Flights from Iraq to Minsk have recently doubled, leading to an inflow of migrants entering Lithuania amid an irregular migration scheme created by Alexander Lukashenko's regime, according to Belarusian opposition figures and analysts.
The first Fly Baghdad flight landed in Minsk on May 10. According to local authorities, it brought tourists from Iraq that were interested in the history of Belarus.
“These people are self-sufficient. They come here to get to know our culture and civilization, which is flattering. I’m sure this route will be popular among Iraqis,” said Andre Savinykh, the chairman of the Belarus’ Standing Committee on International Affairs. “Our tourism is well developed, and this route is promising.”
No Fly Bagdad flights are set to enter Minsk in June, while Iraq Airlines flights have doubled, and the larger Boeing 777 plane was used to accommodate the growing number of Iraqis flying to Belarus.
The sold-out plane tickets on Iraqi flight booking sites show that flights to Minsk are popular. The 4-hour flight costs 400 euros.
Entry visas are automatically issued to Iraqis and Syrians booking their flights with Belarusian state-owned travel agency Centrkurort.
Belarus has created a scheme of smuggling migrants, said Belarusian opposition figure Pavel Latushka.
“We see that this situation is no accident, and was well planned by the regime,” says Latushko. “Flights from Iraq to Belarus have doubled over the last month.”
According to him, Centrkurort is a part of the scheme, since it issues Belarusian entry visas automatically, allowing irregular migrants to immediately cross the Lithuanian border.
Facilitation of irregular migration is punishable by up to 7 years in prison, according to Belarusian law, however, Belarusian border guards are still carrying out this crime, he says.
Lukashenko's personal involvement?
Centrkurort’s involvement in Belarus’ irregular migration scheme has been at the centre of media attention in Lithuania.
“The government or, to be specific, Alexander Lukashenko, controls everything in Belarus. There’s growing proof that this is a scheme on a national level, since such things couldn’t happen without Lukashenko’s blessing,” Tadeusz Giczan, editor of the Belarusian opposition news channel NEXTA, told LRT RADIO.
Right now, all eyes are on Centrkurort, says Giczan, adding that they are still “investigating its involvement in the scheme”, and “waiting for information from their sources in Belarus”.
Centrkurort is the largest government-controlled Belarusian tourism agency, offering tickets and accommodation in Belarus. The company manages spas and hotels across the country.
Lithuanian border guards have recently been detaining a growing number of undocumented migrants from Iraq. However, it isn’t easy to question them, according to Evelina Gudzinskaitė, director of Lithuania’s Migration Department.
“They don’t usually betray their leaders, and say that someone else helped them instead. They claim that they don’t know anything, that they just met their leader and paid him,” says Gudzinskaitė.
The people usually say that they came to Minsk either by plane or bus, and then they were all transported to the Lithuanian border in some dark car, says Gudzinskaitė.
There is no information whether any Lithuanian citizens are involved in the alleged scheme.