Days after Alexander Lukashenko threatened to flood Europe with migrants, dozens of mostly Iraqi Kurds started arriving in Lithuania. In a cross-border investigation spanning Lithuania, Belarus and Iraq, LRT digs into the migrant smuggling scheme enabled by the Minsk regime.
Black Mercedes vans await Iraqis at the Minsk airport, taking the arrivals straight to some of the most popular three- and four-star hotels in the city, including Minsk, Planeta, and Sputnik. They get to spend several days there until the call comes to pack their things and get ready to leave.
Departing at night, they are taken to the Lithuanian border. The driver points the direction and the Iraqis head west. With last assurances that a car will meet them on the other end, they cross the border. But, for most of them, their journey ends at a detention centre in Lithuania.
Erbil. Paying smugglers up to 15,000 euros
“I am currently in Kurdistan and plan on travelling to Europe. I’m doing this because unemployment is high here. I want to finish my studies. It’s going to be a difficult journey,” a young Kurdish man told Kareem Botane, a freelance Iraqi journalist working with LRT.
“We are going to Bulgaria, Serbia. When we reach the Balkan countries, Italy and Germany are next. Mostly young Kurds travel to Italy or elsewhere by boats,” he said. “However, the journey through Greece and Bulgaria is very difficult. Belarus and Lithuania are also bad for migrants, because they are at war with each other.”
Pretending to be a migrant looking for ways to travel to Europe, Botane contacted some smugglers in Kurdistan.
They told him that entering Europe via Belarus was legal, since Iraqi and Belarusian travel agencies issue tourist visas. They also claimed that they had representatives in all of the largest cities of Iraqi Kurdistan, and were in contact with tourism agencies in Baghdad.
“We can offer Belarus, Germany, Lithuania, and other countries. From here to Belarus, and then it’s 20 minutes to Lithuania. Going from Baghdad to Lithuania will cost 10,000 dollars per person,” said one of them.
“We will organise a plane to Belarus, where you will stay for three or four days. Then we will transport you to Lithuania. A Belarusian tourism agency will come pick you up from the airport. You will be accommodated at a hotel, and I’ll come and get you at the border,” said a smuggler, promising to sort out the visa and purchase plane tickets.
Travelling through Belarus and Lithuania is convenient when trying to get to Finland or other countries, said alleged smuggler Hareem, adding that travellers can save money by staying in Lithuania.
“If you want to travel from Kurdistan, I will organise everything, and the cost will be 15,000 dollars. You pay 6,000 dollars if you decide to stay in Lithuania.”
The smuggler guaranteed that they would be taken by plane from Lithuania to Germany, France, or other countries without any problems. Hareem also reassured the caller that no one would detain him in Belarus since he would “have a visa”.
“First of all, no one can organise that on their own. Sometimes it will be a Kurd, sometimes an Arab, sometimes a Belarusian waiting for you at the airport. It depends on the company in Baghdad, and the company in Belarus that they are in contact with.”
“But that is not your problem,” Hareem said, adding that they had a network of Kurds, Arabs, Belarusians and Lithuanians helping migrants get to Europe.
Iraqi Airways have been offering direct flights from Baghdad to Minsk since 2017. But in May, the first Fly Baghdad flight landed at Minsk airport.
Fly Baghdad promotional videos show the flight being greeted with water fountains at the airport and people receiving flowers and sweets.
While Belarus relished in the increasing number of tourists, Muthanna Amin, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the Iraqi parliament, expressed concern over Iraqis leaving for Belarus to get to the EU.
“Recently, many young Iraqis travelled and continue to travel to Belarus. Some of them use this tourist route to illegally enter other countries in the EU from Belarus. Some people smugglers benefit from Belarus wanting to raise its economy through tourism,” said Amin.
Despite being used in smuggling schemes, tourism agencies cannot be blamed for organising trips, according to Amin.
“There will be attempts to illegally cross the border as long as tourist visas are issued. This, however, does not mean that everyone who goes to Belarus is a migrant,” said Amin, adding that smugglers do help Kurds reach Turkey and the EU.
Profiting from migrants
Tourists from Iraq are only accommodated in hotels approved by both the Belarusian and the Iraqi government, said Meer Sahebqran, owner of the Iraqi tourism agency Smile Holiday for Travel and Tourism. In the list of hotels are some of the most expensive names, such as Planeta, Sputnik, Minsk Hotel, as well as Crown Plaza Minsk and Marriott Hotel.
Meanwhile, entry visas are automatically issued to Iraqis booking their flights with the Belarusian state-owned travel agency Centrkurort, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told the Financial Times last month.
