Hundreds of Iraqis who have camped for weeks at Belarus’ borders with the EU checked in for a flight back to Iraq on Thursday, the Iraqi foreign ministry said.
It came as Belarus said it had cleared the main camps where migrants had huddled at the border with Poland, potentially defusing tension in the crisis on the European frontier.
Some 430 migrants, mostly Iraqi Kurds, were to board a flight in Minsk bound for Erbil in Iraq’s autonomous northern Kurdistan region, and then on to Baghdad.
Iraqis, especially Kurds, make up a significant number of the estimated 4,000 migrants now waiting in freezing Belarusian forests and trying to cross into Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.
For months, EU countries have accused Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko of orchestrating the migrant crisis to avenge sanctions imposed after he won a disputed 2020 election and authorities cracked down on mass protests against him.
They said Belarus had made it easier for people from the Middle East to fly to Minsk and try to get into the bloc - an accusation he denies.
Belarus said on Thursday it had proposed a plan to solve the migrant crisis at its borders, which would see the EU take on 2,000 migrants while Minsk would send another 5,000 back home.
It was unclear if the plan could be acceptable to the EU, especially as it came with caveats and was announced just shortly after the European Commission said there could be no negotiation with Belarus over the plight of the migrants.
Now, hundreds of would-be migrants are returning home having failed to cross the heavily guarded frontier. Some described the harsh conditions of living in the forest in winter, often with young children, and of beatings by border guards.
A 30-year-old Iraqi Kurd, who declined to give his name, decided to register for the evacuation flight with his wife after they attempted to cross at least eight times from Belarus to Lithuania and Poland.
“I would not go back (to Iraq) if it wasn’t for my wife,” he told Reuters a day ahead of the evacuation flight. “She does not want to go back with me to the border, because she saw too many horrors over there.”
Brussels will hope that a combination of pressure on airlines to stop flying migrants to Minsk and migrants giving up attempts to enter the bloc will eventually see the crisis ease.
Several airlines have already agreed to halt flights into the Belarusian capital for most passengers from countries including Iraq and Syria.
At least eight people have died at the border in recent months, including a 19-year-old Syrian man who drowned in a river trying to cross to the EU.
It was announced on Thursday that a one-year-old child had died in the forest.
The Belarusian claim of clearing camps was cautiously backed up by Poland.
A spokesperson for the Polish border guards said the camps on the border were completely empty.
Belarus state news agency Belta said the migrants had been brought to a warehouse in Belarus away from the frontier.
“These camps are now empty, the migrants have been taken most likely to the transport-logistics, centre which is not far from the Bruzgi border crossing,” the Polish spokesperson said. “There were no other such camps... but there were groups appearing in other places trying to cross the border. We’ll see what happens in the next hours.”
Reporting by Charlotte Bruneau for Reuters
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