The trafficking and geopolitical dynamics of the emigration crisis on the Polish-Belarussian border
The recent migration chaos on the border of Belarus and Poland once again brought to the fore the issue of emigration from the Middle East. In the last few months, over 5,000 people, mostly from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen have been trapped between Poland and Belarus. Both Polish and Belarusian officials have claimed they have been treating the migrants well. However, reports tell a different story: one characterised by abuse and violence. Those migrants are living in desperate conditions without water, food, shelter, and medical care. They are mistreated and abused by security forces and the smugglers, who have given them false hopes to either help them cross the Polish border or return them into Belarussian territory.
In the last couple of weeks, direct clashes between the Polish army, police, and the refugees has resulted in bloodshed, with Iraqi migrants claiming that they have been “ deceived ” by Belarusian authorities and tortured in various ways, including the use of electric shock by both Polish and Belarussian border forces.
Despite calls from both the UN Migration Agency (IOM) and UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) for an “urgent resolution” of the crisis to “prevent further loss of life,” the situation continues to worsen and has, to date, led to the death of 13 migrants . Polish and European journalists, doctors and activists are restricted from entering the border zone which was declared a state of emergency by Polish authorities.
According to media footage from interviews with people who are trapped in the Belarusian-Polish borders, there have been multiple organised attempts in almost all stages of the current emigration situation. These stages are identified as 1) facilitating the acquisition of a Belarusian visitor visa in the Middle East, especially for youth in KRI, 2) collective relocation, networking and gathering, and 3) a repatriation attempt following the failure. These three stages are explored below.
Facilitating a collective journey
Following the relative easing of Covid-19 restrictions in the Middle East a new type of migration has emerged. Belarus, which was an unknown country for most Kurds in the KRI, gained popularity for ‘visitors’ from the region. Travel agents had been pushing cheap holiday visas to Belarus, a trend that appeared very suddenly as travel to Belarus became relatively cheap. A travel agency a city like Sulaymaniyah in KRI, confirmed to us that they had issued more than 100 Belarus Trip packages (including visa, flight and hotel) in one day. Belarus has been approving visa applications to all with the specific aim of herding unsuspecting visitors to the border. The diplomatic offices of Belarus in Iraq, and some other countries in the Middle East, have closed down following the emergence of the current migrant crisis.
At first glance, everything points to a direct attempt by Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, to blackmail EU leaders to abandon the sanctions imposed after the forced landing of the Ryanair jet on 23 May 2021 in order to detain the dissident Roman Protasevich . It was only after this incident that the issuing of visitor visas and cheap travel opportunities to Belarus increased substantially in the KRI. Belarus appears to recruit and organise the refugees’ trips, granting them visas with no intention of allowing them to seek asylum in Belarus, and subsequently moving them to the EU border at great suffering on the part of the refugees.
The response by the Polish and European authorities is also of concern. For many weeks, nobody was talking about saving people from the trap, they could neither enter Poland or step back towards Belarus because the Belarusian military was not allowing them, giving them no option under the ‘Poland or death’ approach. Instead, all focus was on imposing new sanctions on the Belarusian regime while disregarding the unfolding humanitarian crisis. The convoy with the first aid sent by Poland to Belarus was stuck for weeks on the border and was not allowed to enter the area and administer much needed medical care. The Russians suggest the EU should pay Lukashenko to solve the crisis, as they paid Erdogan. While a joint statement by G7 foreign ministers stated that “We call on the regime to cease immediately this aggressive and exploitative campaign.”
Collective relocation, networking and gathering
What makes this case of migration at the Belarus-Poland border unique is that the migrants travelled to Belarus risk-free as tourists, and subsequently found themselves stuck in the trap laid by Belarusian authorities.