According Sahebqran, the governments of both countries also receive a list of Iraqis going to Belarus, which began issuing tourist visas only about three or four months ago.
“Confirmation should come from Belarus: name, hotel you’ll be accommodated in, duration of the stay. Organisations in Belarus confirm the information,” he said.
Iraqis leaving for Belarus are, however, asked to leave a deposit of 3,000 US dollars. The sum is used to pay fines to Belarus in case a traveler does not return to Iraq, said Sahebqran.
“One person came and said he worked as a smuggler, bringing people to Europe. He said there were 20–30 people and he wanted to bring them through Belarus,“ said Sahebqran. “But we told them that these were the rules – pay 3,000 dollars and if you do not come back, the money goes as a penalty to the companies. No problem, he said, just do it. But we don’t do such things.”
Most of the applications for entry visas to Belarus in recent months came from Kurds living in Iraq, according to another Iraqi travel agency.
“If an Iraqi does not return from Belarus, the large agencies – including Fly Baghdad, according to the tourist agency worker – transfer the money to the consulate of Belarus in Baghdad.”
“A visa costs 270 US dollars, but we take a 4,000 US dollar deposit. We keep that money in case a person does not return,” said the employee at a travel agency, preferring to stay anonymous. “Some of them return, some do not. They choose their own path, they go to Europe.”
The money is then sent to larger travel agencies in Baghdad, who deal directly with Belarusian representatives. Among them is Fly Baghdad, according to the agency worker.
If an Iraqi person does not come back, the money is then transferred by the large Iraqi travel agencies to the Belarusian consulate in Baghdad, he said.
On July 13, the agency ran into a problem.
“I had 20 passports, I sent the applications by email, however, I got a reply that they could not apply for visas. When I asked why, they said that people from the Kurdish region could not apply for visas even if they paid the 4,000 deposit. It’s because many Kurds did not return that the consulate stopped issuing visas in the Kurdish region,” he said.
Meanwhile, some Iraqi tourism agencies have altogether stopped organising travel groups to Belarus.
“We no longer work with Kurds from Kurdistan, since they’ve brought shame on me too many times. When they got there, they fled to EU countries,” said a representative from Amouaj Assel Travel Agency. “I’ve lost money because of Kurdish tourists and migrants.”
Minsk. Tours around landmark locations
LRT spoke to some migrants detained at the Foreigners’ Registration Centre (URC) in Lithuania's Pabradė. Most of them asked to remain anonymous.
They recall a van waiting to pick them up from Minsk airport with the driver, presumably a Belarusian, taking them to a hotel where they spent between one and four days. Then another van would come to take them to the Lithuanian border.
“An uncle had a friend who helped find this way. I didn’t know for sure what I needed to get on this route. We went from Erbil airport to Baghdad, and straight to Belarus from there. We were a group of 12 people,” said Selwan from Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan. “Someone told me to give my passport to some officer, she would take care of the visa. So, it was a legal route, a legal visa.”
A “big black van” took his group to the hotel, the man said. He arrived in Lithuania in early February.
"We sat outside the airport, someone came and asked us if we were Iraqis. We said yes, and then followed him. He was the owner of the van that picked us up,” another Iraqi told LRT.
The driver was likely a Belarusian and took travellers to the hotel in a black Mercedes van, he said.
“The hotel was called Minsk. We spent two or three days there. On the third or fourth day, we went to the shower after returning to the hotel. It could have been 22:00. Someone knocked on our door and said to get ready, we’re leaving tonight. We got ready in an hour, he was waiting for us downstairs.”
They then traveled 5–6 hours to the Lithuanian border, he said.
The van then pulled over and the driver pointed towards the forest, saying “Europe will be there”, according to the Kurd. “You will see a fence, you will easily get through it and then there will be a country,” the man recalled. “A car will be waiting for you and will take you further. But there was no car, it was very cold. We built a tent to get warm, but a [border guard] officer saw us.”
It took a week for another Iraqi citizen detained in Pabradė to get his entry visa, and the trip cost 15,000 dollars.
A smuggler introduced himself as Ramadan, according to the Kurd. A man named Sergey met them at Minsk airport and took them to Minsk Hotel.
“Sergey came and asked if we were [going] with him. He drove us to the hotel where we spent five days. He worked for four days, taking us to tourist spots: a church, shops, libraries.”
The smugglers took 11,000 dollars per adult, and a little less for children, a family of Iraqi Kurds told LRT. They are currently staying at the Refugee Reception Centre in Rukla.
Upon arriving in Belarus, the family was accommodated in an apartment. Another family that came from Istanbul was also brought to the same place. Five days later, a smuggler took both families to the Lithuanian border.
