Live Updates: Belarus-Poland Face-Off Relaxes as Some Migrants Fly Home

The first repatriation flight organized by Iraq took hundreds of people back to that country, while Belarus cleared out camps where thousands of people had massed, hoping to cross into Poland.

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Migrants walking from the Polish border to a warehouse shelter on Thursday in Belarus.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

The hastily constructed migrant encampments at the main border crossing into Poland from Belarus were cleared by the Belarusian government on Thursday morning, removing, for the moment, a major flashpoint that has raised tensions across Europe.

The patch of land nicknamed “the jungle” — only days ago the site of violent clashes between migrants trying to push through the razor wire and Polish security forces blasting them with water cannons — was now a wasteland of garbage, abandoned tents and smoldering fires.

Along the tangle of razor wire at the border, there was not a migrant in sight on Thursday afternoon. Under the gray gloom of the November sky, a phalanx of Polish soldiers remained in formation, pressing up against the wire.

While the clearing of the camps promised to ease the immediate suffering of those living rough in freezing conditions, the authorities in Belarus offered no indication of where those who flew to the Eastern European country in the hope of building a life in the West would go now that they were being directed away from the border.

Still, on Thursday, a steady stream of people — escorted by heavily armed Belarusian security forces, their faces covered by black balaclavas — made their way down a half-mile road to a government-run warehouse where they were offered refuge from the mud and the muck.

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.

Credit…The New York Times

Western leaders believe the crisis at the border was manufactured by the Belarusian government, which lured migrants, mostly on flights from the Middle East, to Belarus with easily obtainable visas and the suggestion of a path across its borders to the European Union.

The flow of migrants into Belarus has been largely cut off as airlines restrict flights from the Middle East and the crowds moving to the border appear to have stopped.

But thousands already in Belarus face an uncertain fate, and the authorities have given little indication of where they might go.

Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said that 430 Iraqis had registered to return home on a repatriation flight on Thursday. But that is only a fraction of the thousands of migrants in Belarus, and there was little sign that most would volunteer to leave. Many expressed hope they could still find a way into the European Union. Some said they would simply stay in Belarus, which would present an unexpected challenge for President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus.

Iraqi migrants after a flight for voluntary evacuees from Belarus arrived in Erbil on Thursday.Credit…Azad Lashkari/Reuters

An Iraqi repatriation flight departed from Belarus and arrived in Iraq on Thursday to bring home migrants who are caught in the middle of a dispute between the Belarusian leader and the European Union.

The move by Iraq is part of efforts to ease the humanitarian crisis at the Belarusian border that has stranded thousands of migrants, many of them from the Middle East, trying to reach the European Union through neighboring Poland, a member of the bloc.

Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said that 430 Iraqis had registered to return on the Boeing 747 operated by Iraqi Airways, the state airline, although it wasn’t clear how many had boarded the plane. That is a fraction of the thousands believed to be in Belarus, either at the border or in the capital, Minsk, after the government of Belarus made it easy for migrants to enter the country and encouraged them to cross into the European Union — in retaliation, European leaders say, for sanctions imposed by the bloc after a disputed 2020 election.

After departing from Minsk, the flight landed in Erbil, in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, on Thursday evening, according to flight tracking websites and news media reports. There, 390 returning Iraqis got off, said the civil aviation spokesman, Jihad Diwan. The flight then left Erbil for Baghdad.

Many Iraqi migrants have said they have no intention of returning to Iraq, and some have suggested that if they cannot find a way into the European Union, they might try to apply for asylum in Belarus — creating a possibly charged situation for the nation’s autocratic leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.

Unlike in past migrant crises, the vast majority of these travelers have arrived in Belarus by plane, but the major air routes they used to reach Minsk from the Middle East have been narrowing for days, slowing the flow of migrants into the country.

On Wednesday, Lebanon’s civil aviation authority instructed airlines to allow only Belarusian citizens and travelers with visas or residency permits for Belarus to board flights to the country. Last week, travel agents and thwarted travelers said that Iraqis, Syrians and Yemenis were no longer allowed to board flights to Minsk from Turkey, Iran or Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

The flight bans come after an intense diplomatic campaign by European Union members alarmed by the arrival of thousands of mostly Iraqi migrants into Belarus after it loosened its visa rules in August. Hoping for a path into the European Union, the migrants instead found themselves in freezing forest camps on the borders with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Belarus has denied fueling the crisis, and on Thursday, the Belarusian state airline, Belavia, said it had stopped allowing citizens from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen to board flights from Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, according to the state-run Belta news agency.

