Risk for Belarus ruler: migrants he attracted might want to stay

BRUZGI, Belarus – He ruled with an iron fist for 27 years, surviving massive street protests, multiple rounds of Western sanctions, and even alleged plots by his benefactor, Russia, to fire him.

But a threat that President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko has never had to face is now taking shape in a squalid migrant encampment along his country’s border with Poland. After helping channel desperate migrants to the gates of Europe, Mr Lukashenko suddenly has to deal with people like Bale Nisu, a 21-year-old Iraqi Kurd who has taken a liking to Belarus and would like to settle there. .

Many of the more than 2,000 people stranded on the Belarusian side of the razor wire at Bruzgi, a large closed border post, insist they will not give up their attempt to enter the European Union. But growing fears that they will be sent back to their home countries have made Mr Nisu and others question whether staying in Belarus might be their best option.

“I want to go to Germany, but if it’s impossible I will stay here,” Nisu said on Wednesday after moving into a large warehouse near the border which has been turned into a immigration detention center by the authorities. Belarusians in an effort to ease the pressure on the border – and restore the country’s often bleak image.

He lamented that he spent over $ 4,000 and freezing days in the forest to find himself in a poor and very repressive former Soviet republic with little to offer in terms of jobs and other opportunities.

But, showing rips in his pants, which he said were caused by Polish security forces who beat him after an aborted attempt to cross the border last week, he said Belarus was much more attractive. than returning to Iraq, or more meetings with the Poles. soldiers and border guards. He said he wanted to seek asylum in Belarus.

“Belarus,” he said, “is a very, very good country. “

Dictators usually don’t have to worry about their country being praised, but Mr Lukashenko, often described as “Europe’s last dictator”, could face serious headaches if migrants start asking for it. political asylum in Belarus. It is a predominantly Orthodox Christian nation with little experience in welcoming foreign immigrants and, like Poland and other Eastern European countries, has been generally hostile to non-Christian settlers from the outside of Europe.

Belarus has spent weeks denouncing Poland for violating international law by refusing to consider asylum claims and pushing back migrants – mostly people fleeing poverty but some with legitimate asylum claims as refugees from war or persecution – crossing the border.

But what Belarus presents as a humanitarian crisis is seen by the European Union as the front line of a “hybrid war” designed by Lukashenko to pressure Europe to lift the sanctions imposed afterwards. a contested presidential election last year.

After clashes at the Bruzgi crossing on Tuesday, Polish forces massed a few meters from the migrant camp shelled the Belarusian side with a recorded message giving a stern warning in English, which few migrants understand: “If you don’t follow. orders, force can be used against you.

On Wednesday, dozens of migrants again pushed towards the razor wire that marks the border but did not break through. As night fell, Polish border guards were still unrolling razor wire near the spot where migrants briefly broke into Tuesday.

Hoping to enter Poland and then Germany, desperate parents sent a group of razor-sharp young girls to plead with Polish guards who were glaring a few yards away. “I love you Poland,” they shouted in English. “Help me, please. Open the door please.”

Jangi Rasul, a 36-year-old Iraqi Kurd, said he was sorry for the Polish forces. “They freeze like us and just follow orders they get from politicians playing games,” he said.

Mr Rasul sleeps in a small, fragile tent with his wife and three young children – they only have one sleeping bag – and said he was desperate to move on because the money he collected by selling the family’s car and furniture in Sulaimaniya, a town in northern Iraq, was almost sold out. He waved what he said was all he had left: 200 Belarusian rubles, about $ 80.

While Poland’s defense minister said on Wednesday that his country would fight “for months, if not years” to keep migrants away, the prospects for those hoping to enter the European Union via Belarus have dimmed further and left Mr Lukashenko with a dilemma: what to do with the thousands of people his country has allowed in but who now cannot get out?

During a visit to Warsaw last month, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the Belarusian opposition leader in exile, said between 10,000 and 15,000 migrants had already arrived in her country and would become “a huge problem for Lukashenko” if they remained stranded in Belarus.

“He has to face all these people one way or another,” she said.

It is not known exactly where these numbers stand, but they have clearly increased rapidly over the past month, although the flow has slowed considerably in recent days as airlines have either halted flights to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, or banned to passengers from certain countries such as Iraq. , Syria and Yemen.

Asked about Belarus’ response to asylum requests, Yuri Karayev, former Minister of the Interior and now assistant to Lukashenko responsible for the Grodno border region, said on Wednesday he was surprised that anyone who really wanted to settle down in Belarus. He said he did not know how the government would respond to asylum claims.

“I am of course happy if people like it here, but what happens depends on a decision of the president,” he said in an interview during a visit to the recently opened immigration detention center just outside the Bruzgi border area.

Mr Karayev rejected accusations by the European Union that Belarus orchestrated the migrant crisis, saying people had arrived from countries like Iraq on their own, flying on tourist visas that allowed them to travel the country as they please. “We have nothing to do with this crisis,” he said.

He said the government was trying to ease tensions by moving migrants from the border fence. The real culprit, he said, is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who declared her country open to migrants in 2015.

About 1,100 people, Karayev said, have already moved into the new detention center. The 800 or so people remaining in an encampment that migrants call “the jungle” will be invited to join them in the warehouse, where there is food, bedding, electricity for people to charge their phones and phones. shelter from the biting cold.

Dariya Ibrahim Mohammed, one of those who agreed to move, said he was distraught “after spending so much money and only being frozen”. He said he would seek asylum in Belarus if that was the only way to avoid being returned to Iraq.

Another Iraqi, Shajwan Mohammed, said she would like to stay in Belarus with her husband if the doors to the European Union remain closed. Exhausted after nearly a month on the road, mostly in the forests that straddle the border with Poland, she said Belarus was not her first choice but “it’s much better than going back to Iraq. “.

The migrants offer various accounts of the role played by Belarusian security officials in the crisis. Some say they were taken to weak spots in the border fence and even fitted with wire cutters. Others say they organized their own incursions into Poland without Belarusian help.

Aso Ahmed, a 25-year-old Iraqi Kurd, said he had joined two massive border assault attempts, the most recent of which led to violent clashes with Polish border guards on Tuesday, which set off water cannons and tear gas after being bombarded with stones and debris. The efforts, he said, were organized by the migrants, not the Belarusians. “They weren’t part of it,” he said.

Mr. Ahmed, fearing a ruse aimed at rounding up people for deportation to Iraq, refused to leave the encampment next to the border fence and to go to the brick warehouse a few hundred yards away. “It’s a trap,” he said. “If I’m kicked out, I might as well be dead. “

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