Migrants in Belarus warehouse long to reach Europe but hopes are fading

'We’re just the ball for this game', says Iraqi teacher stuck near the border with Poland

Inside a Belarus immigration centre

Inside a Belarus immigration centre
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Compared with the last time that Bahadin left his native Iraq for a new life abroad, getting to the fringes of the European Union in 2021 was easy.

In 1999, he trekked for 15 days on bloodied feet from Iran to Turkey before he eventually reached the UK in the back of a lorry. This time, after spending $4,000 on tickets and visas, he flew to Minsk via Dubai and chipped in his share of $250 demanded by a Belarusian taxi driver to drive them to the Polish border.

But now he's stuck. Along with hundreds of Iraqi Kurds he is living in grim conditions in a warehouse in the Grodno region on the Belarus side of the border, close to the scene of mass attempts to cross the border earlier this month.

His 20-day visa has expired and he is now waiting to see whether EU leaders will allow him and hundreds more into the bloc. If they don’t, the 47-year-old will return to the fence at the freezing border again to try to find a way through.

“I’m waiting until the last point until there is good news to take us to Germany,” he told The National. “That’s what we’re hoping for.

“If we don’t get it, then I’m getting to the point where I will have to try illegally again and I don’t know when that will be.”

The former factory worker returned to his home in Sulaymaniyah in 2009 after failing to get permanent residency in the UK. He returned, fired by the hope that the new Movement for Change party could break the two-party duopoly of the Barzani and Talabani families in Iraq’s Kurdish region.

Bahadin said he was always at the front of demonstrations protesting against corruption and the failure to supply water and electricity to the people.

But the Movement for Change failed to win any seats in 2021 parliamentary elections that were affected by a protest boycott by the opposition. It convinced Bahadin that there would be no political change and prompted him to leave his four children in Iraq in search of a better life.

Protester for change

He cited days of protests by university students in the Kurdish region over a lack of financial support from the local government.

“I asked for a visa for Belarus in the travel office in Sulaymaniyah and unfortunately I got the visa,” he said.

He arrived in Minsk on November 5 and headed to the border near Brest on the second day. He was able to cut the border fence with pliers before he was caught by Belarusian soldiers with a dog and badly beaten up.

“I said I want to go to Poland and Germany. They told me: ‘If you go and Poles catch you, they will put you between the two borders. You will run out of food and drink. You will die here, it’s cold’.”

He says his shoulder still hurts where they hit him with a stick but he travelled further south to try to cross at an area where it was rumoured there were few border defences. When he arrived there was a new fence and he then abandoned his plans for a crossing when he saw tanks at the border.

After returning to Brest, he heard of plans for the mass attempt by several thousand people to march to the border on November 7 and overwhelm Belarusian guards, in the mistaken belief that Poland could not refuse such large numbers.

He remained stuck for 10 days at the border before the Polish authorities used water cannons and tear gas after accusing Belarus of arming migrants with smoke grenades and other weapons to try to cross the border.

Bahadin said he only encountered hostility from Belarusian guards. About 2,000 migrants were taken to the warehouse with many suffering from the cold after being doused and affected by tear gas.

“I was the last one that left the forest”, said Bahadin. “The soldiers said you can’t stop here, you have to move to the warehouse. I said ‘I’m not moving’. They said: ‘five minutes’.

“So I came but it’s terrible here. Not a place for living people.”

Video supplied by Bahadin showed men queuing for food at takeaway vans because there was not enough food supplied by authorities. Others were standing in line to heat up food on a fire outside.

Water tanks were set up outside the warehouse for the migrants while washed clothing hanging on metal fences to dry became frozen overnight as the cold set in, he said.

Most of those at the warehouse are Iraqis, mainly Kurds, and many have given up on their ambitions to travel to the EU, saying they have been duped by the authorities.

More than 500 people have returned to Iraq on flights organised by the regime of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko since last week. Of the 430 Iraqis who returned from Minsk on one repatriation flight, 390 disembarked in the Kurdish region.

A flight planned for Thursday had not taken place, according to a senior Belarus security official, with about 200 people waiting at the airport in Minsk.

Lured to Europe

The European Union has accused Mr Lukashenko of luring migrants to the border and of using them as pawns to destabilise the 27-nation bloc in retaliation for its sanctions against his authoritarian government after he claimed victory in a disputed 2020 election.

It says he has been helped in this by people smugglers charging thousands of dollars and travel companies.

Belarus has denied driving the migrants to the EU borders and said on Thursday it had detained more than 11,500 illegal migrants in 2021 and deported 5,000, according to Russia’s RIA news agency.

Nabil, an Iraqi teacher who is translating for many of the other migrants at the warehouse, said that everyone needed to know urgently whether they would be deported or allowed to go to Europe “because we can’t live like this any more”.

He said the migrants just spend time looking at the clock, waiting for time to pass. “We can’t do anything in the camp, just waiting for permission. We have no other option.”

The Russian-speaking teacher said the guards told him there “is no hope of crossing the border because the Poles do not listen to you and Europe does not listen either.

“We also have no hope because we think that we are the ball for this game.”

He made a final plea to Angela Merkel, the departing German Chancellor, to allow those at the camp to cross the border.

“You were our hope but did nothing,” he said. “We were tired, we froze and got sick. Our children raised your flag and said that we love you. We are good people, please do not think we are bad.”

Updated: November 25, 2021, 1:30 PM