A migrant camp on the Belarus-Poland border that had been a temporary home for thousands of people has been cleared, and a repatriation flight carrying around 420 Iraqi migrants has landed in Erbil.
Still, several thousand migrants remain in Minsk, with many saying they will try to cross into Poland despite the freezing temperatures and repeated pushbacks by Polish troops.
Ali, an Iraqi Kurd who arrived in Minsk a week ago who asked to be identified by his first name only fearing reprisal from authorities in Belarus, told VICE World News: “We made it to Poland the other day, but the police caught us, but with a few friends we are going to try again, and hope for the best.
“It is getting more difficult by the day since I arrived, but I am not going back to Iraq. My children deserve a better future.”
Hundreds of migrants, mainly from Iraq’s Kurdistan region, headed to an area they named “the jungle” near the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing last Monday, after many with children and family members organised over a Telegram group called “the flood” and tried to cross into Poland.
As people tried to breach the razor wire Polish forces used tear gas and water cannons to push people back on Tuesday.
“We failed to make it, the people got tired in the cold and the mud, and now we are waiting to go back to Iraq because my Belarus visa is already expired,” said Karim, an Iraqi Kurd who made the journey to Minsk in early October.
“I don’t know what will happen next, whether we’ll be deported or forced to leave the country,” Karim told VICE World news over the phone and asked to use only his first name fearing reprisal from authorities in Belarus.
The flow of migrants into Belarus has been limited after airlines restricted flights from the Middle East and stopped people boarding from Iraq, Yemen and Syria to Minsk. The number of people stranded on the border has dropped. The last group of people were taken away from the border by Belarusian soldiers to a government-supervised warehouse.
Though, there are still thousands of people in Belarus with very little hope of making it to an EU country.
Belarus and in particular its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko have been accused of facilitating the arrival of migrants mainly from Iraq and Syria in order to destabilise the European Union, in direct response to EU sanctions over last year’s bitterly disputed election. In an interview with BBC News, Lukashenko accepted his troops may have aided people getting into the EU but denied “inviting” people to Belarus.
While the situation on the border appears to have de-escalated, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said “we remain vigilant, and stand ready to further help our allies,” following a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Friday.
Allan Osman, an 18-year-old Iraqi Kurd, was one of the 420 people who landed in Erbil on Thursday evening. He said he had spent over $3,200 (about £2,375) to travel to Minsk and tried to cross the border a dozen times before registering for the repatriation flight operated by Iraq’s national carrier. Still, he said that he hadn’t given up on the idea of leaving the country.
“There is no future here, and there is no hope of better days because even if you have university degrees,” he said in a phone interview. “There isn’t a chance of getting a job, and future. I am not going to give up, but I need to find a better way.”