Europe

Repatriated Iraqi migrants return home from Poland-Belarus border

Published : November 19, 2021 18:03 IST

Some Iraqi migrants, who voluntarily registered for an evacuation flight from Belarus, arrived at Erbil International Airport. Photo: AZAD LASHKARI/REUTERS

Iraq offered its citizens the chance the chance to fly back from Belarus and, so far, over 400 have taken it.

Iraq began the voluntary repatriations of its citizens from Belarus on November 18 amid the ongoing humanitarian crisis near the border between Poland and Belarus. The Iraqi Ministry of Transport confirmed that the repatriated individuals arrived in the Kurdish city of Erbil. Iraq has appealed for Iraqi citizens to fly home, telling them the way into the European Union is closed. Some 431 people were on an Iraqi Airways flight from Minsk to Baghdad, Russian state-run Interfax reported.

Migrants stranded at the Poland-Belarus border

Belarusian Authorities have said that some 7,000 migrants are in the country. President Alexander Lukashenko has proposed returning 5,000 migrants to their home countries and urged the E.U. to take 2,000 of the stranded migrants in a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer rejected an alleged Belarusian proposal to Merkel as "misinformation." Following talks with his Polish counterpart, Seehofer said that Germany "will not take in refugees."

The E.U. border agency Frontex is working with the Polish and Iraqi authorities on arranging charter flights from Poland. Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi told him flights to Minsk from Iraq will remain suspended.

The Belarusian border force said later on November 18 that it had cleared an encampment at the border where about 2,000 people had been staying. Most of the occupants were relocated "on a voluntary basis" to a reception center nearby, they added. Polish border forces also confirmed that the camp had been evacuated.

Most of the stranded migrants are from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen. They're fleeing conflict or despair at home and want to reach Germany or other Western European nations for a better life. But with Poland blocking their entry and E.U. leaders attempting to cut routes of travel, they have been stuck at the border and are facing dire conditions, with limited food, water and medical supplies and plummeting temperatures at night.

Warsaw has deployed thousands of troops to the border and plans to erect a barrier along the border. And as winter approaches, freezing conditions will only make life more difficult for the migrants. Aid groups say at least 11 migrants have died since the crisis began in the summer. Despite the harsh conditions, many migrants have vowed not to go back to their home countries.

Poland determined to prevent migrant influx

Poland, meanwhile, appears determined not to let the migrants in. Empowered by Polish law and with the help of infrared cameras, border guards continue to return groups of migrants attempting to make their way into the country. On November 16, a melee broke out with migrants throwing stones at Polish forces massed on their side of the razor-wire fence, injuring 12, and they responded with water cannons and tear gas.

Warsaw accused Belarusian forces of instigating the conflict, while the government in Minsk denounced Poland's "violent actions.'' A day after the melee, Belarusian authorities moved hundreds of migrants who were camped in the cold to a nearby warehouse.

Several airlines have said they are trying to stop would-be migrants from traveling to Belarus in the first place. On November 18, Belarusian state airline Belavia said it had stopped allowing citizens from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen to board flights from Uzbekistan's Tashkent to Minsk.

'Road to Belarus is a dead end'

The West has accused Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko of orchestrating the crisis and using the migrants as pawns to destabilize the European Union in retaliation for its sanctions on his authoritarian regime. Germany's apparent chancellor-in-waiting Olaf Scholz recently called Lukashenko a "bad dictator" who was using desperate people in a "shameful game" to exert pressure on the 27-nation bloc. Belarus, however, denies the accusations. Minsk is backed by Russia, which said that Lukashenko is not behind the crisis at the border.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has spoken with Lukashenko twice this week and stressed that migrants should be given the chance to return to their home countries with the help of the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration. Steve Alter, a spokesman for the German Interior Ministry, denied Berlin was planning to bring the migrants to Germany. The "road to Belarus is a dead end for most people who want to go to Germany. There are no plans to approve taking people in," he said.

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said it was important to ensure humanitarian agencies gain permanent access, even if it meant talking to Lukashenko, whose legitimacy is questioned by the West following a disputed 2020 reelection. G7 foreign ministers released a joint statement on November 18 that read in part, "We call on the regime to cease immediately this aggressive and exploitative campaign."

sri/rt (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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