It is “absolutely possible” that we helped them to the EU, says Belarus’ leader Alexander Lukashenko. But one thing the dictator refuses to admit.
On the border between Poland and Belarus, thousands of refugees and other migrants faced an impossible election on Thursday. Then the first evacuation plane left Minsk.
Joining was voluntary. The migrants had to choose:
Go home, or continue your journey to the EU?
The latter can be a death sentence. At least 11 migrants have died after trying to travel to Belarus and Poland in recent months.
They were promised an easy path to a better life in Europe. Instead, they have been met by barbed wire fences and tear gas. The crisis has received two major political stamps.
A hybrid war. And a migrant crisis. The latter has been used in EU countries before. During the refugee crisis in 2015, more than one million migrants applied for asylum in Europe.
In recent years, several countries have cracked down on immigration. Nevertheless, thousands of migrants have reached the fortress of Europe since last summer, via one of the world’s most authoritarian countries.
“Absolutely possible” that Belarus helped
The EU and NATO blame Belarus’ leader Alexander Lukashenko. He denied this for a long time. That changed on Friday. Then he asked for an interview BBC.
The dictator thought it was “absolutely possible” that his soldiers helped the migrants cross the border into the EU:
– We are slaves. We have hearts. Our soldiers know that migrants are going to Germany, he said.
– Maybe someone helped them. I’m not going to investigate this.
However, he refused to invite them.
But flights, interviews with travel companies and migrants tell a different version.
Strict visa rules
But first: What interest does Lukashenko have in inviting thousands of migrants? Many believe it is revenge for sanctions the EU has imposed on Belarus. The goal was that he would stop the abuse of his own people.
It did not happen. So the EU came up with more sanctions. At the beginning of the summer came round number four. Then Lukashenko responded with a warning:
He no longer wanted to stop migrants who wanted to reach Europe via Belarus.
It soon emerged that Lukashenko not only not would prevent migrants. He apparently wanted to bring migrants to Belarus. Then push them into the EU through Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.
During the summer, a record number of people crossed the borders into the countries. But first they had to get to the capital of Belarus, Minsk. It is one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world.
Suddenly, thousands of migrants and other refugees wandered around the capital. How?
First, they had to have a visa to Belarus. Belarussian authorities made them readily available following Lukashenko’s warning. They allegedly did so by allying with travel agencies in the Middle East.
German wave spoke to an anonymous travel agent in Baghdad, Iraq. The person in question said the Belarusian embassy there “flagged out visas to several travel agencies”.
The visas were sold to travel agents, who in turn sold them to migrants.
The price was sky high. Aftenposten has spoken to migrants who paid up to 3200 dollars. That is approximately 28,000 kroner. The Guardian has talked to migrants who paid almost 31,000 kroner.
With the purchase, they also got a plane ticket to Minsk. But where did they leave from?
From the Middle East without stopping
For the vast majority of migrants, the journey began in Iraq.
This summer, a number of direct flights began to depart from cities in the country to Minsk. Far more flights than before. From the capital, they were transported to the borders of Belarus in Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.
The authorities in these countries shouted warnings as migrant flows flowed through their borders.
As a result, Iraq stopped direct flights to Minsk in early August. The hope was that it would prevent people from leaving.
But it was not that simple.
When the direct route from Iraq to Minsk stopped, airlines found ways around the rules. They continued to fly from Iraq. Then they stopped in other countries. In mid-October, it affected air traffic.
A spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry said that the number of direct flights to Minsk from Beirut, Damascus and Amman had also “increased significantly”.
Since then, the authorities in Lebanon and Turkey have taken action to make it more difficult for people to leave.
In addition, the EU has given the green light to new sanctions. They can be targeted at the Belarusian, state-owned airline Belavia. They are suspected of having brought many of the migrants to Belarus.
Despite these measures, there are other airlines that can continue to fly. Among other things, Syrian.
Thursday, however, ignited a hope that the crisis could be resolved.
Then German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Lukashenko. He proposed a compromise:
He sends 5,000 migrants back to their home countries so they cannot enter the EU. But only if the EU agrees to accept 2,000 migrants.
So far, the EU has said it is irrelevant. Thus, the situation at the border continues to be tense. On Friday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the situation was deeply worrying:
– We follow this closely, and we support Poland and other allies that are affected.