Iraq and the European Union are considering offering incentives for migrants to return home, including cash payments. But many migrants have leveraged their life savings or borrowed thousands of dollars to finance their trips, an amount likely to exceed any payments offered by governments.

Distributing blankets to migrants arriving at the warehouse in Belarus near the Polish border.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

Even as Belarus cleared a large migrant encampment on the border with Poland on Thursday, easing tensions along the European Union’s eastern flank, Western leaders were skeptical that the crisis was drawing to a close.

In recent days, Belarus has sought to portray itself as taking the lead in what it has described as a humanitarian crisis. But Western leaders believe it is a crisis engineered by the authoritarian leader of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, and a cudgel he could brandish again — given that the fate of the thousands of migrants in the country remains uncertain.

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.”

“We are united in our solidarity with Poland, as well as Lithuania and Latvia, who have been targeted by this provocative use of irregular migration as a hybrid tactic,” the group said.

At the same time, the European Union said it would send nearly $800,000 in humanitarian relief to Belarus.

“Europe is at the side of the people trapped at the border with Belarus,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, wrote on Twitter.

While German Chancellor Angela Merkel has led a diplomatic push to find a longer term solution — reaching out to Mr. Lukeshenko for the second time on Wednesday — leaders from Poland and the Baltic States said that engaging with Mr. Lukashenko would offer him legitimacy.

In talks with Ms. Merkel, Mr. Lukashenko reportedly proposed that the European Union create a “humanitarian corridor” that would allow entry into the bloc for 2,000 migrants, and that Belarus would repatriate 5,000 others to their countries. Any deal would need to include the countries that border Belarus, and they have given no indication of going along with such a plan.

A senior German official confirmed the proposal but said that Ms. Merkel had declined it. “Germany did not agree to it. It’s a European problem where Germany does not act alone,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity per diplomatic protocol.

Officials in Poland — where the government has dispatched thousands of soldiers to the frontier and used water cannons this week to push people back from the main crossing — warned on Thursday that the threat to both its border and the European Union remained high.

The Polish Defense Ministry accused the Belarusian security services of directing small groups of migrants to less heavily defended parts of the 250-mile-long frontier. Journalists are barred from the area, so it is impossible to verify their claims.

The Polish authorities released videos they claimed showed migrants being led by Belarusian security officers.

The Defense Ministry said on Thursday that about 100 migrants were caught trying to cross the border overnight.

As the Polish government pressed ahead with legislation that would extend the country’s most sweeping state of emergency in modern history, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told the German publication Bild that “by defending the Polish border, we defend the whole of Europe.”

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A Belavia airline boarding pass from Dubai to Minsk left under a birch tree. A child’s overalls abandoned next to the old rail track, linking Belarus with Poland. An eye shadow palette hidden among brown, damp leaves.

These are not regular sights in the Bialowieza Forest, one of the last remaining swathes of a primordial forest that used to stretch across Europe, home to bison and deers. The people who come across them are not regular hikers, either. They are residents and activists looking for asylum seekers from the Middle East, victims of a standoff between a Belarusian government trying to funnel them into Poland, and a Polish government, supported by the European Union, adamant at keeping them out.

“We used to come to the forest in search of the beauty of nature,” said Iza, a local resident who has been helping asylum seekers, and who asked to be identified only by her first name for fear of repercussions from authorities and far-right groups. “Now we are looking for things that seem out of place.”

In the face of a growing humanitarian crisis and a near-total absence of state support, locals have stepped in, providing migrants with food, water, warm clothes and power banks. They relentlessly patrol the forest, looking for people in need.

“In the beginning, I could not even look into their eyes,” said Maciej Jaworski, who lives close to the border in what is known as the exclusion zone, which the Polish authorities designate as off-limits for nonresidents. “I can give them food and water, talk to them. If they don’t need medical help, this is pretty much it.”

Sometimes they spot migrants, shivering under ancient trees, starving and desperate. Medical volunteers reported that on Wednesday night, they found a Syrian couple suffering from serious injuries, who said their one-year-old baby had died in the cold weeks ago, as they tried to make their way through forests on both sides of the border.

