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BEIRUT: Struggling to cope with soaring cost of living and low wages, refugees and desperate Syrian workers abandon Lebanon and turn to a new migration route to Europe, via Belarus, and many risk their their family’s life and savings in the process.

A Syrian underground worker who arrived in Beirut four years ago and lives with his 20-year-old sister in the capital told Arab News that “working in Lebanon no longer makes sense.”

“I work all day delivering goods for 50,000 Lebanese pounds (the equivalent of $ 2.50 on the black market),” Ahmed said. “This is not enough because of the rising costs. “

In the last two months alone, more than 16,000 undocumented migrants have reportedly entered the EU from Belarus after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko responded to sanctions imposed by Brussels by saying he would no longer prevent asylum seekers to enter neighboring Poland.

Belarus has been accused of offering migrants tourist visas and helping them cross its border – a move that appears to have made the migrants’ previous route through Turkey and to the Greek islands a thing of the past.

Arab and foreign airlines organizing trips to Belarus via Lebanon have seen demand increase since September, while Syrians have lined up outside the offices of the General Directorate of Public Security in Beirut for hours to collect their tickets. passports or pay residence fees.

Lebanese citizens can obtain a visa for Belarus after arriving at Minsk airport. However, Syrians, Iraqis and Palestinians are required to obtain a tourist visa in advance.

Ahmed told Arab News he found a video on TikTok of Syrians talking about their trip to Belarus, then Poland and finally Germany, and saying the trip was less risky than traveling by sea.

“I am now preparing my documents to leave before the end of October, as things will not be easier after that due to the winter conditions,” he said.

Migrants making the journey face dangerous conditions, with freezing temperatures overnight and the risk of getting lost in dense forests along the 500 km border. They also have to deal with smugglers of different nationalities demanding thousands of dollars in advance.

Social media posts offer details about the trip and how much migrants can expect to pay. Those who reach their final destination reassure their families that they have arrived at “camp” – a phrase refugees use to describe salvation, as they pursue a “better life”.

Ali, 35, who has worked as a janitor in the suburbs of Beirut for more than 10 years, said friends who had completed the migration route called him via WhatsApp and “seemed very happy.”

However, Ali said he would not consider making the trip. “Migrants must be young. There is no room for families on such a difficult journey.

Belarus’ announcement in late May that it would not bar migrants from entering Europe came in response to a series of sanctions imposed by the EU after Belarusian authorities forced an airliner to land at Minsk and seized opposition journalist Roman Protasevich who was on board.

Following the incident, the EU banned Belarusian carriers from using its airspace and airports.

A Syrian worker, who declined to give his name, said: “Syrians in Syria and Lebanon have heard stories about migration to Belarus, and then to Europe, since August, but they have remained skeptical of this road until September. “

He added: “Those who work legally in Lebanon have the right to travel from Beirut International Airport and the right to return to Lebanon as long as their residence permit is valid, but if a refugee wishes to leave Lebanon and surrender. in Belarus he is have to sign a document stating that they will never come back.

The Belarusian Consulate in Lebanon website provides instructions on obtaining an entry visa for Belarus, with a list of required documents and visa fees. Syrians, Iraqis and Palestinians need a tourist visa to enter the country and must provide the name of the airline, a passport valid for at least six months, and an insurance policy that costs € 12 ($ 14 ). A single entry visa costs € 25.

The embassy’s website was inundated with questions from Syrians seeking a “tourist visa for a week”.

Three airlines, Syrian Air, Emirates and Turkish, serve Minsk from Lebanon. According to the Syrians, the flights “are fully booked by tourists”.

Ahmed said: “The tourist office asked me to pay $ 4,000 for the visa, a one-week hotel reservation and a ticket. When I arrive in Belarus, I will have to wait with a group of 10 or 15 people for someone who will provide us with a cell phone with internet access and a pinned location at the Belarusian-Polish border which we are supposed to reach on foot, crossing a forest at the border.

He said the trip could take hours. “When we arrive at the scene, a car will be waiting for us on the Polish side of the border to take us into Germany. There we will go and ask for asylum. To get from Belarus to Poland, my family has to transfer $ 3,000 to an account in Turkey, the owners of which will cover the cost of the next phase, from Poland to Germany.

The crossing from Belarus to Poland is becoming more and more difficult.

Ali was told by his friends that “Belarusian police turn a blind eye to those walking in the jungle, but Polish security authorities have very strict measures. If they catch people trying to cross borders illegally, they send them back to Belarus. However, asylum seekers do not give up. They keep trying. Those who fail to reach the location, return to their hotels and try again the next day.

He said that “those who manage the smuggling operation are of different nationalities and can be Belarusians, Iraqis or Syrians”.

Ali also said his relative “got lucky walking through the jungle because he fell and injured his leg, but there was a Syrian doctor in the group, who is also an asylum seeker. “.

Poland said its border patrols had detained hundreds of migrants since August. Migrant groups include refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, as well as those from Turkey and Jordan.

Several asylum seekers have died of exhaustion as temperatures drop in forests on the Belarusian-Polish border, according to press reports.

The Polish news agency reported that the body of a 19-year-old Syrian who drowned in the Bug River at the border was found on Wednesday.


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