Travel agencies, including Iraqis and their Belarusian partners took advantage of the easy visa application process, and, through their channels of advertisements still available widely on social media, found a very profitable business. The cost of travel packages for Iraqi migrants varies starting from USD $3,000, while for some people as much as USD $17,000. According to varied reports , the trips’ cost includes visas, flights, accommodations in Minsk and being smuggled overland once in Europe.
To attract more migrants, Belarusian authorities eased the visa application process for Iraqi nationals. It used to take between five days to two weeks to get the visas. According to a BBC report , “both Poland and Lithuania say they’ve found evidence on migrants they intercepted which shows how Belarusian authorities helped them arrange their journeys to the border.” Belarusian border guards directed people through the forests to the border, opening the fence for them to cross.
An independent TV station in Belarus, quoted a report by the Belarusian media outlet that 12 travel agencies in Belarus were given “tacit” approval to organise visas for foreigners. Some of those agencies had previously been blacklisted, as a KYKY report stated, but later appeared back on the list of approved companies. This decision was made to halt the human smuggling networks . In late August, the Iraqi government ordered a halt to all Baghdad-Minsk flights. However, potential migrants found alternative routes via Dubai, Istanbul, Beirut, Damascus and Amman.
A Repatriation Attempt
After experiencing tough times and many failed attempts to enter the European Union from Belarus, many of those trapped people returned to Kurdistan and Iraq voluntarily. It appears the decision to return was the only possible option for those who had lost hope in the UN, EU or Belarus. In this regard, both Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional governments facilitated and provided repatriation flights, obtaining Iraqi passports for those who have lost their identity documents. In the last two weeks, the Ministry of Transportation in Iraq, in coordination with Erbil International Airport and the KRG, arranged seven repatriation flights for its citizens who want to return. As of December 5, nearly 2,719 people voluntarily returned to Erbil, and the number is increasing. While interviewed by the media on arrival, some of the returnees declared their intention to emigrate again should they have another opportunity. However, the majority of them regretted their decision after the way they were deceived by smugglers, how they were treated by the Belarusian and Polish government, and the conditions while staying on the border.
The recent crisis on the Belarus and Poland border and the ongoing issues happening between France and UK over the migrants crossing the English Channel have opened up a new trend in migration which is categorised neither within refugee/asylum-seeking literature nor can it be seen as skilled migration or brain-drain phenomena. These people’s lives in Iraq or Kurdistan Region are not in danger so they could be recognised as refugees or protected people. Nor are they skilled migrants or economic investors who can easily secure residency permits to stay in the country/ies of immigration. They have lost hope in the socio-political and economic developments in their home countries and look for a way to escape, regardless of weighing up the journey’s process and consequences. They are the easiest catch for the traps set by human traffickers, and are playing cards for the geopolitical games of countries such as Poland and Belarus.
The arguments of this writing are part of a wider journal paper of the authors on the Migration From/To Kurdistan Region. They are mainly based on the evidence collected through two weeks observation of several mainstream /social media platforms and publicly accessible interviews of a number of the people who are either stuck in the Polish-Belarusian borders or returned to KRI through the joint repatriation initiatives between the Kurdistan Region and Iraqi governments.
Muslih Irwani is Director of the Center for Policy Research (PPI), Associate Professor at American University of Iraq – Baghdad, and Co-Investigator on the UKRI GCRF Gender, Justice and Security Hub. His research covers migration and displacement, ethno-religious minorities, identify, social cohesion, governance and social policy.
Jiyar Aghapouri is a postdoctoral researcher with the Hub. He has obtained his PhD in Politics and International Relations from the University of Auckland. His research and teaching areas are migration, diaspora, ethnicities, nationalism, online research methodologies and international relations of the Middle East. On the Hub, Jiyar is mainly working in the project of Return Migration, Reintegration and Political Restructuring. He is also involved in two other related projects: a) Gender and Forced Displacement; b) Gendered Dynamics of International Labour Migration. Dr Aghapouri is fluent in English, Kurdish, and Persian/Farsi and has a fair knowledge of Arabic and French.
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