But more the aid workers find objects: haunting traces of people that passed through and disappeared. Some seem to have been abandoned in haste. A backpack filled with documents written in Arabic, one page carefully folded into a green-and-red jewelry box. Warm shoes scattered at the edge of the forest.

“This probably means they were running from border guards,” said Iza’s husband, who asked to be identified only as Roman. “If they were rushing to get into a smuggler’s car, they would have taken the documents with them.” Since the beginning of the crisis, many asylum seekers have been summarily pushed back into Belarus by Polish guards.

A mass of empty backpacks, sleeping bags and waterproof jackets abandoned in a meadow, where the forest transforms into vast fields, betray the location of a pickup spot for smugglers, who drive some of the asylum seekers who make it through the forest farther west, toward Germany.

Some objects hang on trees — like a pair of ski pants, carefully folded on a branch, lying under an empty tuna can with a Belarusian label. Perhaps that person had made it out of the forest. Iza recognized the pants as part of a rescue package that she had hung on a tree a few days earlier. “We will now give them to someone else,” she said. “Winter is coming.”

Migrants on the Belarus-Poland border waited to receive tea on Wednesday.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

He has ruled with an iron fist for 27 years, surviving huge street protests, multiple rounds of Western sanctions and even alleged plots by his benefactor, Russia, to remove him.

But a threat President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus has never before had to contend with is now taking shape among the thousands of migrants he has allowed into his country, who hope to travel on to the European Union.

Having helped funnel these desperate people to the E.U. doorstep, Mr. Lukashenko suddenly has to deal with those like Bale Nisu, a 21-year-old Kurd from Iraq who has taken a liking to Belarus, and would like to settle here.

Many of the more than 2,000 people marooned on the Belarusian side of the razor wire at Bruzgi, a large, shuttered border crossing to Poland, insist they won’t give up on trying to get into the European Union. But growing fears that they might instead get sent back to their home countries has made Mr. Nisu and others wonder whether staying put in Belarus could be their best option.

“I want to go to Germany, but if that is impossible, I’ll just stay here,” Mr. Nisu said Wednesday after moving into a warehouse near the border. The building has been converted into a migrant holding center by the Belarusian authorities in an effort to release pressure on the border — and burnish the country’s often grim image.

He lamented that he had spent more than $4,000 and days freezing in the forest only to end up in a poor, highly repressive former Soviet republic with little to offer in the way of jobs and other opportunities.

But, showing rips in his pants, which he maintained were caused by Polish security forces beating him up after an abortive attempt to sneak across the frontier last week, he said that Belarus looked far more enticing than returning to Iraq, or more encounters with Polish soldiers and border guards. He said he wanted to apply for asylum in Belarus.

“Belarus,” he said, “is a very, very good country.”

Members of the Muslim community of Tatars held a funeral service for an unidentified migrant in the small village of Bohoniki, near the border with Belarus, on Thursday.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

In front of birch trees swaying in a glacial November wind, four Muslim men surrounded a freshly dug grave, chanting prayers in Arabic. None of them knew the deceased.

As the standoff at the Polish-Belarusian border continued on Thursday, the local Muslim community of Tatars in the Polish village of Bohoniki buried an unidentified Muslim migrant, who died on his way to the European Union.

“As Muslims, it is our duty to provide a dignified burial for Muslims stranded in this land,” said Aleksander Bazarewicz, a local imam who was leading the funeral ceremony.

The body of the unidentified man, who the imam said came from an African country, was laid next to the grave of Ahmad Al Hasan, a 19-year-old Syrian. Mr. Al Hasan, who was 19 when he drowned in the river Bug last month, was the first migrant to be buried in the Bohoniki cemetery on Monday.

“We stand ready to bury them all,” said Maciej Szczesnowicz, the head of the local Muslim community. “But we don’t know how many more there will be, and if we have the capacity.”

Another funeral, for a migrant from Yemen, is planned in Bohoniki for Sunday. According to the Polish authorities, 11 people have died so far trying to cross the border, but the real death toll might be much higher.

At Mr. Al Hasan’s grave, someone put a plastic bag decorated with a cross, containing water and food supplies, and a headlamp — a rescue package that volunteers leave on trees for migrants stranded in forests surrounding Bohoniki.

