World

Hundreds of Iraqis fly home from Belarus, abandoning effort to reach EU

Hundreds of Iraqis flew home from Belarus on Thursday, abandoning their hopes of reaching the European Union following more than a week of tensions at the bloc's eastern border, where thousands of migrants became stuck.

Many migrants moved to warehouse in Belarus as temperatures fall

Some migrants hang on in cold Belarus camps while others flee

6 months ago
Duration 1:25
Hundreds of Iraqis are returning home after a futile attempt to get to Europe through Belarus, but others linger at the Polish border, complaining of the cold and ill-treatment from security forces.(/Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

Hundreds of Iraqis flew home from Belarus on Thursday, abandoning their hopes of reaching the European Union following more than a week of tensions at the bloc's eastern border, where thousands of migrants became stuck.

Many others moved into a heated warehouse to escape the bitter cold, emptying out a camp near the border with Poland, Belarusian state-run media reported. But the Polish Defence Ministry posted a video that showed a few hundred people and a few dozen tents remained at an official crossing where skirmishes broke out recently.

It was not clear if the two countries were talking about two different sites on their shared border, but it was typical of the duelling narratives that have marked the crisis, in which both Belarus and Poland have sought to portray themselves in a positive light while depicting the other as unfeeling and irresponsible.

Tensions flared in recent days, with about 2,000 people, mostly from the Middle East, trapped in a dank forest as forces from the two countries faced off against each other. About half of them were women and children, according to the UN refugee agency. At least 12 people have died in the area in recent weeks, including a one-year-old whose death a Polish humanitarian organization reported Thursday

Iraqi migrants check in for a repatriation flight at the Minsk airport in Belarus on Thursday. Belarus is trying to convince thousands of migrants who have ben unsuccessfully trying to cross the country's borders with EU countries such as Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, to return home (Andrei Pokumeiko/AFP/Getty Images)

Most are fleeing conflict or hopelessness at home and aim to reach Germany or other western European countries. But Poland didn't want to let them in, and Belarus didn't want them returning to the capital of Minsk or otherwise settling in the country.

West blames Lukashenko

The West has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of luring the migrants to the border to use them as pawns to destabilize the 27-nation bloc in retaliation for its sanctions on his authoritarian regime. Belarus denies orchestrating the crisis, which has seen migrants entering the country since summer and then trying to cross into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Amid the tug-of-war, a total of 430 Iraqis have registered for flights home, according to Iraq's consul in Russia, Majid al-Kilani. And 374 boarded one that left Thursday afternoon, Lukashenko's spokesperson Natalya Eismont said.

Authorities say around 7,000 migrants remain in Belarus. 

Iraqi Kurdish migrants said the warehouse where many of the migrants have been moved, and where they were supposed to be able to access mattresses, water, hot meals and medical assistance, was filling up fast, with not enough food or places to sleep.

A video acquired by The Associated Press showed men, women and children at the facility, some sleeping on blankets or sleeping bags on the floor.

Migrants aiming to cross into Poland camp near the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing on the Belarusian-Polish border on Thursday. (Maxim Guchek/AFP/Getty Images)

"At first, the situation was good, I mean on the first day, we were receiving three meals a day. But as more people came in from the forest, it has got more and more crowded. As a result, we got no dinner yesterday and no lunch today," one young Iraqi Kurdish man said.

"As you can see, it is getting very crowded here, and it is not easy to find a place to sit or to sleep, but it is much better than staying in the forest."

The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals, said that everyone in the warehouse "has spent a lot of money to come here, and they don't want to go back."

Strained relations

As the situation at the border spiralled over the past week, the war of words has drawn in the EU and Belarus ally Russia as well.

In the latest salvo, European Union Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson accused Belarus of engaging in "an act of state-sponsored migrant smuggling" and said sanctions and stopping flights to Minsk that carry migrants were "our most effective tools in this struggle."

Foreign ministers of the G7 group of leading industrialized countries also condemned "the Belarus regime's orchestration of irregular migration across its borders" in a statement Thursday.

Eismont, the Lukashenko spokesperson, said that the fact that hundreds of people were leaving Belarus shows that the government is holding up its part of the bargain. The rest are "categorically refusing to fly, but we will work on it," she said.

Earlier this week, according to Eismont, Lukashenko proposed to German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the EU could open a "humanitarian corridor" to allow 2,000 migrants to head to Germany while Belarusian authorities would work on convincing the other 5,000 to return to their home countries.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said in Warsaw that suggestions that Germany would be ready to receive some 2,000 migrants is "false information."

Following Merkel's call with Lukashenko on Tuesday, her office stressed the need for humanitarian assistance and for the migrants' safe return home.

Poland criticized by human rights groups

Poland has taken a tough stand against the migrants' illegal entry, reinforcing the border with riot police and troops and making plans to build a tall steel barrier. The Polish approach has largely met with approval from other EU nations, who want to stop a surge of migration.

But Poland also has been criticized by human rights groups and others for pushing migrants back into Belarus and not allowing them to apply for asylum.

In recent days, a melee broke out on the border, with migrants throwing stones at Polish forces massed on their side of the razor-wire fence, injuring 12, and the troops responding with water cannons and tear gas.

Warsaw accused Belarusian forces of instigating the conflict while the government in Minsk denounced Poland's "violent actions."

Lukashenko has rejected accusations of engineering the crisis and said his government has deported about 5,000 illegal migrants from Belarus this fall.

In May, however, he had railed against the EU sanctions imposed on his country for its harsh crackdown on internal dissent, saying: "We were stopping migrants and drugs — now, you will catch them and eat them yourself."

On Thursday, Lukashenko's ally Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed the finger at the rival EU.

"Western countries are using the migration crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border as a new reason for tension in the region that is close to us, for pressure on Minsk, and at the same time they forget their own obligations in the humanitarian sphere," he said.

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