Belarus has reportedly forced Syrian refugees to return to Syria despite being wanted by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, in an effort to rid itself of the thousands of asylum seekers trafficked to the country in recent months.
Since September, migrants and refugees from countries such as Syria and Iraq were trafficked to Minsk by a consortium of smugglers and airlines, and have amassed at Belarus's border with Poland and other nearby states.
Thousands of the migrants were held at Belarus's border with Poland in particular, where Belarusian forces reportedly beat, abused, and forced them to cross the border in harsh weather conditions.
Warsaw has accused Minsk of attempting to cause a confrontation by using the asylum seekers to cross into European Union (EU) states as a way of taking revenge for Western sanctions, and last month the Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko admitted that his forces may have helped them enter the country.
While many of the migrants have resorted to being repatriated back to Iraq and Syria, a report by the US-based media outlet National Public Radio (NPR) has revealed that Belarusian authorities forced some Syrian refugees to return to their home country despite facing potential danger there.
According to two Syrians who returned on a flight by the internationally-sanctioned Cham Wings airline, men approached their hostel in Minsk and identified themselves as Belarusian government officials with badges. The officials then told the Syrians to either take the flight back to Syria or to arrange a flight to another country, giving them only three days' notice.
The refugees pleaded for more time – as they did not possess the resources to arrange transport to a different country, nor do many countries grant travel visas to Syrians, especially on such short notice – but the officials refused. Their passports were confiscated and would only be given back once they turned up at the airport with an arranged flight.
The refugees also requested for asylum in Belarus, but that too was denied. "We told them that many of us can't go back to Syria because we are wanted by the Syrian regime," one of the men said. "They didn't listen."
One of them, a father of two children and former activist against the Assad regime who is now back in the Syrian capital Damascus, told NPR that he has only weeks to find a way out of the country again. If not, he could potentially face either military conscription or imprisonment after a temporary reconciliation deal he signed with the regime expires in less than two months.
Another refugee, currently still stuck in Belarus, attempted to cross into an EU state several times before he was eventually rounded up with other Syrians by Belarusian soldiers who were forcing them to take the flight back to Syria.
Despite his pleas to the soldiers and his insistence that he would face death upon his return, "They just kept telling me in broken English: 'Go to Syria.'" When Zoubi and the other Syrians were put in a taxi paid by the government – in which "all the guys in the car were crying" – they tried communicating with the driver by using Google Translate to explain their fate of imprisonment, torture and death.
The driver let them out on the corner of the airport, giving them a chance to escape to Minsk where they stayed in a private home paid for by one of the men's cousins and which operated as a "safe house." The last time NPR contacted Zoubi, he was reportedly back in the forests of Belarus attempting again to cross the border in the harsh and cold conditions.