For weeks now, fear has spread among refugees looking towards the European Union (EU) for a better life as news of the displaced stuck between the borders of Belarus and Poland emerges.
The crisis peaked earlier this week, when thousands of asylum seekers were faced with the terror of forced deportation back to the countries they fled from.
The smuggling route across the Belarus border has been effectively blocked after authorities became aware of its usage, putting many asylum seekers in a precarious position. They are faced with two deadly options: forced deportation, or remaining stranded in a forest with sub-zero temperatures and minimal resources between Belarus and Poland.
Iraqis form the primary group of migrants seeking to enter the country. EU border force Frontex estimates that the migrants from Iraq are around 3,868, those from Afghanistan are 590, Syria 265, Congo-Brazzaville 207, and Russia 182. Numbers have been growing steadily since the summer, including a large number of children.
How are they getting to the border?
According to the Polish guard, there have been 33,000 attempts to cross the border from Belarus into Poland illegally this year alone, with 17,000 of them happening in October.
The vast majority of these migrants arrived in the capital Minsk via plane, and then proceeded to travel to the borders of EU states such as Poland and Lithuania.
Among the asylum seekers are Syrian refugees who fled crisis-ridden Beirut, one of several cities across the Middle East that launches flights towards Minsk, in hopes of a better life in Eastern Europe.
Human smuggling has been on the rise in Lebanon as the economic collapse deepens and tightens its grip on Lebanese society. Many have boarded “death boats” en route to Cyprus or nearby Greece, but border control authorities tightened their grip and the dangers of such smuggling became more apparent.
Belarus in and of itself is an attractive destination, as it provides “easy entry to the EU,” as per the European Commission. Earlier this year, the country had simplified the visa process for migrants, enabling them to enter as “tourists.”
An EU statement has accused Belarus of doing so to exert pressure on the political body, which imposed sanctions on the country in June. Belarus denied this, saying it is trying to “repatriate stranded migrants along the border, but that many have refused to return to their home countries.”
The EU is notorious for its difficult emigration policies, especially in light of the 2012 Syrian war.
Re-entry bans, freezing temperatures, and forced return
With direct flights hailing out of Beirut, several refugees embarked on the journey to Belarus with the expectation that they would be given tourist visas. Yet upon leaving the country, Syrians have their passports stamped with re-entry bans by Lebanese border control authorities.
Many other refugees are undocumented, or have expired residency permits, in addition to the countless others who have had theirs revoked due to issues with General Security.
With re-entry ban stamps on their passports and an inability to enter any country bordering Belarus, Syrian, amongst others stranded on the border, are faced with a forced return to countries where their lives are in threat.
Staying along the Belarus border poses another danger to their lives, as temperatures are below freezing. Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 13 people have died along the border due to the difficult weather and life conditions.
Refugees had their plans thwarted once Belarusian and Polish authorities became aware of the smuggling route along their borders. Afterwards, the first between the two countries became a heavily militarized zone as border guards began to lose control of the situation, leaving refugees stranded for days.
Meanwhile, Poland and Lithuania have stated that they found evidence that “shows how Belarusian authorities helped them arrange their journeys to the border.”
In order to lessen the fluctuation of refugees into Belarus, many countries have restricted or completely closed off air routes into the country.
On November 17, Lebanese officials ordered airlines not to allow non-Belarusian citizens to board flights to Belarus unless they are residents of the country. The Tourism Ministry also issued a circular warning travel agencies not to advertise Belarus as a tourist destination for the time-being.
The UAE and Turkey have banned Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni nationals from flying to Minsk from their airports.
Belavia, the Belarus state carrier, will no longer accept citizens of these countries on flights out of Turkey, and has stated it will strengthen passenger checks for all flights from Dubai.