“We have been seeing those refugees passing through town, exhausted, freezing, and wet,” said Stefan Szczesnowicz, 61, who came from the nearby town of Sokolka to help out with the funeral ceremony. “As Polish Tatars, we feel compelled to help them.”

Tatars came to this region 600 years ago, seeking shelter and protection, and they have been living here ever since.

Eugenia Radkiewicz, 74, a Tatar resident who is the unofficial custodian of Bohoniki’s 300-year-old mosque, called the situation of asylum seekers “a real human tragedy.”

As the funeral proceedings were underway, three women from the village cooked soup for the soldiers at Mahmed’s Inn, a local restaurant serving Tatar food. For weeks, the local Muslim community has been actively involved in aid efforts, supporting both the asylum seekers stranded in the forest, as well as soldiers deployed at the frontier.

“Soldiers do not have an easy job either,” said Mr. Bazarewicz, the imam. “We try to stay away from politics. We are just trying to fulfill our duty as Muslims.”

A picture provided by the press office of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus shows him at a meeting in Minsk in Tuesday.Credit…Belarus President Press Office, via EPA

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is taking the lead in trying to find a diplomatic way out of the migrant crisis on the European Union’s eastern frontiers, talking with President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus — and aggravating some of her European allies.

Ms. Merkel, who on Wednesday had her second phone call this week with Mr. Lukashenko, is the first leader of an E.U. or NATO country in more than a year to have direct contact with a ruler the West calls illegitimate.

Her phone calls have not gone over well with Poland — which has described the massing of migrants on its border as an attack by Belarus — or with the Baltic states, all of which are on the eastern frontiers of both NATO and the E.U. They have accused the German leader of bypassing them and playing into the hands of Mr. Lukashenko and his main ally, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, speaking while traveling in Montenegro on Wednesday, said that his country “will not accept any agreements reached over our heads.”

Estonia’s foreign minister, Eva-Maria Liimets, said the West was in danger of rewarding Mr. Lukashenko for a crisis of his own making, as he tries to pressure the E.U. to lift sanctions against Belarus. “He wants the sanctions to be stopped, and to be recognized as head of state so he can continue,” Ms. Liimets said on Wednesday.

The governments of Lithuania and Latvia — which, like Poland, border Belarus and are trying to keep out migrants — were also displeased, according to European news media.

But Ms. Merkel’s spokesman, Stefan Seibert, said her meetings were held in “close coordination with the European Commission and after preliminary information from important partners in the region.”

That is not quite the same as saying she was speaking for the E.U., but Moscow seemed ready to interpret it that way. Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said Wednesday of Ms. Merkel’s contacts: “It is very important that contact has been made between representatives of the E.U. and the leadership of Belarus.”

Western leaders had shunned Mr. Lukashenko since his violent suppression last year of street demonstrations, after he claimed a landslide re-election that critics said was a sham. But the Kremlin says the West should deal directly with him to resolve the migrant standoff.

He wants not only recognition, but the lifting of E.U. sanctions imposed on his repressive government. Instead, the European Union moved this week to impose new sanctions in response to what it said was his deliberate engineering of the border crisis.

Ms. Merkel’s office released a low-key description of her conversation on Wednesday with Mr. Lukashenko, saying only that she had “underlined the need to provide humanitarian care and return options for the people affected,” working with the United Nations and the European Union.

Mr. Lukashenko’s office went much farther, claiming that the two leaders “agreed that the problem will be addressed at the level of Belarus and the E.U., and that the two sides will designate officials who will immediately enter into negotiations in order to resolve the existing problems,” the Belarus state news agency reported.

On Wednesday, Ms. Merkel’s office said she had also called Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, to underline “Germany’s full solidarity with Poland.”

It was unclear, but a subject of speculation, what leverage Ms. Merkel may have tried to use with Mr. Putin or Mr. Lukashenko. She has long been the European Union’s most influential leader, but she is also now a lame duck, holding office only until a new governing coalition is formed in Germany.

American and allied troops took part in a tactical road march from Klusy, Poland, to Kazlu Ruda in Lithuania in 2018.Credit…Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

The crisis along the borders of Poland, Lithuania and Belarus is playing out near an area long viewed by NATO as one of the most vulnerable flanks of the European Union in the event of Russian aggression.

