Stranded on Europe’s Border, Migrants Become Pawns in EU-Belarus Battle

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Hundreds of migrants promised safe entry into the EU from Belarus have been released

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The crisis intensified in recent days when migrants found themselves stranded in the woods on the Belarusian-Polish border. They are stopped by Polish authorities from crossing into Poland and by the Belarusian government from returning to the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

Syrian Wesam Gaswat was trapped in the jungle for a week. For at least two days, he had little shelter and no food or water. On Wednesday, he managed to cross the border into Poland and later reached Germany, according to an acquaintance associated with him.

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Mr Lukashenko has denied using migrants to retaliate against the European Union, which has slapped him and his regime with four rounds of personal and economic sanctions since last August’s presidential elections.

Belarusian authorities in May forcibly intercepted a Ryanair plane to detain a Belarusian opposition activist. He has violently cracked down on protesters calling for Mr Lukashenko’s removal after last year’s election, which he claimed as a resounding victory, but opposition leaders and European officials said it was fraud. Was.

Mr Lukashenko has said Belarus has a right to defend its borders and the EU should not expect help in a migrant emergency.

“You’ve started a hybrid war against us, you’re waging a sanctions war against us, and do you want us here to protect you?” Mr Lukashenko said last month. “This will not happen.”

EU lawmakers are now calling for new sanctions on Minsk in the wake of the border crisis. Earlier this week, Belarus’ parliament voted to suspend a deal with the European Union to repatriate migrants crossing the border illegally.

“Belarus is now showing that the West should not interfere in Belarusian affairs,” said Alexey Dzermant, an analyst at the Minsk-based Center for the Study and Development of Continental Integration in Eurasia.

During the summer, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia declared a state of emergency over the influx of migrants, sending the army, police and border guards to the border. The European Union sent border guards and additional asylum officers to help Latvia and Lithuania with arrivals.

EU officials have persuaded Iraq to suspend direct flights to Minsk, although Iraqis can still transit into Belarus through other countries and obtain entry visas on arrival in the Belarusian capital.

Poland’s response to the migrants has been particularly harsh, with human rights groups accusing Warsaw of refusing to process asylum applications and deporting them back to Belarus after being detained. Belarusian officials have also accused Poland of pushing migrants to its border.

Polish officials did not respond to a request for comment. Polish customs data shows hundreds of people trying to cross the Polish border with 483 attempts on Monday alone.

Six people have died after crossing the Polish border since late summer, according to Marta Gorczynska, a human rights lawyer for refugee advocacy organization Grupa Granica or Border Group.

The deaths in Brussels have triggered growing alarm over measures being used by Warsaw to keep migrants out.

In recent years, the bloc has become increasingly concerned that countries such as Turkey, Belarus and Russia may use the issue to cause political damage to the bloc.

Many migrants share tales of desperation as the crisis unfolds.

Balsam Abdul Sattar Khalaf traveled from Iraq to Belarus on August 31, aiming to reach Germany or the Netherlands “just to breathe clean air and live a safe life away from dangers,” he said.

Speaking on the phone through an interpreter, the former Baghdad police officer and Sunni Muslim said he fled to Iraq after being threatened by a Shia Muslim militia that killed three of his brothers and killed his wife, who was a Shia. was forced to divorce.

Mr Khalaf, 55, said he traveled to Belarus with eight of his family members, including four grandchildren under the age of 10. His two sons had already gone to Europe, he said.

Upon arrival in Minsk, the family rented an apartment for $ 40 per day. A smuggler in Poland promised that once they crossed the Belarusian border, a taxi would be waiting to take them to Germany, Mr Khalaf said.

He said he paid the smuggler €12,000, the equivalent of about $14,000, but once he arrived in Minsk he could not contact him by phone to complete transport arrangements.

After two weeks, the family paid a regular taxi $600 to take them to Belarus’s border with Poland. They were taken to an area near a forest, from where they trekked for about a day, before reaching the border, Mr Khalaf said.

They were met by military personnel who had previously promised to help the family cross the border, Mr Khalaf said. But soldiers, some of whom identified themselves as reservists of the Russian army, detained him. The Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“They beat us with sticks, they took our money saying they would bring us food, milk and baby diapers, but they lied,” Mr Khalaf said. “They only brought us a barrel of dirty water.”

The family was kept in the wild for more than a week along with about 200 other Middle Eastern and African migrants. The children cried day and night from hunger, said Mr. Khalaf. His family ate the leftover scraps thrown in the dustbins by the soldiers.

They fled the detention area on Wednesday night, entering the woods on the Polish side of the border, where smugglers arranged for a car to meet them several miles away and take them to Germany less than eight hours away.

They ran for miles into the woods, but Mr Khalaf, who had previously suffered a heart attack, could not stop. He told his family that he remained without her as he lived in the Polish forest.

On Thursday, his daughter called to say that he and his family had managed to reach Germany.

“I am very happy for them,” said Mr. Khalaf, as he prepared to continue the forest trek to a place where he expected a car waiting to take him again with his family. may have been.

write to Ann M. Simmons at [email protected] and Lawrence Norman at [email protected]

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