Monday, November 29, 2021

Iraqi migrants caught in border crisis in Belarus fly home


BAGHDAD (NWN) – Hundreds of Iraqis returned home Thursday from Belarus, abandoning their hopes of entering the European Union – a repatriation that followed tensions on Poland’s eastern border, where thousands of migrants were stranded in a cold and damp forest.

Many people still in Belarus moved to a heated warehouse near the border, emptying the makeshift camp, Belarusian state media reported. But the Polish Ministry of Defense published a video in which several hundred people in tents are still at the official checkpoint.

It was unclear if the two countries spoke of two different locations on their border, but this was typical of crisis-defining dueling narratives in which both Belarus and Poland tried to portray themselves in a positive light while portraying others as insensitive and irresponsible towards migrants.

“We were hostages – victims stranded between Belarus and the European Union,” said a young Iraqi returnee in a black hooded sweatshirt after his plane arrived in Baghdad.

“The Belarusian police are like ISIS,” he said, referring to the brutal Islamic State militants who raged in Iraq several years ago. Then he left.

Ali Kadhim, who is returning to his home in Basra, said he wants to go to Europe because there is “no work in Iraq and the situation has been very bad lately.”

He said that he negotiated with the smuggler to take him to the border zone of Belarus and Poland, where a Belarusian border guard took his passport and mobile phone and did not allow him to leave the forest. According to him, for three days he had no food, water or internet.

“I lived off what I found on earth. I mean, I had to go through three dates in a whole day, ”said Kadhim.

Of the 430 people who flew from Minsk, 390 flew at Erbil International Airport in northern Kurdistan in Iraq and then continued on to Baghdad, said Jihad al-Diwan, head of the Iraqi Civil Aviation Administration’s media relations department. About 30 more people who checked in for the flight had problems with documents and did not board, according to Iraqi officials who arranged the return.

One woman who arrived in Erbil was carrying a cradle with a baby. Most of them still wore heavy winter clothes from the days of Belarus, despite the warm weather in Iraq. Another woman fainted.

In recent days, tensions have escalated on the border between Poland and Belarus, leaving about 2,000 people trapped between the forces of the two countries. On Tuesday, some of the migrants threw stones at Polish soldiers, who responded with tear gas and water cannons.

The UN Refugee Agency reports that about half of the migrants in the border area were women and children.

At least 12 people have died in the area in recent weeks due to harsh conditions in the border area, including a one-year-old child whose death was reported Thursday by a Polish humanitarian organization.

Muslims in Poland buried an unidentified migrant in a cemetery in Bogoniki, where the Tatars have lived for centuries. This was the second such funeral for a migrant in a week.

Most migrants flee from conflict or hopelessness in the Middle East and seek to travel to Germany or other Western European countries. But Poland took a tough stance on letting them live, and Belarus did not want them to return to the capital Minsk or otherwise settle in the country.

The West has accused President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko of using migrants as pawns to destabilize a bloc of 27 countries in response to sanctions against his authoritarian regime. Belarus denies the emergence of a crisis, when migrants enter the country in the summer and then try to move to Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

According to local authorities, about 7,000 migrants remain in Belarus. Many have moved to the warehouse’s temporary shelter since Tuesday, where they have been provided with mattresses, water, hot meals and medical care.

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Iraqi Kurds said the warehouse was quickly full, lacking food and sleeping places. The video, obtained by the Associated Press, showed men, women and children in sleeping bags or on blankets on the floor.

“At first the situation was good, that is, on the first day. We received three meals a day. But the more people came from the forest, the closer it got. As a result, we didn’t have dinner yesterday and we don’t have lunch today, ”said one young Iraqi Kurd.

“As you can see, it’s getting very crowded here and it’s not easy to find a place to sit or sleep,” he added, speaking on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals. “But this is much better than being in the woods.”

Everyone in the warehouse “spent a lot of money to come here and they don’t want to come back,” he said.

Amid border tensions, the war of words drew in the EU and Belarus, a Russian ally.

EU Commissioner for Internal Affairs Ilva Johansson accused Belarus of “an act of smuggling migrants with the support of the state” and said that sanctions and the termination of flights to Minsk with migrants were “our most effective tools in this fight.”

The foreign ministers of the leading industrialized countries of the Big Seven also condemned “the organization of illegal migration by the Belarusian regime across its borders.”

Natalya Eismont, Lukashenka’s press secretary, said that the fact that hundreds of people have left Belarus indicates that the government is fulfilling its part of the agreement. The rest “flatly refuse to fly, but we will work on it,” she said.

Lukashenko suggested to German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the EU could open a “humanitarian corridor” to allow 2,000 migrants to go to Germany, while Belarusian authorities are trying to force another 5,000 migrants to return home, Eismont said.

But German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said in Warsaw that speculation that Germany would be ready to accept 2,000 migrants was “false information.”

After a telephone conversation on Tuesday between Merkel and Lukashenko, her office stressed the need for humanitarian aid and the safe return of migrants home.

Poland’s tough stance against their illegal entry included strengthening the border with riot police and troops and plans to build a steel fence. This approach has largely received approval from other EU countries that want to stem the surge in migration.

But Poland has also been criticized by human rights groups and others for pushing migrants back to Belarus and preventing them from applying for asylum.

On Tuesday, 12 border guards were injured in clashes at the border. Warsaw accused Belarus of fomenting the conflict, and the government in Minsk condemned Poland’s “violent actions”.

Lukashenko denied accusations of fueling the crisis and said his government had deported about 5,000 illegal migrants from Belarus this fall.

However, in May he opposed EU sanctions imposed for its harsh suppression of internal dissent, and said it would no longer stop migrants, telling the bloc, “Now you will catch them and eat them yourself.”

Lukashenko’s ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, also struck the EU on Thursday.

“Western countries are using the migration crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border as a new cause of tension in the region close to us, pressure on Minsk, while forgetting about their own obligations in the humanitarian sphere,” he said.


Litvinova reported from Moscow and Karmanov reported from Kiev, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Sabina Niksic in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Frank Jordaens in Berlin, Samuel Petreken in Brussels, Rashid Yahya in Erbil, Iraq, and Jim Heinz in Moscow contributed.

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