Travel agents in Iraq say business picked up after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said he would no longer prevent migrants and drugs from entering Europe in June.
The strongman’s fury at European sanctions provided a windfall to Iraqi travel agents and smugglers, who could draw upon a large pool of clients eager for an easy route into Europe, where they believe that jobs and the easy life await.
Travel agents offer Iraqis and Syrians package trips to Belarus with advertisements implying they can travel on to seek work in Europe.
Migrant travel routes through Belarus
Migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region on Tuesday
Ads placed on social media are designed to make the trip look legitimate and promise smooth travel, highlighting that travellers are issued seven day tourist visas for Belarus.
In one recent Facebook post, a travel agent said that it was bringing people to Europe via "conventional ways".
"European airlines only, need 1.2 million refugees. Seize the opportunity. Pay us after arrival," read the post, which was subsequently deleted after attracting media attention.
Who are the clients?
In the Iraqi Kurdish town of Shiladze, one travel agent told Reuters last month that he had sold packages to 200 people since the business took off in the late spring.
Up to 400 people from the area around the town of 40,000 people have flown to Belarus already this year, with more leaving by the day, a local journalist estimated.
"Many of my relatives and friends have left that way. Many others want to do the same," Abdullah Omar, a 38-year-old barber in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Shiladze, told Reuters. "People have sold their homes or cars to afford it."
A Facebook advert used to lure migrants
Many in the town cite lack of economic opportunity and an ongoing conflict between Turkey and the outlawed militant group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is active in the area.
"Our area is besieged, it’s in the hands of the PKK and the Turks. Our region is nice, but we are afraid and we don’t trust in staying here," said Halkaft Mohammed, a Shiladze resident who told Reuters that his 19-year-old son reached Germany in September.
At first travellers flew direct from Iraq to Minsk on Iraqi Airways and Fly Baghdad flights. But in August the EU pressured Iraq to halt direct flights and travel agents began selling trips with stopovers in Dubai or Turkey.
Travellers, who use their own passports and fly on regular commercial flights, report being told that crossing into Europe is legal if they have a Belarusian visa.
Trips can cost over £8,000, taking into account flights and being smuggled across the border into the EU, those selling packages say.
Arriving in Minsk
Arriving in Minsk, travellers are whisked in black Mercedes vans to three- and four-star hotels in the Belarusian capital, according to Lithuanian National Broadcaster LRT English.
While waiting for their transfer to the border, migrants stock up on provisions at Belarusian shopping malls.
Lukashenko holding an automatic rifle
They buy cheap tents, sleeping bags, winter clothing, rubber boots and thick gloves to protect their hands from barbed wire on the border fences, according to Polish television channel Belsat.
These shopping groups are always accompanied by an interpreter, according to a Belarusian channel on the Telegram social media app.
Crossing the border into the EU
After waiting for several days in Minsk, travellers are driven for several hours to the border with either Poland, Lithuania or Latvia. From there they attempt to cross on foot into the European Union, sometimes directed by Belarusian border guards
They walk, sometimes for hours through forests before reaching the frontier. Many are told they will be picked up and driven on to Germany or France but most end up detained by European border guards.
By the time they are intercepted, many of the migrants have discarded their documents, Lithuania’s deputy interior minister Arnoldas Abramavicius told the Washington Post, adding that 75 per cent said they were from Iraq.