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International - October 22, 2021

How Belarus is helping ‘tourists’ break into the EU

How Belarus is helping ‘tourists’ break into the EU

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Belarus has been accused of taking revenge for EU sanctions by offering migrants tourist visas, and helping them across its border. The BBC has tracked one group trying to reach Germany.

The mobile phone camera pans left and right, but no-one moves. The exhausted travellers lie scattered among the trees.

Jamil has his head in his hands, his wife Roshin slumped forward next to him. The others look dead.

Late afternoon light slants through the forest, the pine trees forming a dense natural prison. They’ve been walking since four in the morning.

“We’re shattered, absolutely shattered,” Jamil’s cousin Idris intones, almost mechanically.

The Syrian friends have fought through thickets and waded through foul-smelling swamps to get here. They’ve already missed their first rendezvous with a smuggler, and they’ve run out of food and water.

The Syrians are numb with cold but don’t dare light a fire. They’ve crossed from Belarus into Poland, so have finally made it to the EU. But they’re not safe yet. Thousands of others, encouraged by Belarus to cross into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, have ended up in detention instead. At least seven have died of hypothermia in the Polish forest.

Officials in neighbouring Lithuania say they saw warning signs as early as March.

“It started as indications from the Belarusian government that they are ready to simplify visa proceedings… for ‘tourists’ from Iraq,” Lithuania’s Deputy Minister of Interior, Kestutis Lancinskas tells us.

Instead of taking hazardous journeys by boat across the Mediterranean, all migrants now need to do is fly to Belarus, drive for several hours to the border, and then simply cross on foot into one of the three neighbouring EU countries – Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

In July and August, Lithuania saw 50 times more asylum seekers than in the whole of 2020.

“The route is obviously a lot easier than going through Turkey and North Africa,” Idris said.

He and his friends had started out from Irbil in northern Iraq on 25 September. Idris had been working there and left his wife and twin baby daughters in Kobane, promising they could eventually join him in Europe if he made it.

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