Hundreds of Iraqis flew home from Belarus on Thursday, abandoning hopes of reaching the European Union after more than a week of tensions at the bloc’s eastern border, where thousands of migrants were trapped.
Many others moved into a heated warehouse to escape the bitter cold and emptied a camp near the border with Poland, Belarusian state media reported. But the Polish Ministry of Defense posted a video showing a few hundred people and a few dozen tents left at an official intersection where skirmishes recently broke out.
It was not clear whether the two countries were talking about two different places on their shared border, but it was typical of the dueling stories that have marked the crisis, where both Belarus and Poland have tried to present themselves in a positive light while portraying it. others as emotionless and irresponsible.
Tensions have flared in recent days, with about 2,000 people, most of them from the Middle East, trapped in a damp forest when forces from the two countries met. 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 on Thursday
Most flee conflict or hopelessness at home and aim to reach Germany or other Western European countries. But Poland did not want to let them in, and Belarus did not want them to return to the capital Minsk or otherwise settle in the country.
The West blames Lukashenko
The West has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of luring migrants to the border to use them as pawns to destabilize the bloc of 27 countries in retaliation for its sanctions against his authoritarian regime. Belarus denies orchestrating the crisis, which has seen migrants enter the country since the summer and then try to cross into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
In the middle of the tug-of-war, a total of 430 Iraqis have registered for flights home, according to the Iraqi consul in Russia, Majid al-Kilani. And 374 boarded one who left on Thursday afternoon, said Lukashenko’s spokeswoman Natalya Eismont.
Authorities say about 7,000 migrants remain in Belarus.
Iraqi Kurdish migrants said the warehouse where many of the migrants had moved, and where they would have access to mattresses, water, hot meals and medical assistance, was filling up quickly, without enough food or sleeping space.
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.
“At first the situation was good, I mean the first day we got three meals a day. But when more people came in from the forest it has become more and more crowded. As a result, we got no dinner yesterday and no lunch today,” said one young Iraqi Kurd.
“As you can see, it gets very crowded here, and it’s not easy to find a place to sit or sleep, but it’s much better than staying in the woods.”
The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisals, said everyone in the camp “has spent a lot of money to get here, and they do not want to go back.”
As the situation at the border spiraled over the past week, the war of words has also attracted the allies of the EU and Belarus.
In the latest salvo, EU Commissioner for Internal Affairs Ylva Johansson accused Belarus of participating in “an act of state-sponsored migrant smuggling” and said that sanctions and stopping flights to Minsk transporting migrants are “our most effective tools in this fight”.
Foreign ministers from the G7 group of leading industrialized countries also condemned “the Belarusian regime’s orchestration of irregular migration across its borders” in a statement on Thursday.
Mr Eismont, Mr Lukashenko’s spokesman, said the fact that hundreds of people had left Belarus showed that the government was holding up its share of the purchase. The rest “categorically refuse to fly, but we will work on it,” she said.
Earlier this week, according to Eismont, German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested that the EU could open a “humanitarian corridor” to allow 2,000 migrants to enter Germany while Belarusian authorities would work to persuade the other 5,000 to return to their homelands. .
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said in Warsaw that proposals that Germany would be ready to receive about 2,000 migrants were “false information”.
After Merkel’s talks with Lukashenko on Tuesday, her office stressed the need for humanitarian aid and for migrants to return home safely.
Poland is criticized by human rights groups
Poland has taken a tough stance against the migrants’ illegal entry, strengthened the border with riot police and troops and plans to build a high steel barrier. The Polish approach has largely been approved by other EU countries, which want to stop a wave of migration.
But Poland has also been criticized by human rights groups and others for deporting migrants to Belarus and not allowing them to apply for asylum.
In recent days, a melee battle broke out at the border, with migrants throwing stones at Polish forces gathering on their side of the razor blade fence and injuring 12, and the troops responded with water cannons and tear gas.
Warsaw accused Belarusian forces of inciting the conflict while the government in Minsk condemned Poland’s “violent acts”.
Mr Lukashenko has denied allegations that he created the crisis, saying his government had deported some 5,000 illegal migrants from Belarus this autumn.
In May, however, he had criticized the EU’s sanctions against his country for its harsh crackdown on internal dissent, saying: “We stopped migrants and drugs – now you have to catch them and eat them yourself.”
On Thursday, Lukashenko’s allied 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 cause of tensions in the region close to us, for pressure on Minsk, while forgetting their own humanitarian obligations.” he said.