How Iraqi migrants became pawns in Belarus' rift with the EU

An armed Polish border guard (front) stands next to a group of migrants resting at a makeshift encampment on the border between Belarus and Poland in Usnarz Gorny, near Bialystok, northeast Poland, on August 20, 2021
8 min read
23 August, 2021
In-depth: Lithuania and neighbouring countries have faced a surge of mostly Iraqi migrants in recent months, amid accusations that Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko is weaponising migration against the EU.

With the promise of easy access to European Union (EU) countries, Iraqis have been packing their bags in the hopes of achieving the European dream.

But such journeys, of course, are rarely straightforward.

A surge in irregular migration via Belarus began in May after President Alexander Lukashenko threatened to flood EU countries with migrants and drugs if the EU imposed sanctions over the dictator’s crackdown on the pro-democracy opposition.

Tensions spiralled between Belarus and the EU that month after a flight from Greece to Lithuania was diverted to Minsk to allow the arrest of dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, 26.

"This is not a regular refugee crisis that Europe has faced before in 2015... this one was orchestrated by the Lukashenko regime"

Minsk air traffic control had told the pilot that there were credible threats that a bomb would be detonated if the plane attempted to land at Vilnius airport, falsely claiming that the Palestinian group Hamas was behind the threat.

The incident caused international outrage.

Since then, neighbouring countries, including Lithuania, Poland, and Latvia, have accused Belarus of encouraging migrants to fly to the country to then cross into neighbouring EU states.

On 1 July 2021, for example, the Belarusian government issued decree No. 251 allowing citizens from 73 countries to enter Belarus for 5 days without a visa, supposedly to receive coronavirus vaccines.

Recent media reports say Belarusian authorities have even forced migrants to cross into neighbouring countries at gunpoint

In the months since Lukashenko’s comments, thousands of Iraqis have booked tickets to fly directly to Belarus, ostensibly for tourism purposes, to then try to cross the 680 km long border into Lithuania to seek asylum in the EU member state.

A general view of Rudninkai camp in Lithuania. [TNA/Muntadher Majeed]
A general view of Rudninkai camp in Lithuania. [TNA/Muntadher Majeed]

Over 4,000 migrants, mainly from Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, are thought to have crossed into Lithuania from Belarus in 2021, compared to just 80 in 2020.

The Lithuanian Migration Department has so far evaluated 197 asylum applications since the wave of irregular migration began, with none approved so far, according to government officials.

Most are now stranded in camps near the border between Lithuania and Belarus.

Political tool

Speaking to The New Arab from camps in Lithuania, Iraqi migrants said that they were fleeing injustices back home and the lack of job opportunities amid political and economic instability.

“On 18 July, I flew to Belarus as part of a tourism group, but I had intended to continue my trip into Europe. Then I went to the Lithuanian border and got through on the 23rd of the same month,” Muntadher Majeed, 22, from Baghdad told The New Arab from the Rudninkai camp.

“I may have become a victim or political tool between the two neighbours, Belarus and Lithuania, but I do not care about that. What is really important for me is living in a safe country that respects my rights.”

"We know very well that Belarus opened its border for Iraqis not for humanitarian purposes but for political ones, but we do not care...all we want is to get to EU countries"

Majeed says he participated in the October Revolution in Iraq, a series of mass protests that began in 2019 against corruption and a lack of economic opportunities.

Over 600 civilians have been killed by security forces and militias since the anti-government protest movement began, with more than 15,000 injured.

“During my participation in the revolution, the security forces used fatal force against us, shot us with bullets, but thank God I survived,” he said.

“But the danger continued, the majority of the threats I got were through social media platforms asking me either to stop protesting or I would be killed. They are pro-government militias that I know well but cannot give their identity for security concerns as my family still live in Iraq,” Majeed added.

He said that no one helped him to get into Lithuania and he didn’t have to pay any people smugglers, but the trip has cost him around $1,500 since he fled Iraq.

“I only relied on my smartphone and using the GPS to navigate the way during my trip. The journey was long and very exhausting, there are no words to describe it”.

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He says the conditions in the camp are bad, with no electricity apart from in the bathrooms, where people stand in line to charge their phones.

The food provided is awful, he adds, with most buying something to eat from temporary markets.

“My mother is worried about me, she prays every day for me to be safe. The winter is coming, and the weather is so cold, we are not used to living under these harsh conditions”.

Healthcare inside the camp is non-existent, with the nearest hospital 31 kilometres away, and no one is allowed to leave. “I hope the situation gets better soon,” he added.  

