On a dark forest road last month, Polish police were in pursuit of a speeding car that had skipped a checkpoint. The car’s driver was a people smuggler, and his passengers three Syrians who had paid thousands for him to take them to Germany, the final leg of their journey from the Middle East via Belarus. A truck coming in the opposite direction tried to dodge them but could not. Ferhad Nabo, 33, a married father of two from Kobane, was killed instantly in the crash.
“He left Syria, like many others, to reach Europe,” said his cousin Rashwan Nabo, a Syrian humanitarian worker. Ferhad had boarded a direct flight to Minsk from Erbil, in northern Iraq.
“In Raqqa, Damascus and Aleppo, word has been spreading for months that the easiest and fastest way to reach Europe is a direct flight to Belarus,” his cousin said.
Ferhad Nabo is one of at least nine people who have died since the beginning of the border standoff between Poland and Belarus. Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, has been accused of deliberately provoking a new refugee crisis in Europe by organising the movement of people from the Middle East in revenge for EU sanctions on his authoritarian regime.
Thousands of Iraqi Kurd and Syrian families are living in small tents hidden among the trees between the two countries, where night-time temperatures fall below zero, and many more still are preparing to attempt the perilous journey, queueing every day outside the doors of travel agencies, while Nabo’s family is waiting for his body to be returned from Poland.
At first it had been a trickle: small numbers of people who had heard of a new way to get to the euro-zone without the need for a Schengen visa.
“Not so many came at first because they were suspicious,” said a travel agent in south Beirut who caters to Syrians trying to reach Belarus.
“This was in April. But then many people made it to the good parts of Europe, and business started to improve.”
In the Kurdish north of Iraq, the timeline was similar.
“We got a directive from an agent in Baghdad before the summer that Belarus was issuing visas,” said one agent in Erbil.
“It didn’t take long before word got around, but it has really got busy in the last two months.”
In both cities, the process and price is similar.
Iraqis who want to travel are charged $3,500 (£2,600) each, paid in cash, the bulk of which goes towards paying for the visa itself.
In the recent rush for visas, an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Syrians have applied in Lebanon, with the help of the Syrian embassy in Beirut.
Abu Fahid, a builder from the outer Damascus suburbs who has been living in Beirut for five years, said: “It is time to leave, and this is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for. Do you think I’ll stay in Lebanon now? It’s worse than Syria.”
Successful applicants cross the land border back into Syria and drive to Damascus for flights: some transiting in Istanbul on to Belarusian airlines and others, mainly on Syrian carriers, flying direct to Minsk.
Last month Minsk international airport published a new winter schedule, increasing the number of flights from the Middle East to 55 a week.
“I know it’s too risky to go through Belarus,” said Dlovan, 27, an unemployed man from Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan. “But I will go anyway if God wills it.”
Kurdish leaders have been alarmed by the recent exodus, which they say they have been unable to stop. But after the desperate scenes at the eastern fringe of the EU, officials say they are now seeking ways to intervene.
“We’re looking into travel agents involved in what is clearly a dangerous political game by Belarus masqueraded as a routine issuance of tourist visas,” said a senior official in the Kurdish regional government.
“It’s straight up human trafficking, using vulnerable families as cannon fodder to strengthen Belarus’s hand in an internecine European dispute.”
The Guardian spoke to dozens of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan asylum applicants in the Polish city of Białystok who had recently managed to cross the border from Belarus.
All confirmed they had arrived by buying packages offered to them by travel agencies that, according to the asylum seekers, appeared to be closely connected to the Belarusian authorities.
“These travel agencies are 100% connected to the Belarusians,” said Aras Palani, 50, an Iraqi interpreter. Palani had spoken to hundreds of people who said they had bought a travel package that included a one-way flight, a visa and two days in a hotel.
“They [the travel agents] tell people that they have connections with the border police and that crossing the border is easy. But it’s all lies.”
Anna Alboth, of Minority Rights Group, said: “I met families who were told by travel agencies that the border between Minsk and Poland was about three hours on foot.”
Minsk is about 200 miles from the frontier.
The Belarusian state-owned airline Belavia, which has previously denied any involvement in trafficking, said it could not “specify the names of travel agencies, as we can’t be 100% sure that these agencies are consciously engaged in trafficking migrants”.
Once the migrants reach the Belarusian capital, the smugglers come into play. Ahmed, 29, who was a law student in Syria, spoke of Facebook pages with phone numbers for smugglers who put the migrants in contact with Belarusian drivers.
“They picked me up at the Planeta hotel in Minsk,” said Ahmed.
“From there, for about $100 they take us to the barbed wire of the border.”
It is at that moment that the journey usually turns into a nightmare.
The migrants told the Guardian how Belarusian troops gathered groups of up to 50 people and then cut the barbed wire with shears to allow them to cross.
On the other side, nearly 20,000 Polish border police, flanked by the military, are deployed in a show of force unknown in the country since the end of the cold war.
Hundreds of people are being pushed violently pushed back to Belarus, with some attempting the crossing dozens of times. It is a question of luck whether they eventually manage to make it through safely.
Despite promises from Turkish and Belarusian airlines to stem the flow, the crisis appears to be far from over.
Thousands of people remain in Belarus and thousands more are desperate to join them.
“People will never stop finding other ways to reach Europe,” said Rashwan.
“Blocking the border with barbed wire did not stop my cousin Ferhad and people like him who are fleeing wars and poverty. People will simply never stop finding other ways to reach Europe.”
Header: Guardian graphic