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2021.01.25 13:02

Belarusian refugees in Lithuania fall victim to NGO scam – LRT Investigation

Indrė Makaraitytė, Rūta Juknevičiūtė, LRT Investigation Team, LRT.lt2021.01.25 13:02

Last August, Lithuania opened a humanitarian corridor for Belarusians fleeing repressions. Hundreds have reached the country, but some of them have fallen victim to a fraud scheme set up by a Belarusian NGO operating in Vilnius.

The LRT Investigation Team has found that Nataliya Kolegova, head of the Belarusian NGO Dapamoga, has been overcharging and illegally letting apartments despite claiming to offer housing to Belarusians for free. The NGO has also forged signatures and documents to receive financial support and entry into the country for Belarusian workers, who claim that they have been subjected to the government’s repressions.

Summary:

– After protests and regime repressions began in Belarus following the August 9 presidential election, the NGO Dapamoga was set up in Lithuania claiming to help Belarusian exiles to enter and settle in the country.

– The head of the organisation is a Belarusian national, Nataliya Kolegova, who runs an accommodation business, Natalex, together with her husband.

– Natalex rents accommodation via multiple other companies, including Intis Telecom.

– Belarusian refugees signed contracts with either Natalex directly or one of the companies that are part of the Natalex network.



– However, Natalex has been allegedly forging the signatures and identities of directors of the other companies, as well as Lithuanian medical certificates.

– The allegedly forged medical documents have been used as proof that a person had been injured during regime crackdown in Belarus. The medical forms were then used to apply for financial support from other NGOs to pay for the the person's relocation, as well as for Natalex-provided accommodation.

– According to documents seen by LRT, Natalex has leased apartments to Belarusians who have fled from repressions at above-market price, despite Kolegova claiming that she has been helping them out of pocket.

'We have always offered our apartments for free'

It is October 2020. A volunteer who has helped Viktor flee repressions in Minsk is contacting a woman who claims to help Belarusians in Lithuania. He enquires about messages that Viktor has received asking him to pay 300 euros for his accommodation.

“Does he really need to pay ?“ the volunteer asks her.

She replies that “older friends” have promised to pay for Viktor, but he will still have to pay up once he gets the money from Belarusian NGOs collecting funds internationally to help the refugees. It is unclear who the “friends” are.

The woman is Nataliya Kolegova, a Belarusian businesswoman. She has lived in Lithuania for more than 15 years and last September, weeks after the August 9 presidential election in Belarus that sparked nationwide protests, set up an NGO, Dapamoga, together with several other volunteers.

Dapamoga claims it is helping Belarusians who have been forced to flee to Lithuania. Kolegova, the head of the NGO, also owns several accommodation companies in Lithuania together with her husband. She also offers paid consultations on migration issues.

This interaction between Kolegova and the volunteer wouldn‘t have raised any questions if Kolegova hadn‘t claimed to Lithuanian media she was offering free accommodation to Belarusian refugees. She repeated the same claim to the LRT Investigation Team – “we have always offered our apartments for free, […] so that it couldn‘t be claimed that we are making money from these people.”

According to Kolegova, Dapamoga has collected over 25,000 euros in donations from people in Lithuania, which was used to find accommodation for the exiles, pay for their food, clothes, and visas.

But documents collected by the LRT Investigation Team show otherwise. Viktor wasn‘t the only person who was asked to pay up. Another family who had fled from Belarus to Lithuania signed a contract with Kolegova’s firm to rent an apartment. In the end, they had to give up the accommodation after failing to receive financial support from other NGOs.

There were never any discussions that they would be allowed to stay for free, the family said. LRT has collected multiple other testimonies and over 10 rent contracts, proving that Belarusian exiles were paying Kolegova for accommodation.

In November and December, as many as five Belarusian refugees were supposed to live in a 26-square-metre apartment that was registered as office space.

The documents also show that she grossly overcharged for the accommodation. In one instance, she asked for 750 euros for a 35-square-metre apartment on Kalvarijų Street in Vilnius.

Some of the Belarusian refugees signed contracts with the Lithuanian branch of a Russian company, Intis Telecom. A signature of its alleged director, Boris Entin, appears on the document.

However, the name is made up and the documents have allegedly been forged by Natalex.

LRT contacted the actual director of the Intis Telecom branch in Lithuania, Boris Shekhter. According to him, he has never signed such contracts and Boris Entin has never been his name or pseudonym.

“We haven‘t been active in accommodation business for several years now, we have sold the operating rights to Natalex,“ said Shekhter. “We bought these apartments and, at first, offered accommodation services ourselves, but later we simply didn’t have the time for it.”

He added that the lease agreement allegedly signed by Intis Telecom must have been falsified. Later, Shekhter sent a copy of his signature to LRT, seeking to show that his signature – the actual director of Intis Telecom – and the alleged director were different.

According to Andrey Insarov, the owner of Intis Telecom, Kolegova offered him to invest into property when he was seeking to attain a residency permit in Lithuania. Kolegova‘s company later took over the letting of the lofts, he told LRT.

Every month, Natalex transfers money to Intis Telecom. However, Insarov did not reveal how much of the rent money Natalex transfers to Intis Telecom.

Different stories

LRT has called the phone number given in the rent contracts several times. At first, a woman on the other end of the line could not identify the company Intis Telecom. LRT later found that the phone number in fact belongs to Natalex.

When LRT approached Kolegova regarding the lease agreements signed between Belarusians and Intis Telecom, she changed her story several times. At first, she claimed that Natalex was managing the apartments owned by Intis Telecom and therefore could offer some of them for free.

However, when asked why there were prices in the contracts, she said that the tenants were construction workers form Belarus who were paying directly to Intis Telecom.

