Arrests in Belarus-Russia Migrant Smuggling Network

Published: 12 December 2022

LukashenkoBelarusian incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, whose close ties with Russia remain, was accused of using migrants as weapons by the EU. (Photo: Администрация президента Украины, Wikimedia, License)

By Inci Sayki

A criminal network smuggling migrants into the European Union (EU) through the Belarusian border was targeted by Polish, Estonian, German, Lithuanian and Latvian police, coordinated by Europol, last week.

According to Europol, 61 suspected members of this migrant smuggling network have been arrested since January of this year. Last week’s operations resulted in eight arrests - five in Germany, two in Lithuania, and one in Latvia.

The network, with an estimated 16 million euros (US$16.85 million) in cash flow, recruited Iraqi migrants and flew them to Russia via Turkey. They then crossed to Belarus, moving on into the EU through Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. For the land passage route, the smugglers relied on local drivers - many of them Ukrainian nationals.

Most  of the migrants were headed to Germany with Finland a secondary destination.

The criminal network, linked to more than 100 smuggling incidents, is mainly made up of Syrian and Turkish nationals. The smugglers charged the migrants between 3,000 to 15,000 euros ($3,160 to $15,801), and used either the informal money transfer system called hawala or cryptocurrencies to receive payment.

Local drivers also reportedly charged the Iraqi migrants 500 to 1,000 euros ($526.7 to $1,053) for their services.

“Smuggling in life-threatening conditions, including transport in overcrowded vehicles in loading platforms, was also reported,” the Europol statement said.

Lithuania first reported a spike in illegal migrations along its Belarusian border in June 2021. Poland and Latvia soon echoed those reports.

Amnesty International said in October this year that Latvian authorities have arbitrarily detained, tortured, and violently pushed back migrants at its border with Belarus, subjecting them to grave human rights abuses.

The Belarus-EU migrant crisis began following the 2020 Belarusian elections, when incumbent Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected in a process deemed unfair. This resulted in the largest anti-government protests in the history of the country, prompting Lukashenko to crack down harshly on political opponents and demonstrators.

After this, Belarus was widely sanctioned by the EU, and in retaliation, Lukashenko threatened to “flood the EU with migrants and drugs” last year.

The EU has called this a “gangster approach” and accused Belarus of using migrants as weapons in a "hybrid attack" to retaliate against sanctions.