Makeshift migrant camps at a checkpoint on the Belarus-Poland border, where thousands had amassed in recent weeks, were cleared by Belarusian authorities on Thursday, ending a months-long standoff that has ratcheted up tensions in the region.
The move comes just two days after a dramatic flare-up in violence between migrants, who tried to breach the razor-wire border fence. Polish officers responded with a volley of water cannons and tear gas.
Belarusian border guards have moved all remaining migrants from the Bruzgi-Kuźnica crossing to a nearby warehouse, which has been converted into an ad hoc processing center.
And though the shelter has offered a reprieve from below-zero temperatures and rough living conditions in the short term, Belarus has yet to lay out what comes next for migrants who flew to Minsk in the hope of making it to Europe, and a better life. Many now fear their new accommodation is just a first step in the deportation process.
Heshw Muhammad, a 27-year-old from Iraqi Kurdistan, told CNN on Wednesday she was terrified that she and her family would be deported by Belarusian authorities to Iraqi Kurdistan, where she says they have nothing left. She had been camped out on the border for two weeks in the freezing cold with her husband and their young daughters, aged 2, 4 and 7 years old.
“Before my children die, we need help. I have [a] message, we want … to go to Germany,” she said.
On Thursday, the Iraqi government began to repatriate citizens who requested to leave. More than 400 Iraqi citizens who were transferred from Belarus’ border to the capital Minsk were evacuated on an Iraqi Airways on Thursday, the Iraqi Transportation Ministry said in a statement.
Seven thousand migrants – mostly from the Middle East – are still in Belarus, including about 2,000 at the border near Bruzgi, according to Belarus’ government.
While some have agreed to go home, most still insist on being allowed to continue their journey west, primarily to Germany, a spokeswoman for Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said on Thursday, adding that they would not be pushed to their home countries unwillingly.
“We will not be forcefully pushing anyone to Iraq, Syria, or other countries,” Natalya Eismont said, according to the state news agency BelTA.
Tensions mount in Europe
The EU has blamed Belarus for manufacturing the crisis on the bloc’s eastern border, alleging that the government has opened the flood gates to people desperate to flee a region beleaguered by unemployment and instability. EU officials have called it a “hybrid war,” which they say is designed to punish Poland for taking in the president’s political opponents and pressure the bloc into lifting sanctions on Belarus.
But speaking to CNN on Thursday, Belarus’ foreign minister Vladimir Makei rejected those accusations, saying they were a “false assessment of the situation.”
“This is a dramatic situation. We know that there are more than 600 women, more than 200 children, and to see how they suffer, it’s very difficult for a normal human being. We are not interested in having this situation here in Belarus,” he said.
Makei laid the crisis at the EU’s feet, saying the migrants had heard about the “privileges” neighboring EU countries had offered “migrants from Belarus” and believed that country was a “comfortable route” for them to get into the EU.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday criticized Poland, accusing the government of using the migrant crisis to stir up new tensions in the region.
The deteriorating conditions on Europe’s doorstep underline the grim human toll of the geopolitical deadlock playing out between Belarus, an ally of Russia, and Poland, a member of the EU bloc and NATO. Neither side has been willing to back down, leaving migrants stuck in the middle.
At least nine people have died on the border in recent weeks, many from hypothermia, according to the Polish border guard agency.
Ahmed al-Hassan, a 19-year-old Syrian man who drowned in a river last month while trying to cross from Belarus, was buried in a small town in northeast Poland on Tuesday. His grieving family in Syria watched the torchlit funeral service via video link.
Thousands of migrants like al-Hassan – mostly from the Middle East and Asia – began appearing on the Belarusian side of the border over the summer, walking by foot through forests, rivers and swamps, to reach Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, on their quest for a better life in Europe. Few have made it.
And even for those who have crossed into Poland, it’s uncertain whether they’ll be allowed to stay.
Poland is under fire by international aid organizations who say they are violating international law by pushing asylum-seekers back into Belarus, instead of accepting their applications for international protection. Poland stands by its actions, saying they are legal.
Authorities on the other side of the border in Belarus told CNN on Wednesday they were waiting to hear from officials in Munich about a possible “humanitarian corridor” to ferry migrants into the country. President Lukashenko on Monday offered to fly them to the German capital on its state-run airline if Poland refused to open its border.
But that option looks incredibly unlikely. German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass said Monday evening Germany would not take in the migrants, and that the European Union’s plan was for them to go back home.
In their second phone call in almost as many days, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Lukashenko on Wednesday to underline the need to ensure humanitarian care and return opportunities for the people affected, with the support of the UN and in cooperation with the EU Commission.
Earlier on Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the commission would be mobilizing €700,000 (about $791,000) to deliver food, blankets, hygiene and first aid kits to refugees at the Belarusian border. “We are ready to do more. But the Belarusian regime must stop luring people and putting their lives at risk,” von der Leyen said.
Europe said Monday it would slap new sanctions on Belarus targeting “everyone involved” in exacerbating the border crisis. EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell announced at a press conference in Brussels that the sanctions on “people, airlines, travel agencies and everyone involved in this illegal push of migrants against our borders” would be confirmed in the coming days.
It will be the fifth round of sanctions on Belarus by the EU following a disputed presidential election and crackdown on dissidents.
Lukashenko’s government has repeatedly denied such claims, instead blaming the West for the crossings and accusing it of poor treatment of migrants.
Minsk allowed CNN and other international media outlets to visit the border and report on the scenes of migrants camped out there. Many have been staying in flimsy tents, with temperatures dropping well below freezing at night.
Warsaw, meanwhile, has tried to keep the crisis from view, blocking the Polish side of the border to journalists, aid workers and doctors amid an extended state of emergency.
‘We have food, we have [a] bed’
On Wednesday, CNN spoke with families who had sought shelter in the warehouse about a kilometer from the border, which normally houses cargo. Sprawled out on blankets and sleeping bags, their belongings heaped in piles around them, they were relieved to get out of the cold but worried about their future and bruised by the ordeal, which has seen some spend thousands on Belarusian visas and flights to Minsk.
Many of the migrants say they traveled to Belarus in search of employment opportunities, medical care for family members, and a more stable life in Europe.
Twenty-eight-year-old mother Shoxan Bapir Hussain, her husband and four-year-old son, Azhi Ali Xder, were among them. CNN first met the family a few days before in the freezing border camp. Hussain said the warehouse was better, warmer. “We have food, we have [a] bed,” she said.
Hussain’s family embarked on the journey from Iraqi Kurdistan because of her son, whom she said needs surgery for a back condition. Azhi, who has splints on his legs, can’t walk. It’s those hopes and dreams that have kept people here in spite of the conditions.
“I wish to go to Germany … I think Germany has humanity,” Hussain said.
Matthew Chance and Zahra Ullah reported from Belarus, while Antonia Mortensen reported from Poland. Eliza Mackintosh wrote and reported from London. Aqeel Najim, Jomana Karadsheh, Anna Chernova, Magda Chodownik, Kung Kaminski, Fred Pleitgen and Stephanie Halasz contributed to this report.