In comments to The New Arab on irregular migration from Belarus, Lithuanian Deputy Interior Minister Arnoldas Abramavicius said that some Iraqi refugees are suffering from poor health.

“We do agree that we need to improve such conditions and suspending flights from Iraqi airlines helps to take a break and improve conditions,” he said.

"Over 4,000 migrants, mainly from Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, are thought to have crossed into Lithuania from Belarus in 2021, compared to just 80 in 2020"

The minister said that all refugees are treated equally, regardless of which country they have migrated from. “We do the necessities to improve living conditions for them and accelerate asylum-seeking procedures,” he added.

Lithuanian authorities are processing the relocation of vulnerable migrants, minors, and women from the supervision of the Ministry of Interior to the control of the Ministry of Social Security and Labour, in order to better provide for their needs.

“We are in the process of doing this and hope we will manage it in the next few weeks,” Abramavicius said.

In early August, Iraq’s Civil Aviation Authority cancelled all scheduled flights to Minsk until further notice after pressure from the EU, but many Iraqis also travel indirectly to Belarus via Iran or Turkey.

“This is not a regular refugee crisis that Europe has faced before in 2015 and at other times, this one was orchestrated by the Lukashenko regime,” Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told TNA via Zoom.

“People are convinced and assisted to get to the European border, so in essence what is happening is we are seeing human trafficking that is taking place in a semi-official way,” he added, noting that migrants are buying tickets in tourist agencies and from official airline companies.

Tents in the Rudninkai camp in Lithuania. [TNA/Muntadher Majeed]
Tents in the Rudninkai camp in Lithuania. [TNA/Muntadher Majeed]

To control the border, Landsbergis said that the Lithuanian parliament has just approved the construction of a barrier.

“They should not trust in people who are offering them this trip, most of them would be asked to pay lots of money,” he said. Those refused entry at the border would have to stay in Belarus, while those that do manage to enter would be apprehended and taken to camps near the border, he added.

“During the last two months, we have more than 2,500 Iraqi citizens that have crossed the border illegally, most of them are Kurdish”.

Lost connection

Shahad Samir, 23, from Baghdad told TNA that she had lost contact with her elder brother after he travelled to Belarus.

“My brother, who is 25, and six of his friends travelled to Belarus as part of a tourist group from Baghdad on 1 August, and they decided to cross the border into Lithuania to seek asylum in the wealthier EU countries,” she said.

“A day after their arrival to Minsk, they got a taxi to reach the closest point to the Lithuanian side. I remember our call when he told me that he was in a forested area on the border and police were close to them, then immediately his phone turned off and I lost the connection,” said Samir.

She says her brother fled Iraq due to chronic corruption and poor job opportunities after having graduated with a degree in computer engineering.

"I may have become a victim or political tool between the two neighbours, Belarus and Lithuania, but I do not care ...what is really important for me is living in a safe country"

Online campaign

Social media platforms such as Facebook and telegram have provided a space for Iraqis to discuss leaving the country.

One campaign called ‘Let’s migrate’, or ‘Yalla Nuhajer’ in Arabic, has more than four thousand members aged between 16 and 30 who discuss and exchange ideas about migrating to Europe.

“I launched this campaign on social media in 2019 to help Iraqi youths leave a hard life in this country, and to achieve their goals of arriving in EU countries,” the founder of the campaign, Sulaymaniyah-based Wisam, 23, told TNA.

“Absolutely we understand that encouraging people to flee home and cross many countries is an illegal act and has many risks, but of course there is a daily risk we face in this country,” Wisam said. “There is no freedom of speech, no jobs, we are deprived of many things, so what options do we have other than leaving home?”

He added: “We know very well that Belarus opened its border for Iraqis not for humanitarian purposes but for political ones, but we do not care what the reason was, all we want is to get to EU countries and live the rest of our lives there”.

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Linas Linkevičius, former minister of foreign affairs in Lithuania and currently ambassador at large for migration, said most migrants face a difficult, and ultimately unsuccessful, journey.

“Many of the migrants expect that they will just have temporary difficulties and will then continue their travel to Europe, which is not the case by far, they should know that,” he told TNA.

“All those who were denied their refugee status have the option of voluntary return, which we insist is the most realistic, and best, outcome for them.”

Last week, Iraq repatriated 370 of its nationals from the border with Lithuania, with additional flights expected for stranded migrants.

Azhar Al-Rubaie is a freelance journalist based in Iraq. His writing focuses on a variety of issues, including politics, health, society, wars, and human rights. 

Follow him on Twitter: @AzherRubaie