Authorities in Belarus say the migrant camp on the border with Poland has been cleared, and its people have now been moved to a nearby shelter. Meanwhile, several hundred have been repatriated to Iraq, after giving up any hope of reaching Europe.
“As of November 18, all refugees from the makeshift camp on the Belarusian-Polish border near the Brouzgui crossing point have been transferred on a voluntary basis to a logistics centre,” Belarusian border guards said on Telegram. Photos of the seemingly abandoned camp were released.
Polish border guards confirmed the evacuation of the camp, which comes after a week of growing tensions between Belarus and the European Union.
The move is being seen as a sign that the country’s disputed leader Alexander Lukashenko, accused of orchestrating the crisis, is now keen to defuse it.
As of Tuesday evening, more than a thousand people had already taken refuge in a vast hangar near the border, but some 800 others, according to Minsk, had still spent the night outside in below-zero temperatures in tents or near campfires.
According to Belarusian border guards, they were finally relocated due to “deteriorating weather conditions”, and were able to receive “hot meals, warm clothes and basic necessities” in the hangar.
In the latest in a series of human tragedies unfolding in the cold, humid forest, a Polish NGO said on Thursday it had helped a Syrian couple who said they had lost their one-year-old son.
“It is heartbreaking seeing a child die in the cold at the EU’s doorstep,” tweeted European Parliament President David Sassoli. “The exploitation of migrants and asylum seekers must stop, the inhumanity must stop.”
The makeshift camp has been occupied by up to some 2,000 people in recent days. It was installed in a wooded area not far from the Brouzgui border post where, on Tuesday, hundreds of migrants faced water cannon fire and tear gas from Polish forces.
The Belarusian presidency said on Thursday afternoon that between 200 and 500 other people remained scattered elsewhere along the border with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Some 5,000 others are in the country, it added.
Minsk claimed that during discussions between Alexander Lukashenko and Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor said she wanted to see a “humanitarian corridor” to evacuate some 2,000 migrants from the camp to Germany, which Berlin denied.
On Thursday evening, 431 migrants were repatriated to Iraq, most of them to Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan where the majority are from, the others to Baghdad.
Many children and women were on the repatriation flight, the first since the start of the migration crisis, which Baghdad said was organised “on a voluntary basis”.
Belarus, an ally of Russia and under European sanctions because of the repression of its opposition, is accused by the EU of having encouraged the arrival of these migrants to destabilise the bloc.