‘I didn’t have a life in Iraq’ In limbo in Belarus, migrants cling to hopes that EU countries will open their borders

Migrants outside of the Galleria shopping center in Minsk. November 13, 2021. Paul Dza / Sipa / Scanpix / LETA

The migration crisis on the border of Belarus and the European Union has been going on for months. Thousands of asylum seekers from Middle Eastern and African countries remain stranded in the Eastern European country. Some of them have made several unsuccessful attempts to cross the border into the EU. Seeing no other way out, many have already given up hope and decided to return to their home countries. Reporting from Minsk, Meduza asks migrants stuck in limbo what made them leave their homelands, why they want to get to the European Union, and what they plan to do next.

The improvised encampment near Belarus’s Bruzgi border checkpoint was empty on November 18. According to the Belarusian border service, the migrants from the encampment had “voluntarily moved to the territory of a transport and logistics center” located not far from the border. This “refugee camp” is actually a warehouse, where 2,000 people sleep on mattresses spread on the floor. There, the migrants were provided with food, water, clothing, and even vaccinations against COVID-19, according to the Belarusian state news agency BelTA.

Meanwhile, several hundred migrants have flown home. Around 400 Iraqis, for example, went back to their home country on an evacuation flight operated by Iraqi Airways. 

However, there are still an estimated 7,000 would-be asylum seekers stranded in Belarus. The majority are from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. The Belarusian authorities maintain that they won’t “push anyone out by force.” Dictator Alexander Lukashenko (Alyaksandr Lukashenka) suggested that Germany organize an evacuation corridor for some 2,000 people. Berlin rejected this proposal. 

In Minsk, asylum seekers trying to get to the EU typically gather outside of the Galleria shopping center in the city center. Signs have been hung on the mall doors that say: “Entry with tourist backpacks is prohibited.”

Those who want to warm up or buy food inside leave their belongings in underground passages nearby or along the walls of the shopping center itself — prompting security guards to come out and demand that their bags be removed. Others just toss their backpacks on the ground.

Asylum seekers who have run out of money sleep in the underground passages; those who can still afford to stay in hostels. Meanwhile, migrants with both money and valid Belarusian visas are able to rent rooms in hotels.

None of these people have a clear understanding of what to do next. Some of the asylum seekers Meduza spoke to say they’ve already decided to return home. Others still hold out hope that the European Union will open its borders.

‘We walked 200 kilometers along the border’

The majority of migrants stranded in Minsk simply refuse to speak to journalists. “Iraq,” one man says irritably, when asked why he doesn’t want to talk to the press.

Another asylum seeker, a 26-year-old man originally from Iraqi Kurdistan, explains that if he’s forced to return to his homeland, there “could be problems” for him because he spoke to journalists.

The 26-year-old arrived in Belarus two weeks ago, along with a group of his friends. They spent several days in the forests outside of the western cities of Grodno and Brest; the six of them slept in one tent. Belarusian soldiers wouldn’t let them get to the border — instead, border guards seized their SIM cards and power banks, and then put them on a bus that took them back to the woods.

Local residents helped the group return to Minsk. In one village near Brest they gave the asylum seekers clothes, in another they gave them food. “Some Belarusian guy” gave them advice on how to get back to the capital.

Iraqi asylum seekers stuck in Mink explain that they decided to try and get to the EU through Belarus because of the situation in their home country — because of a lack of jobs, corruption, “worthless education,” and the fact that Iraqis “have no rights.”

“In Iraq there’s nothing to do after finishing school. I’m 26 years old, and I have no job, no money, not a dollar,” one asylum seeker tells Meduza when asked why he left. 

To get to Belarus, the 26-year-old had to borrow money from his brothers and friends. The travel agencies that help migrants get to Minsk charge several thousand dollars for their services: securing Belarusian visas, and booking plane tickets and hotels. The Iraqi tourism companies that help migrants gain entry into Belarus promise their clients that Belarusian border guards will help them cross into the European Union. But upon arrival at the border with Poland, asylum seekers find out this isn’t the case.

Now, stranded migrants are camping out in Minsk: “There’s so many underground passages here. Let’s go and sleep in there.” They don’t know what to do next. “We hope that Poland will open its borders,” one of them says.

Another Kurdish migrant who agreed to talk to Meduza says he has already been in Belarus for more than a month. He’s made several unsuccessful attempts at crossing the border with Poland. Nevertheless, he hasn’t fallen into despair.“The Belarusian police are very nice— each day they gave us food and water for the children. And it’s very beautiful in Belarus!” he says.

This man is currently living in a hostel, which costs him $120 a night. He tells Meduza he’ll try to get to Germany one last time — if it doesn’t work out, he’ll return to Iraq. “But life in Iraq is very hard. I didn’t have a life in Iraq,” he adds.

Migrants outside of the shopping center in Minsk. November 13, 2021. Migrants outside of the shopping center in Minsk. November 13, 2021. Paul Dza / Sipa / Scanpix / LETA

A 33-year-old Syrian migrant tells Meduza that he came to Belarus 20 days ago. He spent 15 of these days in the woods and tried to cross the border with Poland several times — both near Grodno and near Brest. “We walked 200 kilometers [124 miles] along the border. But [the Polish border guards] sent us back, they broke my phone,” he laments. 

After getting pushed back, he and a group of other asylum seekers — “300 people, 30 children” — tried to go to the warehouse border camp, but were turned away. The man says that “Belarusian police officers and soldiers,” told them: “No, go to Poland or to Lithuania. Not to Minsk, not to the camp.”

“We said, ‘We’re dying. Please’. We didn’t have food, we drank water from a river. We needed to be in the camp, where there’s water. Perhaps two or three soldiers said: ‘Okay, go to the camp’. But the more senior soldiers said: ‘No, leave’,” he remembers. 

The 33-year-old’s brother and sister are already living in Germany, but now he’s not sure if he’ll be able to get into the EU. “We aren’t poor people,” he underscores. “We have money, a business. I have a large company in Syria, I’m a businessman. I have a Porsche Cayenne, but no future.” 

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

I’m with you, Meduza

Reporting by Filipp Nozhev in Minsk

Translation by Eilish Hart


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