Belarus authorities on Thursday (18 November) cleared the main camps where migrants had huddled at the border with Poland, in a change of tack that could lower the temperature in a crisis that has spiralled in recent weeks into a major East-West confrontation, write Kacper Pempel and Joanna Plucinska.
The European Commission and Germany poured cold water on a proposal by Belarus that European Union countries take in 2,000 of the migrants currently on its territory, however, and the United States accused Minsk of making migrants “pawns in its efforts to be disruptive”, signalling the tensions with the West were far from over.
European countries have for months accused Belarus of deliberately creating the crisis by flying in migrants from the Middle East and pushing them to attempt to illegally cross its borders into Poland and Lithuania.
Minsk, backed by Moscow, rejected those accusations in a stand-off that had left thousands of migrants trapped in freezing woods at the border.
A spokesperson for the Polish border guards said the camps on the border in western Belarus were completely empty on Thursday, which a Belarusian press officer confirmed. 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.”
In recent weeks, migrants have tried, mostly at night, to cross the frontier, sometimes clashing with Polish troops.
In a cruel illustration of the harsh conditions for those camped out, a couple, both injured, told the Polish Centre for International Aid, an NGO, early on Thursday that their one-year-old child had died in the forest. At least eight more people are believed to have died at the border in recent months.
U.S. Secretary of State State Antony Blinken said the United States would remain very focuses on the migrant crisis.
“It is profoundly unconscionable that Lukashenko and Belarus have sought to weaponize migration,” Blinken told reporters during a visit to Nigeria, adding the United States had the authority to as necessary add to sanctions. Read more.
The move to clear the camps came during a week of intensified diplomacy. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by telephone twice in three days to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, normally shunned by European leaders.
And Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called on Lukashenko to start a dialogue with his opponents – who swiftly rejected the idea unless Lukashenko freed political prisoners first. Read more.
Belarus said earlier on Thursday that Lukashenko had proposed a plan to Merkel to resolve the crisis, under which the EU would take in 2,000 people while Minsk would send another 5,000 back home.
But German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer rejected the proposal and talked of misinformation.
“If we took in refugees, if we bowed to the pressure and said ‘we are taking refugees into European countries’, then this would mean implementing the very basis of this perfidious strategy”,” Seehofer told a news conference in Warsaw.
A German government source added that Germany had not agreed to any deal, stressing that this was a European problem in which Germany was not acting alone.
Shortly before the plan was announced, the European Commission had said there could be no negotiation with Belarus over the plight of the migrants.
It declined to comment on the proposal, with a spokesperson saying: “We made our position very clear – this is an artificially created, state-orchestrated crisis and it is a responsibility of Lukashenko’s regime to stop it and to solve it.”
Earlier on Thursday, in what was potentially another sign of easing of the crisis, hundreds of Iraqis checked in at a Minsk airport for flight back to Iraq, the first repatriation flight since August. Read more.
“I would not go back if it wasn’t for my wife,” a 30-year-old Iraqi Kurd, who declined to give his name, told Reuters on the eve of the evacuation flight. “She does not want to go back with me to the border, because she saw too many horrors over there.” The couple attempted to cross at least eight times from Belarus to Lithuania and Poland.
Meanwhile, Belarusian state airline Belavia has stopped allowing citizens from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen to board flights from Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent to Minsk, Belta reported.
The EU has launched a diplomatic effort to ease the crisis by putting pressure on regional countries not to allow migrants to board flights for Belarus.
Before the border camp was cleared, migrants told Reuters how harsh the conditions were there.
“Here it’s a really bad place for life, we are really cold, and we all are sick, especially the children. It is worst place for life,” Nermin, from Iraq, said.
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