But some of the detainees came to Lithuania without the help of smugglers.
Fata booked his flight from Baghdad to Minsk on June 9. Having stayed in Belarus for five days, he crossed into Lithuania and asked for asylum.
Fata and three of his friends booked a flight to Minsk with an Iraqi tourism agency. They were accommodated at Sputnik Hotel and then paid 300 Belarusian rubles (around 100 euros) to get to the Lithuanian border by taxi.
They used satnav to find their way to Lithuania, said Fata, adding that a friend who had left for Lithuania earlier gave him the necessary information.
Meanwhile, some of the migrants came to Europe using the more difficult, but cheaper route by land. It takes up to a week for the travellers to get to Europe by truck, and the trip costs between 4,000 and 5,000 dollars per person.
When transported by truck, they did not know which countries they passed, nor how long the trip took, the migrants said. According to them, their smuggler did not introduce themselves and they kept their faces covered, speaking only when giving orders. Those giving orders would also change routinely, as would the trucks.
According to one of the detainees, a friend told him that the route via Belarus would be safer than crossing the Mediterranean or going through Bulgaria.
There were 30 of them, travelling in the dark, he told LRT. They were told to go through the forest on foot until they reached the border. Then, they were found by Lithuanian border guards. The trip cost 5,000 US dollars.
However, not all Kurds are left to their own once crossing over. According to the Lithuanian authorities, some 70 migrants have already left the Foreigners’ Registration Centre in Pabradė this year.
Data also shows that as of July 12, 86 people out of the 309 migrants seeking asylum have left the Refugee Reception Centre in Rukla.
The majority of them were Iraqi or Turkish Kurds.
“Kurds do not come here alone,” a man from Afghanistan told LRT. According to him, cars come at night to pick them up from the centre.
Not all tourists are migrants
But not every Iraqi goes to Belarus to get to the EU. Zana Ahmed Rahman, an engineer from Kurdistan, travelled to Belarus for a holiday.
“A friend of ours has been there twice, he said it was a nice country,” Rahman told LRT. Few countries issue tourist visas to Iraqis.
Rahman and his friends bought a holiday package from an Iraqi tourism agency Moonline, and came to Belarus on June 18. They had applied for an entry visa around a week before the flight, but they were still held at the Minsk airport for around three hours.
An employee from a Belarusian tourism agency also warned them not to go near the border, according to Rahman.
But not all of the passengers made it into Belarus. One young man, who only spoke Kurdish, was denied entry at Minsk airport, according to Rahman.
Even though the man said he was a tourist, “it was very obvious that he will go to Europe,” said Rahman. “He was rejected, we translated for him to help him.”
One of Rahman’s friends knew the head of the tourism agency in Iraq and could reassure him they would come back. Therefore, they didn’t have to leave a deposit.
But five of the people from the same flight did not come back to Baghdad. Additionally, “two other guys told me that the Belarusian police did not let them go to the border”, Rahman said.
Complaints about conditions in Lithuania
In July, Lithuania began curbing the rights of irregular migrants and asylum seekers.
Those detained at the Foreigners’ Registration Centre in Pabradė complain of their restricted movement and cramped conditions. Many say openly that Lithuania is a transit country on their way to the rest of the EU.
“We are very sorry that we crossed the border, but we didn't have any ways to get into Lithuania legally,” said Selwan, an Iraqi Kurd. “We needed to take this route, risk it, if we wanted to be safe.”
Migrants that attempt to escape from Pabradė are then put in a protected compound at the centre. Border guards take away their phones, and only allow to spend one hour per day outside, according to the migrants.
“I don’t know why I was detained here. I’m here for the first time, I didn’t try to escape,” said Abdullah from Egypt, who came to Belarus through Ukraine. “I have applied for asylum, I want to stay here.”
A group of migrants tried leaving the centre for other countries when they were denied asylum, according to Sahant from Iraq. “We tried to escape from here because we got scared to go back to our country.”
“I respect the decisions made by this country and the centre [in Pabradė], however, as a refugee, I still have my dignity,” said Sahant, adding that they mostly need more freedom to move. “It is difficult especially for those with health problems to stay here.”
“Everyone detained in this building is suffering psychologically,” said Rian from Iraq. According to him, there have already been cases of suicide attempts at the centre.
“I already ran away from Iraq, [since it is] a prison,” Eliah, who introduced himself as a Yazidi, an ethnic group that survived a genocide by ISIS. “It is the same here.”
Additional reporting by Agnė Vasiliauskaitė, Kasparas Adomaitis, and Mediazona Belarus journalists.