Later, she said that she didn‘t manage to receive funding from BySol, a Belarusian NGO that collects funds to help refugees, and therefore it was not possible to house the Belarusians at the properties.

Finally, Kolegova claimed that all the contracts had been forged and she didn’t know that Natalex’s phone number was given in the contracts.

“I don’t see it as my contract. I didn’t make it,” she said. She claimed the letterheads allegedly used for Intis Telecom’s contracts that matched those of Natalex could have been “made online”.

Intis Telecom later told LRT that Natalex hadn‘t transferred any rent money for March, only a hundred euros for April, while the transfers for September, October, and November were significantly larger.

Lithuanian medical certificates

The LRT Investigation Team has also found that Kolegova may have forged Lithuanian medical certificates. The forms, which certified alleged injuries sustained during police crackdowns in Belarus, were submitted to NGOs as proof that the person was forced to flee and needed financial support.

One of the medical forms were allegedly signed by a well-known vascular surgeon in Lithuania, Artūras Mackevičius. The forms indicate the date, name of the patient, diagnosis, and an indication that the form was signed electronically by the doctor.

Mackevičius told LRT he had never heard of Natalex. After examining the medical form, which shows Natalex logo and company details on the top, Mackevičius said “the text has been fully copied from my [forms] issued in Kardiolita”, the clinic where he works.

The form said he consulted the patient on October 16, but signed it on August 28, another indication it was forged, according to Mackevičius.

The alleged patient presented the forms to NGOs, asking for financial support. The form claimed the patient had sustained vein and eye injuries.

When LRT contacted Kolegova, she agreed to an interview. However, she demanded that the interview be terminated once she was asked about the medical forms.

“Listen, turn off the camera, please,“ she said, claiming that “this programme will never” be published. Kolegova later sent a message, saying she forbids for the interview to be shown.

Worrying signals from Dapamoga

Suspicions were raised by Belarusian NGOs offering financial support to people fleeing regime repressions.

One of the NGOs, BySol, which has already raised over 3 million euros in international donations, said they began suspecting that the applications submitted by Dapamoga were used as a cover for migrant workers. “I don’t know what schemes are operating there, but […] they are against the law,” Andrej Stryzhak, a representative of BySol, told LRT.

He said that the Belarusian exiles themselves were not to blame.

“People who come to a foreign country cannot know everything immediately. Therefore, those who had [made them sign these documents] were responsible,” said Stryzhak.

Every individual coming to Lithuania can apply to receive 1,200 euros in support, while families can claim an additional 500 euros for each member. The funds are split into two instalments, with the second one paid out only after applicants submit documents proving that they had been injured or suffered from repressions, as well as rent contracts.

“These are reasonably large funds, which could be used during the [coronavirus] crisis, when there are no tourists, to pay for accommodation,” said Stryzhak.

Belarusian volunteers saw threats

But even before BySol became aware of the potential forgeries, Belarusian volunteers working for Dapamoga voiced their suspicions.

In one meeting in October, which wasn‘t attended by Kolegova, the volunteers raised questions about the way funds were used. In one instance, Kolegova bought a large number of theatre tickets for the refugees.

The volunteers discussed the use of donated money for commercial needs, noticing that the NGO’s funds were going to paying for apartments let by Natalex. The volunteers also discussed a case when Kolegova forced refugees to cancel a housing contract that they had signed with another company.

Many of the volunteers and founders of the NGO eventually left and started a new organisation, Razam. Some withdrew from the work completely.

Lithuanian authorities investigated Natalex before

Some Belarusians who have arrived in Lithuania have never stayed in Kolegova’s apartments, despite claiming they are renting properties from Natalex when applying for financial support.

The documents were written in Lithuanian and therefore may not have been understandable to the Belarusian refugees who signed them.

More than a year ago, Kolegova‘s Natalex had already come under scrutiny of the Lithuanian Migration Department.

Then, the department was analysing the case of a Belarusian woman who wanted to work for Natalex in Lithuania. The department suspected that Natalex was being used as a front company for foreigners to get residency permits in Lithuania.

“The company is in fact active, but the foreigners who declare that they work there are actually seeking to pursue other activities,” the Lithuanian Migration Department told LRT, adding that such companies are considered “fictitious”.

The department had previously asked the police in Vilnius to investigate Natalex. The probe found that the workers were not able to explain what the nature of their work was, who the company’s clients were, and said they were being paid the minimum wage in cash.

Lithuanian support for Belarusians

Multiple Belarusian NGOs who have been collecting funds internationally to help refugees are currently operating in Lithuania, including Strana Dlya Zhizni, By Help, BySol, Nash Dom, and others.

Since August 10 last year, 5,739 Belarusians have been granted temporary residency permits in Lithuania. Only 11 have been rejected. Eighty-six Belarusians have also asked for asylum in Lithuania, but their applications are still being processed.

“Two have already been refused because it was found that they were opportunists,” Evelina Gudzinskaitė, head of the Migration Department, told LRT. “It seems that they haven’t taken part in any demonstrations, and simply […] retold [in the application] what they saw [on the news].”

The humanitarian visa process is much simpler, according to Gudzinskaitė. The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry coordinates the initiative with the support of non-governmental organisations in Lithuania and Belarus, seeking to get people away from danger.

Such visas are issued under much simpler conditions and are valid for only six to twelve months, “as they are only meant to allow Belarusians to arrive in Lithuania” as quickly as possible, said Gudzinskaitė.

Meanwhile, the asylum application is a much more complicated process. According to Gudzinskaitė, the Lithuanian Migration Department invests much more time to decide if an asylum seeker is “fleeing persecution or is an economic migrant”.

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