How the Belarus border crisis offered rare access to the EU for Yemeni migrants

Polish border guards stand next to migrants believed to be from Afghanistan sit on the ground in the small village of Usnarz Gorny near Bialystok, northeastern Poland, located close to the border with Belarus, on August 20, 2021
8 min read
27 January, 2022

Haitham A. cannot remember his first night in Germany. He was too exhausted from the journey across the border of Belarus and through Poland.

His blank-out started after crossing a lake near the Belarus border by clinging to a friend who could swim, and then walking 40 kilometres through the woods.

“I was so bad, I couldn’t move,” he said, when they finally got into a car that would take them to Germany. “And I remember that my heart, it was beating so much.”

He doesn't remember the drive through Poland along back roads to avoid detection; he doesn't remember being dropped on the streets of Leipzig and being picked up by the German police.

It was not until the second day in the police station that his memories returned.

Three months later, on a frigid January day in the small train-stop town of Esting, Bavaria, Haitham A., 28, and three other young men from Yemen crowd around a table and recount their stories.

"Despite more than seven years of war, Europe has remained all but inaccessible to most Yemenis"

They are among 534 Yemeni asylum seekers to make the journey to Germany through Belarus and Poland. Altogether, German Federal Police detected 11,248 asylum seekers along the country’s eastern border since August 2021, mainly Iraqi Kurds, followed by Syrians and Yemenis.

According to the men interviewed by The New Arab, many Yemenis hoped to travel unnoticed through Germany to the Netherlands or Sweden. Average monthly asylum applications from Yemenis in the Netherlands jumped six-fold in the last five months of the year, although data are not kept on where applicants entered the EU.

Despite more than seven years of war, Europe has remained all but inaccessible to most Yemenis. Fewer than 15,000  have claimed asylum in the EU since 2014.

The route through Belarus presented a rare opportunity.

“It’s like a chance that happens every ten years,” said Ammar, 24, who was living in Cairo before taking a flight to Minsk.

Without permission to work in Egypt, Ammar had been searching for entry points to Europe for several years, but the available options - mainly through Morocco to Spain or Turkey to Greece - felt too risky and he knew they could take years. Over 2,000 migrants died along Europe’s borders in 2021 alone.

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By last summer, all Ammar’s friends were talking about Belarus. He joined the marketing channels of smugglers on Telegram where they uploaded “endorsement” videos made by migrant clients who had successfully reached Germany, and soon Ammar knew people personally who had done the trip.

By August, thousands of migrants, mainly from the Middle East, were travelling as tourists to the eastern European county and being ushered to the border zone by Belarusian guards. The situation escalated into a political and humanitarian crisis in the fall, with EU leaders accusing Alexander Lukashenko of weaponising migration in revenge for EU sanctions.  

Currently, only about 550 migrants remain in a Belarusian holding facility near the border, according to the Red Cross network. 

Ammar’s own journey out of Belarus took a month, during which he was pushed back across the border to Belarus six times by Polish guards.

The worst part of the experience, he said, was going hungry. “Sometimes when the Polish people catch us, we are feeling like happy,” he laughs ironically, because the guards gave them food and water out of pity.

Finally, in early November, Ammar and seven others managed to cross a river along the border undetected. Like Haitham A., Ammar is not a strong swimmer and had to hold onto a friend to cross the fast-moving current.

Once enough of them had made it, they took off their trousers, tied them together to form a rope, and pulled the remaining friends across. 

Ammar (second from left) and several friends rest in the woods near the border of Belarus and Poland in October 2021. [TNA/Tara Brian]
Ammar (second from left) and several friends rest in the woods near the border of Belarus and Poland in October 2021. [TNA/Tara Brian]

Like the men who spoke with The New Arab, many who reach Europe were already living outside Yemen before making their journey. Out of the hundreds of Yemenis Ammar met in the forest of Belarus, he said only 5 or 10 had come straight from Yemen.

“All the ones who can afford to leave [Yemen], have left [already],” he said.

Noor, 21, was in flight school in Russia when he heard about Belarus. He spent 40 days trying to cross the border into Lithuania, repeatedly being sent back.

Once, he and his friends were beaten and robbed by the Belarusian army because Noor called the Red Cross to come and help a sick friend. “It is not allowed to call the organisation,” he explained.

