Grodno, Belarusian migrants’ last stopover before Poland

Sitting on the benches of a shaded courtyard, sheltered from the main shopping streets of Grodno, groups of migrants stare at their cell phones while waiting for the signal to leave. Away, five men, traveling companions for a few days, say they come from Rakka and Deraa, in Syria. One of them speaks a few words of English and explains having heard of Belarus “On social networks”. Khaldoun, as he calls himself, says he took a plane from Beirut at the end of September before arriving in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, where he received a tourist visa authorizing him to stay in the country for thirty days. Barely arrived, he took the road to Grodno, still guided by Telegram or Snapchat.

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Grodno is a peaceful town of 350,000 inhabitants crossed by the Niemen, less oppressive, less disfigured by the omnipresence of the red and green national flag imposed on every street corner of Minsk by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. But in recent months, the Belarusian city has become known above all as the last stage to reach, the last obstacle to overcome before setting foot on Poland, located less than 15 kilometers away. Khaldoun is looking for a crossing point to reach his objective, the European Union. If he does not succeed, “It will be Lithuania”, explains this dry 50-year-old man. “We will not go back to Syria. There is war. “

He and the others, Syrians, Iraqis or Yemenis, come to try their luck on this new migratory route, opened with the blessing, if not the complicity, of the authorities. A local journalist, who wishes to remain anonymous, designates them as “Hostages of the regime, because Lukashenko wants to put pressure on the Europeans”. The Belarusian leader, he explains in substance, orchestrated a vast tourist campaign to attract migrants from the Middle East or Africa, and provoke a migration crisis in order to avenge the economic sanctions imposed by the European Union.

Hundreds of attempts

In Grodno – whose airport has just been granted “international” status by the Belarusian authorities – this is a subject that is being discussed discreetly because it is so sensitive. More than a year after major protests across the country against the fraudulently re-elected president for a sixth term in August 2020, the crackdown on critical voices remains fierce. However, here, the community of Polish origin which represents 20% of the population is particularly in the sights of the regime because of its links with Warsaw. The weight of this diaspora can be seen in the large number of Catholic churches in the city, whose very “old Europe” architecture differs from that of the Belarusian capital which looks like a Soviet showcase.

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Grodno, Belarusian migrants’ last stopover before Poland