When the Syrian migrants spotted Belarusian officials arriving at their hostel in Minsk, they knew their hopes of a better life in the West were over. Seven managed to escape through the windows. The rest were rounded up, brought to the lobby and had their passports taken from them.
They were among thousands of migrants lured into the country with travel visas and the understanding that they would be able to reach the European Union. But now they were given an ultimatum: Book a flight out of Belarus — the officials didn't care where to — or be put on a plane to Syria.
Some of the Syrians in the group described these scenes to NPR earlier this month. "These were our choices," one of the migrants recalls, speaking by phone from Damascus. "If we refused to cooperate they said we'd be arrested and forcibly deported back to Syria anyway."
After engineering a migrant crisis at the borders of the EU, Belarus is now seeking to send those who failed to cross into Poland or other EU countries back to where they came from — often with little regard for their safety, say migrants and human rights groups.
It's the latest development in a months-long crisis between the authoritarian regime of Belarus and its EU neighbors. Belarus attracted people from war or poverty-stricken countries with loosened visa restrictions and encouraged them to cross in large numbers through the EU's borders. Migrants say they watched Belarusian soldiers cut wire fences and then organized hundreds of people to storm across a border at the same time.
U.S. and European officials and refugee advocates accuse the regime of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko of using migrants as a "political weapon" in retaliation for sanctions. EU neighbors Poland and Lithuania have been pushing the migrants back, leaving many of them — including children and pregnant women — trapped in freezing borderland forests. Many report being beaten, threatened with security dogs or otherwise abused by Polish and Belarusian security forces.
Lukashenko has denied orchestrating the border crisis but warned he would not stop migrants.
Now, often penniless, exhausted and vulnerable, hundreds of migrants are leaving. Some are choosing to take repatriation flights running from Belarus' capital Minsk to Iraq and Syria.
But some migrants tell NPR the Belarusian authorities have forcibly sent them back to their home countries — even after the migrants had told those authorities that they were fleeing life-threatening conditions.
Their pleas and asylum requests went ignored
In separate interviews this month, two Syrians who were on that plane detail how Belarusian officials ordered them and others to take the flight, despite their pleas that returning to Syria — a country in a civil war since 2011 — could endanger their lives. One of the men also said his request for asylum in Belarus was ignored.
NPR was connected to them by another Syrian migrant who did make it into the EU from Belarus and is now in an asylum center in Germany. The men in Damascus asked not to be named in this story because migration is a sensitive topic in Syria and they fear being arrested for speaking with a journalist.
Both described the men coming to the Minsk hostel flashing badges and identifying themselves as Belarusian government officials; though neither interviewee was certain of which branch of government.
After several failed attempts to cross into Poland, the Syrians' travel visas in Belarus had expired. The men say officials told them they had three days to leave the country. The officials confiscated their passports and said they'd only be returned at the Minsk airport before the migrants boarded a plane leaving Belarus.
Two days later, the officials returned, warning again the Syrians had less than 24 hours to book a trip out of Belarus or be deported the next day on the Cham Wings plane to Damascus.
They are running out of options
Few countries give travel visas to Syrians, and even fewer do so quickly. Many of the migrants had spent all their savings for visas to Belarus and the promise of a better life in the West. They didn't have the means to quickly plan a route out of the country. The interviewees both said they begged the officials for more time.
"We told them that many of us can't go back to Syria because we are wanted by the Syrian regime," one said. "They didn't listen."
Now back in Damascus, one of the interviewees, a father to two small children, says he has only weeks to find a way out of the country or face possible imprisonment or military conscription by the government.
A former activist against authoritarian President Bashar Assad, the man says he had been wanted by Syria's feared intelligence services until he signed a reconciliation deal that offered activists temporary amnesty. But he says that the deal expires in less than two months, at which point he doesn't know if he can remain safely in Syria.
The other interviewee said he specifically asked the Belarusian officials at the hostel for asylum in Belarus. "They told me 'no.'"
