Last month, Zana paid $3,600 (about £2,700) for an all-inclusive travel package of flights, a hotel room for four nights, and a pre-approved visa.
So how then, did he end up being violently pushed back by Polish soldiers in the freezing cold, on a heavily-fortified forested border on the edge of Europe that migrants have come to call “the jungle”?
Zana, an Iraqi Kurd who asked to only be identified by his first name only fearing reprisal from authorities in Belarus, has unsuccessfully attempted to cross from Belarus into Poland – and the European Union – six times in the last month since arriving from Minsk via Damascus.
With no hope of making it quietly through the woods on the border, the 26-year-old joined hundreds of fellow migrants who organised themselves over Telegram in an attempt to make it over en masse. This attempt failed, too.
“I came here with hopes that it would be safer than crossing the Aegean sea and other routes through Turkey. For months I was hearing stories about how easy it was through Belarus, and I borrowed money to pay for the trip, but with freezing temperatures of the winter here it turned out that it isn’t that easy from here too,” Zana told VICE World News in a video call from the border.
“I’m a mathematics teacher by training, but it has been three years since I graduated from university, and I haven’t been able to find a suitable job that would secure a good future. I worked in a bakery, supermarket, and even construction, but the economy is getting worse every day, and I decided to leave after hearing about the Belarus route.”
A man holding a child reacts as the members of the Kurdish family from Dohuk in Iraq wait for the border guard patrol, near Narewka, Poland. Photo: Photo by WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images
In Iraq, due to a widespread absence of credit cards or online banking, and difficulties in obtaining proper paperwork for visa applications, travel insurance, and hotel reservations, there is still a massive market for travel agents who provide services for clients wishing to travel, such as Zana.
Despite enjoying relative progress and stability compared to the rest of Iraq, a western ally, the oil-rich Kurdistan region in the north of the country has high unemployment rates, particularly among young people. Mired in corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement, the region of 5 million is under the de facto rule of two powerful families – the Barzanis and Talabanis – who have run the area between them under the banner of two political parties since a popular uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991.
Belarus has emerged as a major route for people trying to reach Europe since relations between the EU and Alexander Lukashenko – Belarus’ autocratic president who has been in power since 1994 and has been dubbed the “last dictator of Europe” – went into a deep freeze after the disputed election results of 2020. The arrest of exiled journalist Roman Protasevich by diverting a plane led to new sanctions, further souring relations.
The EU has accused Belarus of retaliating with a new form of hybrid warfare, by loosening border controls and simplifying the visa process for a few Middle Eastern countries. Soon, people looking for a safe path to reach Europe headed towards the Polish border, with the Polish Border Guard reporting hundreds of attempts at illegal border crossings on a daily basis since August. In October alone, they say that they stopped about 4,300 attempts and over 30,000 attempts since the beginning of 2021.
“It all appeared normal with a direct flight between Baghdad and Minsk operating, but soon, the demand for tickets to Minsk was surging, and it was clear that something dodgy was going on, with new flights scheduled from other cities of Iraq to Belarus and it appeared that people were using the route to reach Europe,” an Iraqi travel agent familiar with the process, and who didn't want to reveal his name and agency fearing repercussions from local authorities, told VICE World News over the phone.
“I had clients who went for a cheap weeklong holiday in Belarus back in the summer, there was a form, travel insurance and hotel reservations which were enough to get a visa on arrival,” he continued.
“Then Iraqi government decided to stop direct flights, and people couldn’t get visas on arrival anymore, but the scheme continued through embassies of Belarus in the neighbouring countries, with an invitation letter from someone in Belarus and the applications and passports were processed for a fee that reaches around $1,300 to $1,500 only for the visa.”
Travel packages offered by a few travel agent offices for “$3,600 to $4,000” for a person to travel to Minsk include a ride from the airport and a few nights in a hotel.
Migrants continue to wait at the Polish-Belarusian border on November 11, 2021. Photo: Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has called on Poland to fulfil the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and provide medical assistance to the people on the border. Still, Warsaw has refused to comply and says that Minsk is responsible for the people who have travelled to Belarus.
While the EU accuses Lukashenko of “weaponising” migrants by facilitating their entry into the EU through Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, in response, the Belarusian government has blamed Poland and the EU for demonstrating an “inhumane attitude” toward asylum seekers.
As the situation on the border has worsened, Turkish Airlines has announced that it will restrict ticket sales to Iraqis, Syrian, and Yemeni nationals, while the Iraqi government reported organising repatriation flights from Minsk for the people trapped in Belarus.
But for now, thousands of people are stuck in Belarus, with nowhere to go: Belarus security forces are pushing them towards the border, while Polish soldiers just push them back.
“We are stuck here between Polish and Belarus soldiers, without water and food. We can’t go back to Minsk because the Belarusians surrounded the area, and we have to take permission from them to go to the loo nearby,” one Iraqi migrant who spoke on condition of anonymity fearing repercussions from Belarusian authorities said.
“We either cross into Poland, or we die. There is no way the Belarusians will let us back to Minsk.”