Belarus Border Camp Emptied, Hundreds of Migrants Flown Back to Iraq

Hundreds of Iraqis have been flown back to their country amid tensions between Belarus and Poland, the Associated Press reported.

Belarusian media reported that no more migrants were seen in the makeshift camps. The migrants were either put on flights back to their home countries or allegedly placed in a heated warehouse to protect them from the cold weather.

It is estimated that 430 Iraqis registered for flights back home, according to Russia's Iraq consul Majid al-Kilani. A spokeswoman for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said that 374 citizens boarded a flight that left the morning of November 18.

However, the spokeswoman, Natalya Eismont, said that as many as 7,000 migrants remained in the country.

Many migrants have been fleeing from countries such as Iraq and Syria that have been experiencing sociopolitical turmoil in hopes of reaching the European Union. Poland, Latvia and Lithuania have seen an increase in migrants arriving from Belarus.

Belarus has been accused of using migrants as pawns by Western governments to "destabilize the 27-nation bloc in retaliation for its sanctions on his authoritarian regime," according to AP. Belarusian officials have denied the allegations.

Poland has taken a tough stand against the influx of migrants to mixed reception. While nations in the EU have praised the country for its reinforcements, human rights groups have criticized officials for pushing migrants back into Belarus and using excessive force that included the use of water cannons on them.

Polish authorities have not commented on the departure of migrants from their territory.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Minsk Airport
Hundreds of Iraqis have been flown back to their country amid tensions between Belarus and Poland. Above, Iraqi migrants check in for a repatriation flight at the Minsk airport in Belarus on November 18, 2021. Photo by Andrey Pokumeiko/Belta/AFP via Getty Images

Since November 8, some 2,000 people, mostly from the Middle East, have been stranded at the border crossing, trapped in a dank forest as forces from the two countries faced off against each other. At least 12 people have died in the area in recent weeks, including a 1-year-old whose death a Polish humanitarian organization reported Thursday.

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.

The November 18 flight plans to make two stops—one in the city of Erbil and another in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

In the latest salvo in the war of words, 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 G-7 group of leading industrialized countries also condemned "the Belarus regime's orchestration of irregular migration across its borders" in a statement Thursday.

Eismont 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.

In response to a request for comment, Merkel's office referred to its Tuesday statement on the call between her and Lukashenko, in which she stressed the need for humanitarian assistance and for the migrants' safe return home.

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."

Minsk Family
Hundreds of Iraqis have been flown back to their country amid tensions between Belarus and Poland. Above, migrants from Iraq line up to be registered on a special flight to Iraq at the National Airport outside Minsk, Belarus, on November 18, 2021. Andrey Pokumeiko/BelTA via AP