Open-source evidence of Belarus exploiting refugees in ongoing tensions with Lithuania
Analysis reveals signs of Belarusian government
Analysis reveals signs of Belarusian government directing refugees to the Lithuanian border
By Lukas Andriukaitis
Open-source evidence has emerged of the Belarusian government’s involvement in facilitating the transit of refugees from Iraq through Belarus, fueling a migration crisis in neighboring Lithuania.
The exploitation of refugees and economic migrants as a geopolitical weapon is hardly a new phenomenon, and doing so exposes how vulnerable communities are dehumanized in service of geopolitical point-scoring. It is also a tactic that demands immediate attention by all governments affected, as the lives of the people caught in the middle hang in the balance. This demand for a quick response is one reason why an autocrat like Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has a history of repressing his own citizens, would weaponize refugees.
According to the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in response to sanctions, Belarus has started facilitating migration into Lithuania. In a statement, the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs publicly claimed that Belarus is waging a “hybrid war” against Lithuania. Increasing open-source evidence has confirmed claims that the Lukashenka government is indeed facilitating the transit of refugees into neighboring states.
A recent video, taken by a drone from Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, showed Belarusian border guards leading a group of refugees toward the country’s border with Lithuania. A separate video of Belarusian officers in riot gear pushing refugees to the Lithuanian border also recently surfaced; other videos of refugees staying in hotels in towns bordering Lithuania have also been posted online. Social media posts promoting cheap flights to Belarus and interviews with refugees in temporary camps are also available.
These open-source findings suggest the involvement of the Belarusian government in fomenting the migrant crisis and, as Lithuania has stopped allowing refugees inside its territory, more of them are now being re-routed to other neighboring countries, notably Poland and Latvia.
People as pawns
The current immigration crisis in the European Union countries bordering Belarus is the result of Lukashenka’s latest geopolitical gambit aimed at reducing international pressure. While there is no evidence indicating direct government financing or resourcing of the refugees as they enter and transit through Belarusian territory, the lack of control is transparently deliberate, as the regime has — for example — eased the tourist visa process for many of the communities desiring to cross into the EU via Belarus’s borders. Many reports have indicated that this lax approach to border outflow is in response to targeted sanctions imposed as a result of regime malfeasance, notably the forced landing of a commercial airplane flying over Belarusian airspace in order to arrest regime critic Roman Protasevic in May 2021.
More critically, this latest maneuver carries with it a particularly cynical connotation: the exploitation of humanitarian refugees as a tool for scoring geopolitical points. As of August 17, 2021, the number of refugees intercepted on Lithuania’s border with Belarus the year to date was around 4,100. Many of the refugees are reported to be Yazidis from Iraq, an ethno-religious minority population targeted by the Islamic State in 2014 for genocide or enslavement and who remain a target for extremists.
Members of the Yazidi and human rights communities have criticized the slow international response to the genocide, and now the European Union’s response — and that of Lithuania, in particular — to the plight of refugees on its borders. Indeed, while EU officials are quick to condemn the Lukashenka regime for using the refugees as political pawns, in referring to the refugees as part of a “hybrid attack,” they too risk dehumanizing the people caught in the middle.
This risk is starting to be reflected in actions explicitly meant to curtail the flow. In response to the rising influx, according to The New York Times, Lithuanian officials have started to look toward actions undertaken by an increasingly autocratic and xenophobic Hungary on its own borders as inspiration. In the same story, The New York Times noted that none of the 118 refugees who have applied for asylum in Lithuania this year have had their applications granted.
Increased flights and advertising
Some of the first clues of Belarusian involvement in stoking the refugee crisis were circumstantial yet confirmed some of the Lithuanian government’s claims. Lithuanian media has revealed that migration from Iraq to Minsk is closely overseen by the Lukashenka regime.
According to Lithuanian journalist reports, information inviting Iraqis to travel to Belarus for quick and easy access to the European Union was posted to social media, with Belarusian travel agents consulting with refugees in Arabic on how to make the transit. One of the active Iraqi travel companies was the Al Zaeem Group, that advertised flights to Belarus. Unidentified Telegram groups started appearing as well, where members were sharing tips and experiences on their travel to Belarus and crossing the EU border.
As early as August 2, there were Iraq-Belarus flights with more than 2,000 available seats every week. Only a couple of months before, zero flights connected these countries directly. According to the Lithuanian media, once the refugees arrive in Belarus, they are picked up by travel agents and brought to hotels in cities along the border with Lithuania. Evidence of refugees staying in hotels in towns like Grodno and Ashmyany are available on social media.
One such video was geolocated to be in the center of Ashmyany, near the Grad Hotel, about 20 kilometers from the Lithuanian border.
In the video, a local Belarusian passes the hotel, outside of which a couple dozen persons alleged to be refugees can be seen standing with their suitcases.
Ashmyany is not a known tourist destination, so it is unlikely that the people seen outside the hotel would be there for sightseeing purposes.
Lastly, the Belarusian government’s involvement has also been discussed in interviews with refugees residing in camps in Lithuania. According to the interviewees, Belarusian officers — “men in uniforms” — instructed them on when to destroy passports and what to say upon arrest, including how much money they supposedly spent to be brought to the border.
