SULAIMANIYAH, IRAQ – The sudden surge of migrants to Belarus from the Middle East that is now the focus of a political crisis in Europe was hardly an accident.
The government of Belarus loosened its visa rules in August, Iraqi travel agents said, making a flight to the country a more palatable journey to Europe than the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece.
It increased flights by the state-owned airline and then actively helped funnel migrants from the capital, Minsk, to the frontiers with Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.
And Belarusian security forces gave them directions on how to cross into the European Union countries, even handing out wire cutters and axes to cut through border fences.
These moves, which European leaders have characterized as a cynical ploy to "weaponize" migrants in an effort to punish Europe, opened the gates to people desperate to flee a region plagued by instability and high unemployment.
Now thousands of people are stranded or hiding along the border in freezing conditions, not wanted by the E.U. countries or, circumstances are making clear, by the country that lured them there in the first place.
The human tide has turned cities like Sulaimaniyah, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, into bustling ports of departure for migrants eager to take an expensive and risky journey for the chance of a better life in Europe.
As word went viral on social media that Belarus offered a route into Europe, the number of migrants snowballed. Mala Rawaz, a travel agent in Sulaimaniyah, said he had been selling about 100 packages a week for trips to Belarus. The packages included airfare through a third country, transit accommodation and a Belarusian visa.
Even as young families in Iraq were putting up their homes as collateral to raise money for the journey, evidence mounted that Belarus' autocratic leader, Alexander Lukashenko, was orchestrating the migration to manufacture a crisis for the E.U.
The Belarusian state-owned airline, Belavia, had increased flights from the Middle East to Minsk, European officials said.
Belarusian authorities eased the issuance of visas through the state-owned travel agency Tsentrkurort, according to the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry.
Migrants who reached Minsk were put up in at least three government-owned hotels, according to Latvia's defense minister, Artis Pabriks, and Franak Viacorka, a senior adviser to a Belarusian opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Pabriks said that Belarusian intelligence agents had been involved in transferring migrants to the borders and that military buses were used.
Several Iraqi migrants said that Belarusian security forces provided them with tools to break through the Polish border fence. Bayar Awat, an Iraqi Kurd stranded on the Belarusian side of the Polish border, said that Belarusian guards had helped his group reach the border by pointing out a route that bypassed the official border crossing and emerged near a gap cut in the border fence.
"The Belarus police guided us to the forest, then pointed directions to lead us inside the forest to keep us away from the official border crossing," he said.
On Thursday, a Belarusian soldier was overheard on the phone ordering an Iraqi Kurd to direct a group of 400 to 500 migrants from the Lithuanian border toward the Polish border.
"All the people who move here go to Brest," the soldier told him in broken English, referring to the Belarusian city on the Polish border, because there were too many migrants on the Lithuanian border.
When some migrants have tried to leave the frigid forest to return to Minsk, many have been pushed back by Belarusian guards, leaving the migrants stuck at the border, they said.
European officials say that these measures are part of Lukashenko's effort to retaliate against the E.U. for imposing sanctions after he claimed victory in a disputed 2020 election.
"Lukashenko's rhetoric, the visa policy and the sudden influx of migrants this summer all point to the involvement of the Belarusian state and travel agencies," said Gustav Gressel, a Berlin-based senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
On Friday, in an effort to stem the crisis, several airlines took steps to limit the number of people flying to Belarus from the Middle East.