The 64-mile stretch of land known as the Suwalki Corridor, is sandwiched between the heavily militarized Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which is surrounded by Poland and Lithuania, and Moscow’s ally Belarus.

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It is the only overland route from Western Europe to the Baltic States. If it is not fully secured, NATO’s credibility as a security guarantor to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia could be seriously undermined.

The Pentagon has in recent years stepped up training rotations and exercises on the territory of newer NATO allies in the east, including along the narrow corridor of rolling Polish farmland near the Lithuanian border.

In the unlikely event of a land war, American and allied officers say, the region is where Russia or its proxies could cut off the Baltic States from the rest of Europe. Since Russia annexed Crimea and supported separatists in eastern Ukraine, Eastern Europe has felt increasingly vulnerable.

A recent build up of troops on the Ukrainian border has revived those fears.

Lt. Gen. Frederick B. Hodges, the former top U.S. Army commander in Europe, said in an email message that the significance of the Suwalki Corridor was important factor in the ongoing border dispute.

“This narrow bit of Polish-Lithuanian territory between Belarus and Kaliningrad is strategically vital,” he said. If it were to be cut or blocked, he said, “we’d have a real problem.”

The potential danger, he said, is that if the border crisis were to escalate, it could provide a pretext for Russian forces to step in, citing humanitarian reasons. In the process, he said, they could move to “temporarily” close the corridor, with its two roads and one railroad.

“Not likely but it’s completely feasible in my view,” he said.

Supporters of activists outside a court before their trial in Mytilene port, in the island of Lesbos, Greece, on Thursday.Credit…Panagiotis Balaskas/Associated Press

As Polish volunteers struggle to provide humanitarian relief to migrants who cross the border with Belarus, a trial for two dozen aid workers is set to open soon in Greece that offers a possible warning for those engaged in such efforts.

Two dozen aid workers, some of them foreigners, are being charged with espionage over their role in helping migrants who arrived in the country between 2016 and 2018.

The trial, which was postponed on Thursday, is expected be heard in a court on Lesbos, the Greek island that was at the forefront of the European migration crisis that began in 2015.

The trial is opening at a time when Greece’s conservative government is toughening its stance on migration and on groups working with migrants, aligning itself with a hardening climate in Europe, which is grappling with a new migrant crisis at the Poland-Belarus border.

The Greek government has said it will not allow a repeat of the 2015-2016 crisis which saw thousands of migrants streaming across the Aegean Sea daily, overwhelming Greece’s rescue services. Rattled by fears of a new wave of refugees from Afghanistan, Greece has tightened the policing of its borders.

The defendants in the trial include 17 foreign nationals, some of them well known activists such as Syrian refugee Sarah Mardini, the sister of the Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini. The siblings captured international attention in 2015, at the peak of the migration crisis, after dragging their refugee boat to safety.

Ms. Mardini and the 23 other aid workers on trial could face up to eight years in prison if found guilty on charges of espionage, forgery and the unlawful use of radio frequencies.

Human rights groups say the prosecutions are absurd.

“The charges they face are farcical and should never have come to trial,” Nils Muiznieks, director of Amnesty International’s European Regional Office, said in a statement this week.

Migration experts say the trial on Lesbos is emblematic of a broader shift toward the criminalization of refugees and aid groups in parts of Europe.

“State authorities are progressively emboldened to take constantly harsher measures against migrants and those who help migrants,” said Francois Crepeau, an expert on international law and a former top United Nations official for migrants’ rights. Both official language and policies “increasingly portray migrants and their supporters as criminals,” he added.

In Hungary, the government has gone to extreme lengths to demonize migrants as well as criminalize the work of those trying to assist them. Refugees on the country’s border have been caged, starved and denied legal representation, according to Europe’s leading human rights agency, the Council of Europe.

Civic organizations that have tried to help them have been harassed and censored. And courts meant to protect the rights of these people are under immense pressure to do the bidding of the country’s increasingly authoritarian government.

President Victor Orban’s government has made it a criminal offense to help asylum seekers apply for protection — a policy that the European Court of Justice, the E.U.’s top court, ruled this week was in violation of Hungary’s obligations as a member of the bloc.

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