In pursuit of his political and economic interests, Alyaksandr Lukashenka has repeatedly played the border card. He keeps resorting to a number of tools that are inconsistent with international law and bilateral treaties. The current migration crisis on the borders of Poland and the Baltic States is an example of such actions.
In the past, the Belarusian authorities purposedly carried out large-scale smuggling operations. The most important ones were related to the Belarusian-Russian border and were linked to Russia’s introducing retaliatory sanctions and imposing an embargo on food products produced in Western countries; then, thousands of tons of fruit and vegetables, mainly from Poland, started to flow to Russia from the territory of Belarus.
According to the investigation published by Moldovan journalists, Belarusian customs officers, entrepreneurs, phytosanitary inspectors, as well as a number of officials from Lithuania, Russia, Moldova, were involved in the smuggling scheme. Reportedly, behind the scheme there were the Belarusian authorities along with a private logistics company. The scale was so large that in 2019 the Russian side introduced a temporary embargo on the import of all fruit and vegetables from Belarus. In response, Lukashenka voiced threats to stop the transit of Russian oil to the West.
The elite special unit ASAM (Russian: OSAM) operates as part of the Belarusian border troops. This unit is responsible for sending migrants across the border. Alyaksandr Azarau, a former head of one of the departments of the notorious GUBOPiK/GUBAZiK (the Main Department for Combating Organised Crime and Corruption), states. According to him, the operation called Gate has been going on since 2010, and one of its goals is to illegally receiving funds.
Another goal is to put pressure on the European Union, forcing them to financially and materially assist the Belarusian services in border protection. Over the course of several years, the regime was successful: for example, Germany transferred tens of millions of euros to Belarus; those funds were spent on building detention centres for illegal migrants as well as modernising border crossings and means of communication. Belarusian border guards also obtained special vehicles for patrolling the borders.
Lukashenka’s sons, Viktar and Dzmitry, used to serve in the ASAM unit. The latter got the rank of captain there. In addition, ASAM is headed by Yury Tsertsel – the brother of Ivan Tsertsel, the incumbent head of the Belarusian State Security Committee (KGB).
Coming up with a tit-for-tat response to the wave of criticism and the suspension of flights over Belarus, Lukashenka personally announced the resumption of the border operation.
“We detained drugs and migrants [at the Belarus-EU border]. From now on, you [Europeans] will have to catch them yourselves,” he said, addressing the Belarusian parliament a few days after the air incident.
Since then, the situation on the Belarusian-Lithuanian border has changed drastically. In 2020, the Lithuanian services detained the total of 81 illegal migrants there. In late May this year, the reports about dozens of people who illegally got through this border every day started to appear.
At the end of June, Minsk announced the suspension of the agreement on the readmission of people illegally crossing the Belarus-EU border. Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey explained that the authorities did not intend to ‘stop some of the migrants who want to get to the West’.
“We will never stop anyone, they are not coming to us,” Lukashenka commented on the decision during the conference on July, 6.
For example, a recording received and published by BYPOL, an organisation of former Belarusian intelligence officers who joined the opposition, speaks well to the fact that the free movement of irregular migrants was authorised at the highest level in Belarus. One can hear that top police officer Mikhail Byadunkevich informs his superior that ‘two football players from Africa fled the training camp’. In response, the minister (most likely, the head of the Interior Ministry) issues an order ‘not to deal with the migrants who go to Europe in transit’.
“They have disappeared, and so what? Praise the Lord!” he added.
In 2020, Belarus was visited by appr. 5,000 Iraqis; for the first five months of 2021, however, there were as many as 4,000. In July, Boeings-474 which can accommodate up to 660 passengers each started to fly to Minsk from Baghdad. With one flight a day, it was indicative of a potential arrival of up to 4,600 people per week. In addition to Iraqi Airways, the route started to be operated by Air Baghdad. The persons interested had an opportunity to depart not only from the Iraqi capital, but also from Basra, Erbil and Suleimania. When being at Minsk Airport, Belsat journalists noticed an organised group of people who were engaged in picking up newcomers and transporting them to the city.
Arabic-language pages on social media became rich in announcements about trips to Belarus. There one could find telephone numbers to trusted taxi drivers, places to cross the border, prices, and even videos with tips. According to information by Belsat journalists, the cost of such a trip may range from €1K and over (if a migrant acts on their own) to around €8,500 (if they need the services of professional smugglers). A safe journey to Germany is ‘guaranteed’ to those who pay €15K.
To make the arrivals easier, Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed a decree exempting citizens of 70 countries who ‘come to get jabbed with the Russian vaccine Sputnik’ from the obligation to have Belarusian visas.
In mid June, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis suggested that Belarus was involved in delivering Syrians and Iraqis from Istanbul and Baghdad to its territory using the national tour operator Tsentrkurort which is subordinate to the Property and Facilities Management Office under the President of the Republic of Belarus.
Among other things, the body is mainly in charge of the housing and utility sector of the Presidential Administration and other state agencies. It owns a number of recreation and health centres, hotels, service companies, production plants and kolkhozes.
In August, journalists working for the German Die Welt and the Russian portal Dossier found the contract signed by Tsentrkurort and the Iraqi travel agency Oscartur. It turned out that that organisation was also an intermediary in issuing visas to Iraqis. Journalists learned that the state-owned coach company Stroytur was responsible for carrying newcomers.