Neither the Belarusian foreign or interior ministries replied to NPR's requests for comment.
Refugee rights are protected by international law
Natalia Prokopchuk, a senior communications officer with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, in Europe tells NPR the agency is "receiving reports that people are being forcibly returned" to Iraq and Syria. The UNHCR has a small office in Minsk but lacks a presence at the city's airport and hasn't been able to verify the reports of deportation, she says.
Whether a deportation violates international law depends on the specific circumstances of each individual case. "States can deport people from their territory," she says. But as a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention, Belarus cannot return individuals to "a country where they would face the risk of persecution or other serious human rights abuses."
"People also need to be allowed to request asylum," she adds, "to be given access to this procedure, and they cannot be deported before the individual's situation is assessed."
Belarus does have an established asylum system. There are 303 people with refugee status in Belarus, mainly from Afghanistan, Georgia and Syria, according to UNHCR figures as of October.
Prokopchuk says migrants now face border guards and law enforcement officers in Europe who may not have asylum training. Now the situation is much more complex.
Tanya Lokshina, associate director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, recently co-authored a report on migrant rights abuses by Belarusian and EU security forces. She says the accounts of deportation and denied asylum that Syrian migrants described to NPR are in keeping with Human Rights Watch's own research.
"Based on what we know, Belarusian authorities provide no information regarding the very possibility to apply for asylum," she says.
"Belarusian authorities just want these people to go back to where they came from or go somewhere else. They're not taking into consideration what's awaiting those people there. They do not care about those people at all."
Returning to Syria could be deadly
Omar al-Zoubi, a Syrian migrant still in Belarus who wasn't associated with the other interviewees, told NPR he narrowly escaped deportation to Syria — where he says he is wanted by the government.
He says he made three failed attempts to cross into EU countries, involving weeks spent in the forest on the border, drinking from puddles and suffering beatings by Belarusian and Polish border guards. He and seven other Syrians he was with were rounded up by Belarusian soldiers who told them they were being sent back to Syria.
Zoubi took part in popular protests against Assad in 2012, then fled with his family to become refugees in neighboring Lebanon. In Lebanon's recent economic collapse, the family became so impoverished he says they could barely scrape together food for meals.
He says his family was once wealthy and owned land in Syria.
When he heard Belarus was providing options for migrants to reach the EU, he thought he had to give it a try. "We just want to live the way we used to; in dignity, with our own money," he says.
So in early November, leaving his fiancée and elderly parents behind in Lebanon, he flew to Minsk. His residency papers in Lebanon had expired and Zoubi says, as he left, Lebanese officials at Beirut airport placed a yearlong ban on his reentry into the country.
When he was caught in Belarus, he told the Belarusian soldiers that returning to Syria could be a "death sentence" because he is wanted by the regime.
The soldiers ignored his explanations, he says: "They just kept telling me in broken English: 'Go to Syria.'"
Zoubi says the soldiers forced him and the men he was with into a cab paid for by the government, and ordered the driver to take them to the airport.
"We were scared. At some point all the guys in the car were crying," Zoubi says.
Using Google Translate, the men tried to explain to the driver the dangers of prison, torture and perhaps even execution that could await them in Syria. Zoubi says eventually the driver relented, dropping them around the corner from the airport, and so giving the men a chance to escape.
The group ran into Minsk. The cousin of one of the men in the group paid for their stay in a private home in the Belarusian capital that has become a sort of "safe house" for migrants, according to Zoubi. Many of the migrants' Belarusian visas have expired and they fear staying in hotels could lead to their capture and deportation by the Belarusian authorities.
One man in the group was so scared of being deported to Syria, Zoubi says, that he refused to go to the hospital when he became seriously ill.
Zoubi is one of hundreds of migrants still trapped in Belarus.
When NPR checked in with Zoubi this week, he was back in the forests on the Belarusian border, trying to survive the freezing temperatures as he searched for a way to cross. He and the others in his group have almost no money left and they've barely even eaten in days. But, he says, this is the only choice he feels he has.