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Police uncover 455 social media accounts encouraging Belarus-to-EU migration

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By Alice Tidey
Migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere gather at the checkpoint "Kuznitsa" at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021.
Migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere gather at the checkpoint "Kuznitsa" at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021.   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

Hundreds of social media accounts have been flagged for encouraging illegal immigration into the EU from Belarus, Europol announced on Monday.

The bloc' law enforcement agency said a total of 455 social media accounts were targeted by the large-scale referral action which involved authorities from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and Germany.

The social media accounts promoted illegal immigration by advertising the sale of counterfeit ID documents and visas or illegal transportation services.

"The new Belarusian migratory route is heavily advertised to migrants on social media and instant messaging applications, which represents a significant pull factor. The misuse of these platforms by facilitators led to a large increase of departure border crossings," Europol said in a statement.

The EU's border agency, Frontex, detected almost 8,000 illegal border crossings at the bloc's eastern borders between January and November 30 — thirteen times more than in 2020 and twelve times more than 2019.

The main nationalities on this route in 2021 were from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.

The agency said last week that the situation at the border in November 2021 "has shown signs of de-escalation but remained tense".

Brussels has accused Minsk of engineering the crisis by encouraging mostly Middle Eastern citizens to travel to Belarus and then cross its shared borders with EU member states Lithuania, Latvia and Poland to retaliate against sanctions imposed on high-ranking Belarusian officials over the fraudulent August 2020 presidential election.

Minsk denies the allegation.

NGOs have decried the humanitarian crisis unfolding at the border with both Poland and Belarus accused of carrying out illegal push-backs. Multiple people have also lost their lives.

A state of emergency at the Polish border has restricted access to the area to journalists and aid groups.

Amnesty International said on Monday that it has gathered new evidence of human rights violations on the Polish border with migrants "subjected to horrific torture or other ill-treatment, inhumane conditions, extortion and other abuse at the hands of Belarusian forces".

The human rights NGO interviewed 75 people at the border between July and November who attested to having been beaten with batons and rifle butts, threatened with security dogs by Belarusian forces, deprived of food, water, shelter, and sanitation, as well as of phones and money or subjected to extortion for bribes by members of Belarusian forces.

They also said they were forced to repeatedly cross the border in dangerous conditions by both Belarussian and Polish authorities, including through a fast-flowing river.

A Syrian man testified to the NGO that he was taken to the border in a military truck alongside around 80 other people.

“They offloaded us... There were about ten [Belarusian] soldiers and they had four dogs with them. They said they would let the dogs loose so if we didn’t run fast, we would get bitten. The soldiers ran after us beating anyone who didn’t run fast enough with batons. After they had chased us for about 200 metres the soldiers turned around, leaving us in the buffer zone in the middle of the woods. Families had been separated. Those bitten by the dogs were bleeding," he said.

Most people who made it through to Poland recounted being pushed back, including some who had been walking for days before being picked up by Polish authorities.

A Syrian man who travelled with his wife and two children told Amnesty International that members of Polish forces put him and his family inside the back of a military truck: “It was big enough for 50-60 migrants and they drove about one hour. And then they pushed us back in the buffer zone. In the truck, a soldier was listening to us talking and used pepper spray against us again, and my son and daughter cried for almost one hour."

Many reported having their phones stolen by Polish officers.

Jennifer Foster, Amnesty International Refugees and Migrant Rights Researcher, described the constant push-backs from both sides as "a sordid game with human lives."

The NGO said Poland is "in clear violation of international law and standards" and accused the European Commission of failing to carry through legal proceedings against EU member states concerned.

“Thousands of people – including many fleeing war and conflict - find themselves stuck in Belarus in the depths of winter in extremely precarious conditions," Foster said.

"Instead of receiving the care they need, they are subjected to brutal violence. Belarus must immediately cease this violence, and EU member states must stop denying people the chance to escape these egregious violations let alone returning them to Belarus to face them again and again,” she added.