Backpacks and sleeping bags are piled up in front of the Galleria shopping mall in the center of Minsk. Dozens of men and a few women in thick jackets with hoods squat on the floor, with some appearing to be dozing off and others on their phones. The phrase "dream bigger” shines above them, an ad for a bank’s new credit card.
It is mostly refugees from Iraq who gather here in the center of the Belarusian capital, an unusual sight in a country where people from the Middle East haven't generally been plentiful. Some Belarusians have taken to calling this part of Minsk "Little Baghdad.”
Ali also spends a lot of time here. The 23-year-old hurries with two friends through the revolving door of the chic mall, up to the fifth floor to the Turkish restaurant Ramiz. It’s only noon on this October day, but many of the tables are already filled. The restaurant is popular and the food is prepared in accordance with Muslim dietary requirements. Two women, their dark hair covered with headscarves, are sitting on padded benches, with children sleeping beside them. Backpacks specked with dirt can be seen on the floor.
Refugees in Minsk walking near the Galleria shopping center.Foto: DER SPIEGEL
More than 50 Flights a Week from Baghdad, Istanbul, Dubai and Damascus
"They must have just come back from the forest,” says Ali, sitting down at an empty table with his friends and ordering lentil soup. Ali is a slim, pale man with a beard. He explains how, until recently, he sold shirts and pants in northern Iraq, only earning the equivalent of $6 a day. "That wasn't much of a life,” he says. The Kurd has been living in Belarus since the beginning of October. He says he has been "in the forest,” as he calls the area at the European Union’s external border with Poland, which is located around 250 kilometers southwest of Minsk, three times. He has had to return to Minsk on each occasion. Thus far, the forest hasn't brought him much luck.
Ali wants to go to Germany, the dream of most refugees in Belarus, who have been promised a path to the EU by smugglers. It is estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 asylum seekers are currently in the country. And countless more are arriving each day at the Minsk airport. The winter flight schedule includes over 50 connections from Baghdad, Istanbul, Dubai and Damascus each week.
Refugees pack their belongings in the courtyard of a hotel in Minsk.Foto: Christina Hebel / DER SPIEGEL
It’s mainly Iraqis, but also Syrians and Afghans who fly to Belarus. The country's dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, who enjoys the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been allowing asylum seekers into the country on tourist visas for the past several months. The "Belarus Route” is the name given to the road to the West, which has been deliberately expanded by the regime in Minsk. It’s an attempt by Lukashenko to divide the EU and take revenge for the severe sanctions that have been imposed by the bloc.
Lithuania and Poland have reacted harshly, sealing off their borders and sending back refugees like Ali. "When we requested asylum, the Polish border guards just laughed at us,” he says. He is fully aware that this is a violation of EU law. Asylum-seekers are required to be given the chance to apply for asylum when they set foot on European soil.
"They Treat Us Like Footballs”
Ali shows one of the routes to the Polish border on his mobile phone.Foto: Christina Hebel / DER SPIEGEL
The young men show videos they took at the Polish border, full of barbed wire, soldiers and a helicopters flying at low altitude. Ali says they made it a few miles across the border into Poland on their third attempt. They had been traveling for seven days and had run out of food and water. He says they had been unable to find their driver to Germany, who had been arranged by the traffickers. The Polish police brought the exhausted group back to the border, where Belarusian border guards caught them. He says they had to pay $100 to the officials so they wouldn't be forced back toward Poland.
"They treat us like footballs. Where is the EU’s humanity?” asks a man in his 50s from the northern Syrian town of Hasaka outside the shopping center in Minsk. He claims he was stuck in no-man's land between the borders for 21 days. Like so many other migrants, the Syrian no longer has a valid visa for Belarus, since they are issued for only a few days. Each of them must pay as much as $3,500 for the flight, documents and accommodations. Many are put up by the traffickers in hotels controlled by Lukashenko’s administration, making it rather profitable for the regime in addition to the political benefit of pressuring the EU.
"Big Business on the Backs of the Refugees"
The refugees can’t stay in the hotels for long. If they don’t make it to the EU within the first few days after their arrival, they have to find other places to stay. Some can already be seen sleeping in the parks of Minsk. "Either you pay the asking price or they'll tell you: Just go back to the forest,” explains Ali. Accommodations now cost double for Arab-looking lodgers, he says, with a night in a simple hotel costing $80 and $20 a night for a shared room in the shabby hostel where the Iraqi found shelter for a few days. Ali describes it as a "big business on the backs of refugees.”
Human rights activist Alena Chekhovich of the organization Human ConstantaFoto: Christina Hebel / DER SPIEGEL
Alena Chekhovich of Human Constanta, a human rights organization, has begun warning of a "humanitarian catastrophe" in Minsk and the border area. She says the autumn has been relatively mild, but freezing temperatures will arrive soon. Videos of dead bodies in no-man’s land are circulating in Facebook groups, though it is difficult to verify their authenticity. Ten people have reportedly died at the border, but many activists believe that the real figure is actually higher. An increasing number of refugees are also running out of money and getting sick, says Chekhovich. She’s one of the last independent human rights activists in the country still helping refugees. The regime is also taking action against Human Constanta.
The Red Cross in Belarus is considered to be close to the regime and also appears to be overwhelmed by the situation. Several asylum-seekers who tried to call the organization when they were stuck at the border claim that they were unable to reach anyone. International organizations of the United Nations and Doctors Without Borders only have small offices in Minsk. They largely rely on cooperation with the authorities.
A refugee with a baby in MinskFoto: Christina Hebel / DER SPIEGEL
Heading for the Border at Dusk
In Minsk, Lukashenko’s security apparatus has apparently issued orders to largely leave the migrants alone. In the evening, as dusk falls, the refugees leave the shopping center, passing the cars of the traffic police as they make their way to one of the nearby parking lots. With their sleeping bags and rubber boots, the refugees could resemble campers if it weren’t for the gesticulating men in dark clothing escorting them to one of the waiting minibuses.
A few days later, Ali was also in one of the cars heading for Poland with friends. It was attempt number four to cross into the EU and it ended somewhere north of the Lithuanian border, where they were taken by Belarusian officials, the men later reported. They say they made it into Lithuania, but were then pushed back into Belarus.
Completely exhausted, the men ultimately ended up back in Minsk. Ali wants to go back into the forest and try again. He says he’s not going back to Iraq.
"Even if we have to try 17 times, I’m not giving up,” he says.
Update: On Monday, after this report went to press, large groups of migrants in Belarus began amassing at the Polish border - 3,000 to 4,000 people, according to Poland. The Polish government dispatched reinforcements to the area. In Germany, Steffen Seibert, spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel, told reporters that the Belarusian regime is acting as a human trafficker." He added that the EU would "take a united stand against this continuous hybrid attack." Ali and his friends aren't part of the larger group, but they, too, are somewhere at the Polish border. It is their fifth attempt.