Eventually, he returned to Minsk to rest and buy supplies. "If we stayed in the forest we would die,” he said.

At least 21 people have died along the Belarus border in the last six months, according to the International Organization for Migration.

His strength regained, Noor attempted again through Poland and made it on his first try.

Despite their daunting ordeals, all three say they took the “easy route”.

"The high cost and difficulty of travel mean most Yemenis are trapped in the war-torn country"

In contrast, they point to their friend Haitham W., who left Yemen for Jordan in 2013 when he was 16. It took him over two years to reach Germany through Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans, including walking for a month through the mountains to Italy, suffering numerous beatings at the hands of border guards, and a year trapped without work in Italy during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.  

"We cannot compare to his story," said Haitham A. "Our story is so easy compared to his."

The guys say the high cost and difficulty of travel mean most Yemenis are trapped in the war-torn country.

“Not all the Yemenis have that money to reach a European country,” said Ammar, who paid about $4,500 for fees to smugglers and flight tickets – a relatively cheap price, he observed. “In Yemen it’s expensive [to come to Europe]; he should sell his home, sell his car [to be able to afford it].”

On top of the costs, strict border controls in neighbouring countries and difficulties obtaining documentation further trap the majority in Yemen, a situation the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre describes as “forced immobility”.

Haitham A. has not seen his parents in nine years since he left Sana’a in 2013 to study business in India and then China. “They want to leave [Yemen],” he said “but it’s so hard…” Not only are the country’s land borders with Saudi Arabia and Oman blocked, but the Sana’a airport has been closed since 2016.

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Meanwhile, about four million people are displaced inside Yemen, representing 13 percent of the population. In a survey by the monitoring centre, three-quarters of internally displaced persons said the cost of leaving Yemen was so high the thought had never even crossed their minds.

Those who do manage, tend to stay in the Horn of Africa, Egypt, the Gulf, or the few countries allowing them visa-free access, like Malaysia. The strength of the Yemeni passport ranks near the very bottom of the Henley Passport Index, along with countries like Syria and Afghanistan.

Ammar is concerned about the Yemenis who cannot leave. The conflict has spurred one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world stretching over half a decade.

He has written to a member of the German parliament suggesting the introduction of a humanitarian visa that could be applied for directly at embassies and consulates abroad. Germany and other EU countries have implemented time-bound humanitarian admissions programmes in exceptional cases, including for Syrians and now Afghans, but no such program has been considered for refugees from Yemen.

The European Parliament proposed a European Humanitarian Visa in 2018 but the idea was deemed politically unfeasible.

In the vast majority of cases, asylum seekers need to be physically present in a country before they can file a protection claim. This means most refugees in the EU arrive through illegal border crossings. 

The main route to a safe country of asylum that does not involve dangerous and expensive clandestine journeys is through resettlement – a process whereby refugees are transferred from a country of first asylum to one in Europe or the West. However, there remains a huge gap between the numbers identified for resettlement by the UN and the available places.

Ammar, Haitham W., Haitham A and Noor in Esting, west of Munich. All travelled through Belarus to reach Germany, except Haitham W., who arrived via Greece and the Balkans. [TNA/ Tara Brian]
Ammar, Haitham W., Haitham A and Noor in Esting, west of Munich. All travelled through Belarus to reach Germany, except Haitham W., who arrived via Greece and the Balkans. [TNA/ Tara Brian]

For now, Ammar and his friends await their asylum decisions, coping with boredom, crowding and unruly inhabitants who have been stuck in the huge Fürstenfeldbruck accommodation centre for months or years.

About 80 percent of Yemeni applicants receive some form of protection in Germany.

However, Stephan Dünnwald, of the Bavarian Refugee Council said there is a risk they could be sent back to Poland, as per the EU’s Dublin Regulation which assigns the first EU country of entry with responsibility for examining an asylum claim.

But this would require proof asylum seekers actually entered from Poland, something that may be hard to find given a Polish law legalising pushbacks to Belarus without any fingerprinting or registration of asylum claims.

Dünnwald suggests Germany’s new more left-leaning coalition government may use the threat of the Dublin return mechanism to convince Poland to change its legislation along the border to align with international and EU law.

“But maybe I’m being too optimistic,” he reasons.

Tara Brian is a freelance journalist. She previously worked as a researcher with the United Nations' migration agency. 

Follow her on Twitter: @trbrian11