'Kurdish mafia' facilitating dangerous migrant journeys across Europe

Middle Eastern migrants reveal how ‘Kurdish mafia’ gangsters in Minsk facilitated their travel across Europe and into France – where they now prepare to make the dangerous Channel crossing

  • Migrants in France say they were met at Minsk airport by organised gangsters
  • The ‘Kurdish mafia’ has contacts across Europe, offering passage to the West
  • But dozens have died amid freezing conditions in camps and Channel crossings
  • Belarus is accused of fuelling a migrant crisis in retaliation against EU sanctions 

The ‘Kurdish mafia’ are fuelling the European migrant crisis by picking up new arrivals from the Middle East and Africa at Minsk airport in Belarus before sending them on life-threatening journeys to the West, migrants have claimed.

Belarus has been accused of flying in migrants and pushing them to cross through the woods into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, manufacturing a standoff in retaliation for sanctions from the EU, which Alexander Lukashenko has denied.

Relatives of missing migrants say they fear organised crime has played a role in the tragic circumstances which led to the death of 27 people in the Channel last week, with vulnerable Kurds being used as pawns in the international smuggling ring.

Rzgar Hussin, a policeman from Iraqi Kurdistan, has not seen or heard from his wife and three children for days since the sinking of the dinghy during the crossing to Britain on what was the deadliest day of the migration crisis.

He told The Times he is scanning newspapers to see his family and his last contact with his eldest daughter Hadia, 22, who wants to become a teacher, on the morning of the crossing from her Dunkirk refugee camp.

Members of a Kurdish family from Dohuk in Iraq are seen in a forest near the Polish-Belarus border

A crossing on the Polish-Belarusian border in Kuznica, eastern Poland, is guarded by armed officers

He said: ‘I haven’t slept or eaten since the drowning. All I do is cry. People keep ringing me for information and I don’t know what to tell them.’

This week, Belarus’s KGB was accused of creating fake social media profiles of journalists and activists in a bid to further stir up the crisis on the border with Poland. 

It even led to Facebook parent company Meta removing accounts that had posted criticisms online about Poland allegedly violating migrant rights.  

Many Kurdish migrants in northern France told The Times they flew to Minsk from Baghdad or Istanbul with the hope of ending up in Britain.

But they say at the airport they were met by the ‘Kurdish mafia’ who said they had contacts on their route across Europe.

But instead, migrants have had to endure freezing conditions and perilous crossings, which have led to a number of deaths.

Rights groups say at least 13 people have died as thousands of migrants have been forced into squalid camps, on top of the 27 who died in the Channel. 

Winter clothes donated by volunteers are distributed to migrant children waiting near the Polish border

Crossings to the UK increased after wealthy Iranians who had been given tourist visas by Hungary, travelled to northern France where they had the money and skills to avoid being transported on lorries.

Their operation grew and they started offering the service to other migrants who could afford to pay for the boat crossings and not have to smuggle themselves onto a lorry.

Others agreed instead of payment to work for the gang once they arrived in the UK.

The number of migrants who crossed by sea has risen from 539 in 2018 to 8,439 last year. 

The Kurdish smuggler who organised the fateful crossing last week has been named as a man using the name Bashdar Ranya.

The new arrivals bring the total number to have made it to the UK this month to more than 6,000, exceeding the previous record of 3,879 in September. This year’s total is now a record-breaking 25,772

He has claimed he is now on the run in Germany and apologised for the tragedy, telling one of the apparent victims’ brothers: ‘I am sorry. It was a surprise to me too. I will compensate you.’ 

One of the survivors of last week’s Channel tragedy, Mohamed Isa Omar, said: ‘I saw people dying in front of me. Those of us who could not swim, drowned and died within minutes. It was so cold the water, so cold.’

In an interview with the BBC, the 28-year-old described how at least 29 people set off from mainland Europe at around 10pm last Tuesday and sailed for more than three hours before their dinghy deflated off the coast of Calais.

The panicking migrants dropped their phones in the water before they could send their location to rescuers, Mohamed said. He said he started swimming towards a big ship ‘far away’ – though it was hours before he was rescued.

The only other survivor, an Iraqi Kurd called Mohammed Shekha Ahmed, said a number of people tried to cling onto the deflated boat until the sun rose. Their bodies were discovered by a French fisherman more than 12 hours later a few miles from the coast in French waters. A rescue operation was launched, but the two men were the only ones left alive.

Up to 50 people were supposed to board two boats ahead of the fatal voyage – but one vessel suffered engine trouble, those stuck in camps in France claimed. Rather than curtail the trip that would have netted them tens of thousands of pounds, the gun-toting gang corralled the migrants into one boat, it was said

The EU said this week it was considering suspending some rights belonging to asylum seekers in countries bordering Belarus.

In proposals put forward by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm led by President Ursula von der Leyen, countries would be allowed to hold asylum seekers at border camps for up to four months, and would allow for faster deportations. 

The three EU countries that border Belarus have defended their approach of pushing migrants back without individually assessing their cases or granting them a realistic chance to claim asylum.

Rights groups say the practice violates EU rules and international humanitarian law.

Under the proposal by the Commission, migrants would be permitted to claim asylum only at designated locations, such as border crossings.

National authorities would have a longer period of up to four weeks to register asylum applications.

Asylum seekers could be kept for up to 16 weeks at the border, losing a standing right to be held in more suitable centres inside the country.

The proposals are a further example of the EU tightening immigration rules since more than 1 million people arrived in 2015, overwhelming the bloc and dividing member states over how to respond. 

Lukashenko was quoted on Wednesday saying he was ready to suspend Russian energy flows over Belarusian territory if Poland closed the border. The Kremlin said it hoped he would not do so. 

This is the first picture of the flimsy and dangerous dinghy that sank off Calais, killing 27 people

The current crisis on the Belarus-Polish border has caused logistics problems for Russian food producers, who are suffering losses and risk having to temporarily stop production if the situation worsens. 

Long tailbacks of trucks have formed at the four functioning Poland-Belarus border crossings out of a total of six. Lithuania’s six crossings are open, the Belarusian border service says.

The trucks transport goods and raw materials to Belarus and to Russia where they are used by food producers.

At any one time there are 400-600 trucks at the crossings into Belarus from Poland, slowing down normal waiting times of 12-24 hours to 2-4 days, a Russian market source told Reuters.

That has driven up transport costs because every day spent waiting costs 500 euros. Using a different crossing route costs 300-400 euros, the source said.

The losses faced by Russian importers are so far not large, said another market source. They had been getting worse last week but improved slightly this week, the source said.

‘If the situation gets worse, it threatens to break the supply chain and factories will grind to a standstill,’ the source said.

The tailbacks going in the opposite direction have already worsened, the source said.

A lobby group that includes Mars, Pepsi, Danone, Nestle, CocaCola, Metro, TetraPak appealed to the Russian government on November 18 to intervene, a letter seen by Reuters showed.

‘The continuation of the current situation could have a significant impact on supply chains and the availability of goods for the public, including essential goods, especially given the increased cargo volumes and heightened demand in the run-up to the New Year holidays,’ the group, the Foreign Investment Advisory Council, wrote.

Deputy Prime Ministr Andrey Belousov’s office, to whom the letter was addressed, said it would look into the situation. The Transport Ministry declined to comment.

Around 10 per cent of all Russia’s imports pass through Belarus and Poland, the letter said.

Similar border tailbacks have built up on the Belarusian side of the border with the European Union, data from the Belarusian border service shows. There are 400-700 vehicles waiting at the border at any one moment, the data said.  

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