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Stopover Belarus

Petrovich, Ales / jsAugust 10, 2016

The flood of refugees coming to the EU through the Belarus city of Brest is growing. One can see them in trains between Belarus and Poland every day. Where are these people coming from, and what are they looking for?

Neue Migrantenwelle aus dem Kaukasus Hauptbahnhof in Brest
Image: DW/A.Petrowitsch

Lately, it has become difficult to get a ticket for the morning train from Brest to Terespol. The train is the quickest and cheapest way to travel from Belarus to the first train station in Poland. Previously, the train consisted of three or four cars. Meanwhile, it has eight. Most of the tickets sold each day are purchased by people from the Caucasus and other former Soviet Republics in Central Asia.

These throngs are affecting more than just railway workers. Controls by border protection agents at the Brest train station have also had to be increased. And more police are present at the customs area in the train station's entrance hall. Similar measures have been taken at the arrivals area in Terespol, Poland. Most of those that have had their asylum requests denied in Poland, and thus have to return to Belarus, are processed here.

Refugees rather than small retailers

According to Belarus border guards, the route to Poland has been the country's busiest in the first six months of 2016. In all, 3.6 million people have crossed the border. While the flow of small retailers continues to recede, the flood of refugees seeking to reach the EU through Belarus has been rising. Between January and June of this year alone some 17,000 people that could be considered refugees have crossed the Polish border near Brest. These have mostly been people from Chechnya.

Belarus border patrol spokesman Alexander Tishchenko says that his agency is not entitled to verify whether travelers possess a Schengen visa. "We have no right to keep Russian citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, from leaving Belarus as long as they possess the appropriate documents, have not committed a crime and are not being sought by authorities. The same goes for Georgian citizens. We have visa-free travel agreements with these countries," says Tishchenko. He emphasizes that Belarus has no influence over people that seek to travel to an EU country to attain asylum.

Neue Migrantenwelle aus dem Kaukasus Hauptbahnhof in Brest
A new wave of immigrants is heading to Europe through Belarus. Here the train station in Brest.Image: DW/A.Petrowitsch

On the Polish side

When the train from Brest arrives in Terespol, passengers with a valid Schengen visa are the first to disembark. As a rule they are quickly processed at the Polish border without much hassle. Those without a visa are led to a special processing room.

A 30-year-old man, who calls himself Ahmad and likely comes from Chechnya, says that when boarding the train in Belarus, it's impossible to know whether you will be able to apply for asylum in Poland or be sent straight back. "It is my eighth trip. Some people travel 30 or 40 times before Polish authorities let them apply for asylum and then take them to a refugee center," says Ahmad. He says that previously, families crossing the Polish border with several children had a better chance of remaining in the EU than individuals traveling alone. But now authorities are making no distinctions. "Even families with babies are very often sent back now," Ahmad reports.

According to the Polish border patrol, the number of people who have requested asylum in Terespol has more than doubled since the beginning of this year. In the first six months of 2015, there were 2,000 requests; in the same time period this year, there have been more than 4,000.

Making money off refugees

Chechens in the train returning to Brest in Belarus are loathe to speak with strangers. Very few are willing to talk about the situation in Chechnya, and only do so anonymously. Chechens say that things at home are deteriorating. There are no regular jobs to be found, psychological stress is increasing and payments to local authorities are getting ever more expensive. "If you have the chance to leave, then you should sell everything you own and try to get to Europe, especially if you have relatives there," says a retiree. Adding to that is the growing concern that Poland could stop admitting people from the Caucasus altogether.

Upon returning to Brest, those that were initially unsuccessful in their attempt to get into the EU are encircled by locals. They offer would-be refugees accommodations and other services. Renting an apartment to several families can bring an owner up to $100 (90 euros) a day. But neighbors often complain. "Ten to twelve people are being housed in the apartment next to mine. Why should I have to deal with the constant noise?" Irina Kusmitch complains. She is critical of the fact that local authorities don't like to deal with such complaints.