Belarus Clears Migrant Camp, Easing Border Standoff With Poland
Belarusian authorities on Thursday cleared the encampments at the main border crossing into Poland, where thousands of migrants had been living in frigid and increasingly squalid conditions, removing for the moment a major flash point that has raised tensions across Europe.
The patch of land nicknamed “the jungle” by migrants — only days ago the site of violent clashes between asylum-seekers trying to push through the razor wire and Polish security forces blasting them with water cannons — quickly became a wasteland of garbage, abandoned tents and smoldering fires.
The clearing of the camps eased the immediate suffering of the migrants who had been living in the open air in miserable conditions, as they were moved by Belarusian authorities into a giant warehouse. And it took pressure off a border that the European Union had been watching with growing alarm, fearing that it would be breached by a new wave of migrants, even if Western leaders — and Poland — are skeptical that the volatile standoff is drawing to a close.
The situation also left the Belarusian president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, with a troubling dilemma: what to do with all the people he lured to Belarus but who, blocked from entering Europe, are fast becoming a heavy burden on his own country?
Zana Ahmed, a 26-year-old Iraqi Kurd who spent around $5,000 to get to the border with Poland, just yards from making it into the European Union, vowed to stay in Belarus “until I die” unless he somehow gained entry to Europe.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has taken the lead in trying to find a diplomatic way out of the crisis, talking with Mr. Lukashenko, but has given no hint that she will repeat the welcome offer she made to migrants in 2015, when more than a million people poured into Germany.
On Thursday, escorted by Belarusian guards wearing black balaclavas and carrying Kalashnikov rifles, a bedraggled procession of migrants trudged away from the frontier, abandoning their encampments on the border like a routed army. Hundreds of others had been cleared from the site and moved to the warehouse on Wednesday.
By nightfall, what had been a sprawling makeshift settlement with thousands of people desperate to enter the European Union, had become an eerily silent wasteland. Scattered across the ground were the remnants of the migrants’ efforts in recent weeks to sneak or break into Poland — rubber boots, pruning shears, a saw, a crowbar and tools for survival in the freezing forests that straddle the border.
Despite leaving the immediate vicinity of the border to take shelter from the biting cold in the warehouse, many migrants held out hope they might still get to Europe and, failing that, settle in Belarus rather than being forced to return home, which for many is Iraq.
Yuri Karayev, an aide to Mr. Lukashenko representing the surrounding border region of Grodno, declined to answer questions about what lies in store for the migrants now that they have given up their hold on the patch of forested border land they had occupied for weeks — but not their desire to get to Europe.
Poland, backed by fellow members of the European Union, shows no sign of relenting on its hard-line stand against migrants trying to enter the country. Poland’s prime minister told a German newspaper that “by defending our border, we defend the whole of Europe.”
Under the gray gloom of the November sky, phalanxes of Polish soldiers remained in formation Thursday around the Bruzgi border crossing, still flanked by water cannons — used on Tuesday to repel a push by migrants toward Poland from Belarus. The government in Warsaw had repeatedly portrayed the migrants as an invading horde, but they had now suddenly vanished, at least from view.
Polish officials said Thursday that they had recorded 501 attempts to cross the border from Belarus in the previous 24 hours and, repeating a claim made daily by Warsaw, accused Belarusian security officials of leading groups of migrants to try to breach the frontier. Migrants give contradictory accounts of whether their forays into Poland, nearly all unsuccessful, had been aided by Belarus.
Poland, in contrast to Belarus, has banned all journalists and aid workers from approaching the border, making it impossible to assess the veracity of its often belligerent allegations.
Down a dirt track on the Belarus side of the border a few hundred yards from the Bruzgi crossing, a red and white Polish flag fluttered near an abandoned migrant shelter made of branches from pine trees. A campfire still smoldered outside the shelter, where freshly cut logs had been stacked as if in preparation for a long siege.
The migrants’ retreat from what the European bloc has described as the frontline of a “hybrid war” unleashed by Mr. Lukashenko is likely to reduce tensions on the border, although it is unclear for how long.
The Group of 7 leading industrial powers castigated the Belarusian leader in a statement on Thursday, charging him with the “orchestration of irregular migration across its borders.”
For the moment, most of the migrants being housed in the warehouse — which is situated less than a mile from the Bruzgi border crossing — say they have no intention of returning home.
An Iraqi repatriation flight departed from Minsk, the Belarusian capital, on Thursday carrying several hundred migrants who had given up on getting into the European bloc. The plane, a Boeing 747 operated by Iraqi Airways, the national carrier, landed Thursday evening in Erbil, in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, and then continued on to Baghdad.
Many of the Iraqis still crammed into the warehouse, however, say they do not plan to take future flights back to Iraq.
“I will stay here for months or years and if they try to deport me to Iraq I will go back to the jungle,” vowed Suleiman Sabah, an Iraqi Kurd who arrived at the warehouse clutching plastic bags holding filthy clothes and clean blankets provided by Belarusian air workers.
Dalia Ahmed, another Iraqi Kurd, said she had been desperate to get out of the border encampment since Tuesday, when her two young sons were hit by blasts of freezing water from Polish water cannons and shivered convulsively throughout the night.
Grasping at thin straws of hope provided by wild rumors circulating among migrants of an imminent airlift to Germany and a possible intervention by the Vatican to persuade devoutly Catholic Poland to relent, she said: “Maybe the pope will help us get to Europe.”
Mr. Sabah said he had agreed to leave the border encampment on Thursday after hearing unfounded rumors that Germany would soon be taking in people from the warehouse, believing that getting out of the encampment was the best way to get a ticket.
Belarusian security officials, he said, had not used force to persuade people to leave the border but made clear that “if you don’t go on your own you will be forced to go.”
For Masoud Mahdi, 35, who had spent 11 days in “the jungle” with his pregnant wife and young daughter, it was enough to just get out of the cold. “We were living worse than dogs,” he said as he made his way to the warehouse.
“Last night was impossible,” he added. “It was raining and freezing and we had to leave.”
Still, Mr. Mahdi said, he did not want to return to Iraqi Kurdistan. He wanted to make it to Germany. “If I get sent back to Iraq I will kill myself,” he said.