Iraq will organise a first repatriation flight this week for Iraqi migrants stuck on the Belarus-Poland border amid a growing humanitarian crisis that the EU says has been orchestrated by Minsk.
Iraq’s foreign ministry spokesman said the country would offer a voluntary evacuation flight back to Baghdad on Thursday for any of its citizens trapped in Belarus.
EU foreign ministers are meeting on Monday to discuss fresh sanctions against Belarus, which they accuse of intentionally attracting migrants to its borders as part of a plan to destabilise the bloc in retaliation for its support for Belarus’s political opposition.
The new sanctions could target airlines, travel agents and others involved in facilitating travel for migrants to Belarus, the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said ahead of the meeting.
Most of the migrants trying to enter the EU from Belarus are from the Middle East.
The migrants are living in makeshift tent camps and huts built out of tree branches alongside a barbed wire fence guarded by thousands of Polish forces. But despite the freezing conditions, many say they will not return home.
On Monday, several hundred migrants gathered at the border crossing between Belarus and Poland near the village of Kuznica. Polish police said the migrants had been led there by Belarusian forces who had falsely told them that they would be picked up and taken to Germany.
“It looks like preparations for yet another attempt to cross the Polish border by force,” Stanislaw Zaryn, spokesman for the minister co-ordinating Poland’s security services, wrote on Twitter.
On Sunday, Borrell discussed the crisis with Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei — the EU’s first high-level talks with Minsk since President Alexander Lukashenko violently suppressed protests against his fraud-ridden re-election last summer.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Russian President Vladimir Putin had spoken to Lukashenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel about the situation in the hope they would then speak to each other.
Lukashenko, who refused to discuss the post-election crackdown with Merkel last year, has repeatedly said the EU should negotiate with him directly to end the crisis.
Direct flights from Baghdad to Minsk were suspended in August. Travel via Turkey was halted on Friday for citizens of Iraq, Yemen and Syria. A private Syrian airline suspended flights on Saturday. Travel via Dubai was shut to migrants on Monday.
The measures undertaken so far have reduced the number of migrants arriving in Belarus, the EU’s Borrell said on Monday.
Amid escalating military tensions across Europe, with Russia and Belarus conducting joint exercises last week close to the heavily-policed Polish border, Lukashenko said on Monday that Minsk was trying to persuade migrants to return home.
“We are doing everything we can for this camp to not exist and for those who want to, to get into the EU,” Lukashenko said. “And for those who don’t want to, we are ready to put them all on planes . . . that will take them back home.”
He also said Belarus was prepared to fly some of them to Munich if Germany and Poland agreed.
Sanctions under discussion on Monday will strengthen those already imposed on officials in Belarus over last year’s crackdown and the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk in May, German foreign minister Heiko Maas said. “Hard economic sanctions”, measures targeting airlines, are also “unavoidable”, Maas said.
Lukashenko has threatened to respond to sanctions by suspending gas transit to Europe. But Russia, which supplies the gas, has said it would not redirect flows, adding that any such move by Minsk would damage relations between the two allies. Moscow also denied having anything to do with the migrant crisis.