Belsat journalists confirmed that at least one of the Minsk-based hotels – Yubileynaya (belongs to Tsentrkurort) – became a popular destination with the visitors from the Middle East. They were transported to and from it in an organised manner.
It is also known that Belarusian sports clubs have a hand in the process of issuing visas to the residents of African countries. When being in the border area, Belsat reporters met a Guinean resident who came to Belarus via Istanbul at the invitation of one of the Minsk clubs in order to take part in a football training. He claims that it cost him a total of €2,500. In the end, however, he was abandoned by the smugglers.
On July 20, during an interview with SkyNews Arabia, Lukashenka said that he was ready to help Lithuania fight illegal migration, but ‘not for free’.
“If you want us to help you, don’t put the noose around our neck,” he said, referring to Western sanctions.
On July 23, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis visited Turkey and Iraq and tried to convince the local authorities to take steps against intermediaries and limit flights from Istanbul and Baghdad to Minsk. The number of flights from Iraq has been reduced, but the route via Istanbul remains open.
On August 3, the Lithuanian authorities issued a decision to turn illegal migrants back to Belarus. When they were blocked by the Belarusian side, the Lithuanians took them to another section of the border and sent them back to Belarus. The Lithuanian border service also reported that in some cases they detained the same people several times. Latvia has implemented similar procedures too.
On August 10, the Lithuanian Seimas decided on building a 500-kilometre fence on the border with Belarus. Ten days later, the head of the Lithuanian Interior Ministry stated that the tactics of diverting migrants resulted in the stabilisation of the situation. In total, by estimates of the Lithuanian authorities, over 4,200 people illegally crossed the Lithuanian border this year. Since early August, over 1,500 migrants have been turned back.
Lithuania is trying to tackle the issue of detainees’ accommodating. Illegal immigrants are placed in the Foreigners’ Registration Centre in Paberžė, the Border Guard School and barracks in Medininkai, the Refugee Centre in Rukla (minors) and in buildings which were made available in border areas by local authorities. Some of the detainees stay in tent towns. The authorities offer a return ticket and €300 to the migrants who are willing to fly back to their home country.
Upon the restriction of access to Lithuania and Latvia (the latter also decided to divert migrants), illegals started to cross the Belarus-Poland border. In turn, the Polish authorities started constructing a fence and blocking newcomers at the border.
The Polish Border Guard recorded over 3,000 attempts to illegally cross the border in August. The officers have detained about 900 persons over that period of time.
The Belarusian authorities keep accusing the neighbouring countries of prompting the refugee crisis. At the end of July, Lukashenka slammed Lithuanian border guards for allegedly forcing a group of women and children to return to Belarus. According to him, they were shooting over the newcomers’ heads ‘like Nazis during the Second World War’. He then warned the Lithuanian authorities that their actions might egg on ‘radical Muslims’ to seek vengeance.
Interestingly, in a little while, a number of the country’s institutions and malls got e-mails containing threats directed against Lithuanians. The messages were signed by ‘Allah’s Brothers’.
On August 23, the accusations of ‘shooting over heads’ were reoccurred, but at that point, Lukashenka’s target was Polish border guards. The Belarusian politician voiced them during a meeting of presidents of member countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), soon after the rapid emergence of a spur-of-the-moment migrants’ camp close to the border with Poland, not far from the town of Usnarz Górny, but on the Belarusian side.
The Lithuanian authorities have provided evidence that the Belarusian services started producing fake interviews by recording videos in which interviewees ‘complain’ about being beaten by Lithuanians. According to the country’s Interior Ministry, a special film set has been created by the Belarusian side; it pretends to be a border zone, but false accounts of inhumane treatment of migrants from the Middle East are made there.
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Poland must provide food, clothing, medical care and – if possible – temporary shelter to migrants roaming along its border. “At the same time, ECHR added that ‘letting the migrants into Poland’s territory’ should not be understood as a requirement.
In addition, the Court referred to a group of 41 refugees from Iraqi Kurdistan who were wandering not far from the border with Latvia; their situation bears a strong resemblance to that of the above mentioned group near Poland. However, according to DELFI, around August 26, the camp disappeared, and the people from there must have returned to Belarus.
Meanwhile, Belarus has twice refused to accept a Polish convoy carrying humanitarian aid for the migrants who are stuck not far from its border. According to the Polish Border Guard, the Belarusian side provides the camp inhabitants with food and let representatives of state media interview them.
On August 26, the makeshift camp was visited by a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Minsk, who arrived there in the company of Belarusian border guards. Meanwhile, pro-Lukashenka TV claims that Poles detain migrants throughout their country, and then drop them off at the border ‘without means of survival’; in the context of Poland’s reaction to the situation, they use terms ‘concentration camps’, ‘death camps’ or ‘the Third Reich’.
“During the Second World War, Poles were involved in genocide, killing Jews and turning them in, and now they are mopping up refugees,” one of the reports by state-run Belarusian TV reads.
The actions by Belarusian special services which have repeatedly been spotted both in helping migrants cross the border with the EU and forcibly blocking their retreat by force as well as the current propaganda campaign show that the regime hardly intends to end the conflict in the near future. Representatives of EU institutions consider Lukashenka’s actions as ‘using migrants as weapon’. Meanwhile, NATO has sent a special unit to Lithuania to contribute to confronting the hybrid threat. On September 10, the large-scale military drill Zapad-2021 is to start in Belarus and Russia, some of its operations are expected to take place near Polish borders.