By Kacper Pempel and Joanna Plucinska
BRUZGI, Belarus – Belarus authorities on Thursday cleared the main camps where migrants had huddled at the border with Poland, in what could potentially be a turning point in a crisis that has spiraled in recent weeks into a major East-West confrontation.
European countries have for months accused Belarus of having deliberately created the crisis by flying in migrants from the Middle East and pushing them to attempt to illegally cross its borders illegally 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.
In a cruel sign of the harsh conditions there, 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.
A spokesperson for the Polish border guards said the camps on the border in western Belarus were completely empty, 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 center, 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,” the spokesperson said, adding a word of caution. “There are still some people around, but it’s clearly emptying out.”
In recent weeks, migrants have tried, mostly at night, to cross the frontier and have sometimes clashed with Polish troops at the border.
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 the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, normally shunned by European leaders.
And Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to start a dialogue with his opponents, who however swiftly poured cold water on the idea unless Lukashenko freed political prisoners first.
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, in a sign that Minsk’s moves had not removed all the tensions of the past months.
“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 said during a news conference in Warsaw.
A German government source added that Germany had not agreed to any deal with Lukashenko, 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.
And Poland’s Interior Ministry said that it could shut down rail transport at the Kuznica border crossing point with Belarus unless the Belarusian authorities stabilized the situation at the border, in another sign or lingering tensions.
But 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.
Large numbers of Iraqis are among those who have camped at Belarus’s borders, seeking entry and a better life in the prosperous 27-nation EU. Some 430, mostly Iraqi Kurds, checked in for a flight back to Iraq from Minsk on Thursday, the Iraqi foreign ministry said.
There had been no other such flights since about 1,000 Iraqis were evacuated from Minsk in August, a spokesperson for Iraqi Airways, Hussein Jalil, told Reuters.
“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.
An African migrant whose identity was unknown was buried on Thursday at a Muslim cemetery in Bohoniki, in north-east Poland, near Belarus, the second migrant funeral there this week.
“It is hard,” said Maciej Szczesnowicz, a leader of the local Tatar Muslim community. “It pains me that people went to another country… and met such a fate here in Poland.”