Belarusian border guards push refugees to Lithuania
Belarusian border guards have also been captured on camera leading refugees to Lithuanian border and refusing their return thereafter. For example, on August 3, the Lithuanian Ministry of Interior published a video showing Belarusian border guards guiding refugees over the Lithuanian border. Using a helicopter, Frontex — the European border and coast guard agency aiding the Lithuanian State Border Guard Service amid the crisis — captured the footage in question.
The group of refugees seen in the video is escorted by a small SUV, which turns to go back when the refugees approached the border. Upon closer inspection, the SUV in question appeared to be a Russian-made UAZ-469, a vehicle used by Belarusian border guards.
The UAZ in the video had a bar of lights on the roof, which is more common on Belarusian police vehicles, while border guard vehicles typically have two separate lights. The difference in lights, however, is not exclusive; some police vehicles have separate lights, and some border guard vehicles have a single bar. Yet, judging from the green color of the vehicle and the area of operation, it is highly likely that the vehicle in the video belonged to the border guard.
The description of the video claimed that it was captured in the Šalčininkai region of Lithuania, yet geolocation suggested it to be a different region. The bridge seen in the video appeared to be over the Myadelka/Birvėta river in the region of Ignalina, eastern Lithuania.
This location for the border crossing was likely chosen for a reason, as the area in question is a protrusion of Lithuanian territory surrounded on three sides by Belarusian land and is barely populated, providing multiple potential entry points. Additionally, the next closest border cross point is more than 40 kilometers away.
On August 6, another video surfaced showing Belarusian guards in full riot gear standing on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border. It is impossible to recognize the exact location, yet the border demarcation poles suggest it is on the Lithuania-Belarus border. In the video, the Belarusian guards refuse to let the refugees back onto Belarusian territory, telling them “go there” and “what are you standing here for?” In this video, no use of force was captured, but the border patrol’s use of full riot gear and aggressive language suggested the lengths to which they were prepared to go.
Недоумеваем всей редакцией, почему белорусские погромоновцы не пускают мигрантов в Беларусь, если, как ещё вчера заявили власти, мигранты прилетели в страну законно, по визам, и запретить им въезд нельзя pic.twitter.com/AozQAhuQvY
— Чай з варэннем (@belteanews) August 6, 2021
Another video, however, surfaced on August 17 showing Belarusian border patrol officers in full riot gear physically pushing the refugees toward the Lithuanian border, where they were met by Lithuanian border guards asking them to turn back.
Surreal scenes at the Belarus-Lithuania border. Belarusian border guards in full riot gear are pushing migrants over the EU border. Lithuania says Belarusian servicemen have themselves crossed the border while doing that and only withdrew after a series of warnings. pic.twitter.com/pqMPOOJOEP
— Tadeusz Giczan (@TadeuszGiczan) August 17, 2021
At the same time, efforts to discredit the Lithuanian response to the crisis were also prevalent on social media. A video recorded by a refugee and published by Belarusian authorities started circulating around August 10. In the video, a woman is carried by Lithuanian border guards into Belarusian territory. According to the description and the comments, she was unconscious and thrown out of Lithuanian territory.
"Невеста будет сопротивляться,брыкаться,кусаться,звать милицию,кричать "я буду жаловаться в обком"Но вы не обращайте внимания,это стариный красивый мигрансткский обычай
Литовские пограничники относят на руках назад в Беларусь
Видео о безжалостных литовцыах опубликовали мигранты pic.twitter.com/cwfIc8Xwc8
— СОБАКА УКРОП (@boris0630) August 10, 2021
A video taken by the Lithuanian border cameras revealed that the woman was not unconscious, as she stood right up after being put on the ground. The exchange demonstrated how Belarus explicitly omitted context regarding the woman, though her use as a political talking point by both sides is emblematic of the situation at large: a human being, likely trying to escape desperate circumstances, caught in the middle of a geopolitical cold war.
Open-source research shows the Lukashenka regime’s involvement in facilitating a refugee crisis in Lithuania. Examples of advertisements in Arabic for an easy way to get into the EU can be found on social media, together with Belarusian traveling guides consulting the refugees on their upcoming travels are also available. Once in country, videos have surfaced online of Belarusian border guards leading the refugees into Lithuanian territory with their car, not allowing them to return to Belarusian territory, and pushing them into Lithuanian territory. As Lithuania has stopped allowing refugees into its territory, more of the them are now being re-routed to Poland and Latvia.
Ultimately, by easing their transit, the Lukashenka regime has decided to use people — often from vulnerable communities under persecution in their home countries — to score geopolitical points against the West and its neighboring EU countries in particular. While it is not necessarily a new tactic, it places the lives of people striving for safety and security behind the political calculations of the state. It is a compassionless enterprise.
Lukas Andriukaitis is an Associate Director with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Cite this case study:
Lukas Andriukaitis, “Open-source evidence of Belarus exploiting refugees in ongoing tensions with Lithuania,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), September 2, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/open-source-evidence-of-belarus-exploiting-refugees-in-ongoing-tensions-with-lithuania-6dacc44e67a2.
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