanitarian employee. Ferhad had boarded a direct flight to Minsk from Erbil, in northern Iraq. “In Raqqa, Damascus and Aleppo, phrase has been spreading for months that the best and quickest approach to attain Europe is a direct flight to Belarus,” his cousin mentioned.

Ferhad Nabo is certainly one of no less than 9 individuals who have died since the starting of the border standoff between Poland and Belarus. Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, has been accused of intentionally upsetting a brand new refugee disaster in Europe by organising the motion of individuals from the Center East in revenge for EU sanctions on his authoritarian regime.

1000’s of Iraqi Kurd and Syrian households reside in small tents hidden amongst the timber between the two international locations, the place night-time temperatures fall under zero, and many extra nonetheless are making ready to try the perilous journey, queueing daily outdoors the doorways of journey companies, whereas Nabo’s household is ready for his physique to be returned from Poland.

At first it had been a trickle: small numbers of people that had heard of a brand new approach to get to the eurozone with out the want for a Schengen visa. “Not so many got here at first as a result of they had been suspicious,” mentioned a journey agent in south Beirut who caters to Syrians making an attempt to attain Belarus. “This was in April. However then many individuals made it to the good components of Europe, and enterprise began to enhance.”

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In the Kurdish north of Iraq, the timeline was comparable. “We obtained a directive from an agent in Baghdad earlier than the summer season that Belarus was issuing visas,” mentioned one agent in Erbil. “It didn’t take lengthy earlier than phrase obtained round, but it surely has actually obtained busy in the final two months.”

In each cities, the course of and worth is analogous. Iraqis who need to journey are charged $3,500 (£2,600) every, paid in money, the bulk of which matches in direction of paying for the visa itself.

In the current rush for visas, an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Syrians have utilized in Lebanon, with the assist of the Syrian embassy in Beirut. Abu Fahid, a builder from the outer Damascus suburbs who has been residing in Beirut for 5 years, mentioned: “It’s time to depart, and that is the alternative I’ve been ready for. Do you assume I’ll keep in Lebanon now? It’s worse than Syria.”

Profitable candidates cross the land border again into Syria and drive to Damascus for flights: some transiting in Istanbul on to Belarusian airways and others, primarily on Syrian carriers, flying direct to Minsk. Final month Minsk worldwide airport printed a brand new winter schedule, rising the variety of flights from the Center East to 55 every week.

“I do know it’s too dangerous to undergo Belarus,” mentioned Dlovan, 27, an unemployed man from Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan. “However I’ll go anyway if God wills it.”

Kurdish leaders have been alarmed by the current exodus, which they are saying they’ve been unable to cease. However after the determined scenes at the jap fringe of the EU, officers say they’re now looking for methods to intervene.

“We’re wanting into journey brokers concerned in what’s clearly a harmful political sport by Belarus masqueraded as a routine issuance of vacationer visas,” mentioned a senior official in the Kurdish regional authorities. “It’s straight up human trafficking, utilizing weak households as cannon fodder to strengthen Belarus’s hand in an internecine European dispute.”

The Guardian spoke to dozens of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan asylum candidates in the Polish metropolis of Białystok who had not too long ago managed to cross the border from Belarus. All confirmed that they had arrived by shopping for packages supplied to them by journey companies that, in accordance to the asylum seekers, appeared to be carefully related to the Belarusian authorities.

Iraqi asylum applicants in the Polish city of Białystok after recently crossing the border from Belarus
Iraqi asylum candidates in the Polish metropolis of Białystok after not too long ago crossing the border from Belarus. {Photograph}: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

“These journey companies are 100% related to the Belarusians,” mentioned Aras Palani, 50, an Iraqi interpreter. Palani had spoken to lots of of people that mentioned that they had purchased a journey bundle that included a one-way flight, a visa and two days in a lodge. “They [the travel agents] inform those that they’ve connections with the border police and that crossing the border is simple. However it’s all lies.”

Anna Alboth, of Minority Rights Group, mentioned: “I met households who had been advised by journey companies that the border between Minsk and Poland was about three hours on foot.” Minsk is about 200 miles from the frontier.

The Belarusian state-owned airline Belavia, which has beforehand denied any involvement in trafficking, mentioned it couldn’t “specify the names of journey companies, as we are able to’t be 100% positive that these companies are consciously engaged in trafficking migrants”.

As soon as the migrants attain the Belarusian capital, the smugglers come into play. Ahmed, 29, who was a legislation pupil in Syria, spoke of Fb pages with cellphone numbers for smugglers who put the migrants in touch with Belarusian drivers. “They picked me up at the Planeta lodge in Minsk,” mentioned Ahmed. “From there, for about $100 they take us to the barbed wire of the border.”

It’s at that second that the journey often turns right into a nightmare. The migrants advised the Guardian how Belarusian troops gathered teams of up to 50 folks and then lower the barbed wire with shears to enable them to cross.

On the different aspect, practically 20,000 Polish border police, flanked by the navy, are deployed in a present of power unknown in the nation since the finish of the chilly battle. A whole lot of persons are being pushed violently pushed again to Belarus, with some making an attempt the crossing dozens of occasions. It’s a query of luck whether or not they finally handle to make it by safely.

Regardless of guarantees from Turkish and Belarusian airways to stem the circulate, the disaster seems to be far from over. 1000’s of individuals stay in Belarus and 1000’s extra are determined to be part of them.

“Individuals won’t ever cease discovering different methods to attain Europe,” mentioned Rashwan. “Blocking the border with barbed wire didn’t cease my cousin Ferhad and folks like him who’re fleeing wars and poverty. Individuals will merely by no means cease discovering different methods to attain Europe.”

Extra reporting by Nechirvan Mando in Erbil, Safi Shdeed in Beirut, Marta Bellingreri in Catania.

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