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Minsk says it will repatriate migrants at Polish border, as EU broadens its Belarus sanctions

Iraq has recorded 571 of its citizens on the border who have said they are ready to return “voluntarily”.

Migrants at the Bruzgi-Kuznica checkpoint on the Belarusian-Polish border.
Migrants at the Bruzgi-Kuznica checkpoint on the Belarusian-Polish border.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Nov 15th 2021, 2:50 PM

BELARUS IS WORKING to repatriate migrants massed on its border with Poland, President Alexander Lukashenko said today, apparently aiming to defuse the crisis ahead of an EU meeting over new sanctions on the ex-Soviet country.

Migrants have been trying to cross from Belarus into EU member Poland for months, but tensions soared last week as coordinated efforts to cross were rebuffed by Polish border guards.

The EU accuses Belarus of sending the migrants to the border as retribution for earlier sanctions.

Belarusian TV showed hundreds of migrants, mostly from the Middle East and including dozens of children, crowded at a shut border crossing today at the Polish village of Kuznica, after having spent the night huddling around burning logs in a makeshift camp.

attention-editors-correction-for-tass-image-id-ts117eda-titled-migrant-tent-camp-on-belarusian-polish-border-dated-15-november-2021-released-by-the-state-border-committee-of-the-republic-of-bela Pictured in this video screen grab are refugees (front) and a Polish police force (back) at Kuznica Bialostocka-Bruzgi border crossing. Source: Alamy Stock Photo/The State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus

Lukashenko’s apparent olive branch came as foreign ministers of the 27-nation bloc were meeting today to adopt new penalties over the crisis.

He said Belarus did not want the border situation to escalate into a “conflict” and that it was working to send home the several thousand migrants camping on its border with Poland.

“Active work is underway in this area, to convince people – please, return home. But nobody wants to go back,” Lukashenko said, as quoted by state news agency Belta.

At the EU meeting, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said he had “no reason” to believe Lukashenko.

The Belarusian leader also suggested that Minsk could take up an offer by officials in Munich to ferry the migrants via its state-run airline Belavia to Germany if Poland does not provide a “humanitarian corridor”.

“We will send them to Munich by our own planes, if necessary,” Lukashenko said.

‘Instrumentalisation of human beings’

However, the Polish defence ministry said later that Belarusian forces were bringing groups of migrants to the Kuznica border crossing.

Belarus’s state border committee rejected the accusation, saying the migrants had “self-organised” and that Belarusian border guards were present to “ensure safety.”

Lukashenko denies accusations that he has organised the migrants on the border, saying Monday the situation was proving “expensive” for his country.

And he repeated warnings that Belarus would defend itself if new sanctions are imposed.

grodno-region-belarus-14th-nov-2021-migrants-gather-to-receive-humanitarian-aid-on-the-belarusian-polish-border-the-migrant-crisis-on-the-border-of-belarus-with-poland-lithuania-and-latvia-esca Migrants gather to receive humanitarian aid on the Belarusian-Polish border. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Belarus has faced waves of EU sanctions in response to a crackdown on the opposition after last year’s presidential elections and Lukashenko’s decision to ground a Ryanair flight earlier this year over Belarus to detain an activist.

The new penalties are expected to target around 30 Belarusian officials, the state airline and travel agencies.

The EU has said it had amended its sanctions policy so it could respond to “the instrumentalisation of human beings carried out by the Belarus regime for political purposes” by targeting individuals and entities facilitating the campaign.

The EU said it would now be able to target individuals and entities organising or contributing to activities by the Lukashenko regime that facilitate illegal crossing of the EU’s external borders.

Lukashenko, however, has so far weathered Belarus’s growing isolation with the help of his main political and financial backer Moscow.

Today, the Kremlin continued to defend the Belarusian leader.

“Lukashenko is not creating the situation that is taking place at the border,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Repatriation flight

Belarus says there are about 2,000 people in the migrant camp, including children and pregnant women, while Poland says there are between 3,000 and 4,000 migrants on the border.

Poland has refused to allow the migrants in – detaining 50 yesterday after they entered the country – and has accused Belarus of preventing them from leaving.

Local police in Poland’s Podlasie region said today that four Europeans had been detained during road checks for “aiding illegal border crossings”.

grodno-region-belarus-14th-nov-2021-migrants-in-a-tent-camp-on-the-belarusian-polish-border-the-migrant-crisis-on-the-border-of-belarus-with-poland-lithuania-and-latvia-escalated-on-november-8 Migrants in a tent camp on the Belarusian-Polish border. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Aid agencies say at least 10 migrants have died so far and have warned of a humanitarian crisis unfolding as temperatures drop below freezing.

There have been signs in recent days, though, that the crisis could relent.

Belavia has announced that nationals from a host of Middle Eastern countries were banned from incoming flights from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates at their request.

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Iraq repatriates its citizens

The Iraqi government said it was organising a repatriation flight this Thursday for its citizens stuck on the Poland-Belarus border on a “voluntary” basis.

“Iraq will carry out a first flight for those who wish to return voluntarily on the 18th” of November from Belarus, Iraqi foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf told Iraqi television overnight.

He did not say how many people would be able to board the Minsk-Baghdad flight, but said Iraq had recorded 571 of its citizens stuck on the border who have said they are ready to return “voluntarily”.

Regular air links between Baghdad and Minsk have been suspended since August, while Belarusian diplomatic missions in Baghdad and Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, have been closed for more than a week.

The measures “have reduced the trips by Iraqis (to Belarus) but the problem is that some are now taking indirect flights, passing through Turkey, Qatar, the UAE and Egypt,” Sahaf said.

On Friday, Turkey banned citizens of Syria, Iraq and Yemen from flying from its airports to Belarus, while private Syrian carrier Cham Wings Airlines on Saturday halted flights to Minsk.

European Commission vice president Margaritis Schinas is due to travel to Baghdad today to discuss the migration crisis.

- © AFP 2021.

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