How The Baghdad-To-Belarus Tourist Trail Lands Iraqis In EU Detention

Aug 29, 2021
Originally published on August 31, 2021 4:20 pm

Updated August 30, 2021 at 5:04 PM ET

RUDNINKAI, Lithuania — The group of people walks tentatively forward, escorted by Belorussian guards dressed in riot gear. Then the guards yell "Go!" physically pushing those who seem reluctant to take further steps.

This scene appears in one of several videos released by the governments of Latvia and Lithuania. They show thousands of people, most of them Iraqi, illegally entering the European Union in the last several weeks, with Belorussian officials appearing to shepherd them along.

In Lithuania, more than 4,000 people have entered the country this way — more than 500 times the figure for all of last year.

The three Baltic governments - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all members of the European Union and NATO - call this a "hybrid attack" against them, the latest attempt by Belorussian leader Alexander Lukashenko to retaliate for EU sanctions.

The bloc has imposed punitive measures against Lukashenko's regime for last year's fraudulent elections; for violence against pro-democracy activists protesting the outcome; and most recently for faking a bomb threat to force a flight between Athens and Vilnius to land in Minsk, the Belorussian capital, so that an opposition journalist on board could be arrested.

"Belarus is weaponizing international migration and making a special path for irregular migration to the border of the two Baltic states, Lithuania and Latvia," says Marija Golubeva, Latvia's interior minister.

"This is not any sort of spontaneous emergence of a migration trail to our countries; this is a specifically directed action by the government of Belarus as perhaps a way to have revenge on the European Union for the sanctions that were imposed after the plane was hijacked," she says.

Belarus invites Iraqis to come as tourists, then sends them into the EU

Iraqi asylum-seeker Salad Sadeq Ali says the stories he hears in the government reception center where he lives just outside Riga, the Latvian capital, bear out the Baltic governments' allegations.

Though he arrived in Latvia using a human smuggler more than two months ago, Ali says most of the newer arrivals in the center confirm they booked flights from Baghdad to Minsk, got a tourist visa in their passports on arrival at the airport and then were helped by Belorussian officials to illegally cross the EU border.

Ali says when he was looking for a route to get to the EU he considered traveling through Belarus far too dangerous. "If they caught us, I thought we would get more than a year in prison," he said.

But once Belarus began advertising such trips to Iraqis, according to Lithuanian officials, large numbers of people began crossing into the EU every night. Recently Lithuania reinforced its border with barbed wire and extra guards, some sent from the EU and other countries.

Rudninkai Mayor Gennadi Baranovich stands in front of a banner demanding that asylum seekers not be allowed near the town.
Teri Schultz / NPR

Both Latvia and Lithuania also declared states of emergency on their Belorussian borders, which allows them to prevent people from entering and filing asylum claims.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte acknowledges Lukashenko's tactic has had some short-term success.

"This problem was imposed on us very wickedly, I would say, because it was a high number of people within a very short period of time," she explained. "Definitely that was a very significant challenge and still is a very significant challenge for us to to find the places" to lodge them.

Small towns near the border worry about the arrivals

That challenge is playing out in the rural community of Rudninkai, about an hour from Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. The migrant center, located at a nearby military training base, hosts more than 800 people and residents aren't happy about it.

At an intersection on the main road into town, a small group of men are chatting in front of a sign that reads: "Rudninkai says no to migrants." The men say they didn't put up the sign, but they readily admit to agreeing with it.

One of the group is the town's mayor Gennadi Baranovich, who says even he wasn't notified about it in advance.

"The government has tricked us," he explained. "They aren't telling people anything. If immigrants are coming here we should know what it means for our security."

Authorities wouldn't grant access to the residents of the Rudninkai camp, who are held behind high metal fences, and they only allowed a photo of the outside of the facility at a distance. But journalists were previously allowed to interview inhabitants, many of whom complained about their treatment.

Back at the Latvian holding center, Miks Celmiņs, director of the NGO Make Room Latvia, is helping outnumbered staff distribute food and other essentials to the inhabitants, who are almost all in quarantine because of a coronavirus outbreak.

Celmins says he understands his government feeling overwhelmed by the exponential increase in arrivals from Minsk, but he hopes Latvians have empathy for the migrants. "They are just victims of the situation," he said. "Obviously, this is somehow an organized criminal activity that is happening."

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis says this should not just be a concern for the Baltics or the EU, but for the "whole democratic world," which he says "needs to wake up."

If Lithuania and Latvia hadn't blocked the Belorussian route, "it could be scaled and it could be used against anybody, because it's extremely, extremely easy," Landsbergis explained. "You just need a country or a rogue state that just stops the control of the border. To add to that, if it offers help for people to go to the border that it stops controlling, you have a hybrid attack."

Minsk is allegedly also channeling people to Poland. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have called on the U.N. Security Council to take up the issue. If the situation isn't resolved, they have agreed to raise it as an "Article 4" security threat with NATO, one degree below summoning all allies to come to their mutual defense.

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ASMA KHALID, HOST:

While the world focuses on Afghanistan, another border drama is playing out in the tiny Baltic nations of Lithuania and Latvia. Belarus is granting Iraqi asylum-seekers tourist visas, busing them to its border with the European Union and pushing them across. It's seen as revenge for EU sanctions on the government in Minsk, as Teri Schultz reports.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Go, go, go, the Belarusian guards dressed in riot gear yell at the group of people. The guards point ahead and sometimes even give a shove to move reluctant ones forward.

(YELLING)

SCHULTZ: The governments of Lithuania and Latvia have released numerous videos like this one, showing some of the thousands of people, most of them Iraqi, crossing their southeastern borders with Belarus in recent weeks. The Baltic governments say the regime of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko lures people to Minsk with tourist visas and promises of access to the European Union, then pushes them over the border. Many of the new arrivals in Latvia are held in government detention centers, like the one where I meet Iraqi asylum-seeker Salad Sadeq Ali just outside the capital. He describes how Belarusian authorities help Iraqis get there.

SALAD SADEQ ALI: Some people, they have stamp on the passport. Or they said we have a stamp, and we cross from Belarusia (ph).

SCHULTZ: We have a stamp from where?

ALI: From airport.

SCHULTZ: In Minsk?

ALI: In Minsk.

SCHULTZ: So they admit that the officials were helping them come in.

ALI: Yeah, yeah.

SCHULTZ: Latvia says Lukashenko is weaponizing migration to retaliate for EU sanctions imposed on his regime for allegedly rigging elections last year and violently attacking those protesting the outcome. More EU sanctions came in May when a flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk over what turned out to be a fake bomb threat so authorities could arrest a dissident journalist on board. Latvian Interior Minister Marija Golubeva.

MARIJA GOLUBEVA: Obviously, after that, Europe had to act. We couldn't refrain from acting. We had to impose those sanctions. So now, as a response to that, we would get this specially organized stream of regular migration to our borders.

SCHULTZ: If Lukashenko's goal was to create chaos in his EU neighbors, he achieved some success, if only modest. Ingrida Simonyte is prime minister of Lithuania, which has seen well over 4,000 people crossing from Belarus in just the last few weeks, 500 times more than in all of last year.

PRIME MINISTER INGRIDA SIMONYTE: This problem was imposed on us very wickedly, I would say, because it was a high - influx of high number of people within a very short period of time. Definitely, that was a very significant challenge and still is a very significant challenge for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF POWER TOOL WHIRRING)

SCHULTZ: Lithuania is reinforcing its border with barbed wire and extra guards, but still has to manage those people who made it in.

In the Lithuanian town of Rudninkai, I ask a small group of men chatting on a street corner for directions to the nearby migrant holding center. They're standing in front of a sign that reads in Lithuanian and Russian, Rudninkai says no to migrants. The men say they didn't put up the sign, but it's quickly clear they agree with its sentiment. One of the group happens to be the town's mayor, Gennadi Baranovich, who says his displeasure is shared by his constituents.

GENNADI BARANOVICH: (Through interpreter) The government has tricked us. They aren't telling people anything. If immigrants are coming here, we should know what it means for security.

SCHULTZ: This resident has agreed to lead me down a very potholed, muddy road to the camp, which he says was set up here in this farming village without anyone's notice.

Authorities wouldn't let me speak with any of the roughly 800 residents of the Rudninkai camp. They're detained behind high metal fences, and many of them have told local media they don't want to be here, having hoped to end up elsewhere in Europe. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis says the real problem is not just this wave of illegal migration, but what may be next.

GABRIELIUS LANDSBERGIS: It's extremely easy. You just need a country or rogue state that just stops the control of the border. To add to that, if it offers help for people to, you know, to go to the border that it's stopped controlling, you have a hybrid attack. The whole democratic world needs to - it will sound strong. But I mean, it needs to wake up to new reality because these sort of weapons will be used against us in the future as well.

SCHULTZ: The Baltic governments and Poland are calling on the United Nations Security Council to take up the issue of the Belarusian tourist trap.

For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz in Rudninkai, Lithuania.

(SOUNDBITE OF VALANTE'S "RISSA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.