BRUZGI, Belarus — Authorities in Belarus on Thursday cleared encampments at the main border crossing point into Poland, where thousands of migrants were living in freezing and increasingly squalid conditions, removing for the time being a major flashpoint that increased tensions across Europe.
The patch of land dubbed ‘the jungle’ by migrants – just days ago the site of violent clashes between asylum seekers trying to get through barbed wire and Polish security forces blasting them with cannons – quickly became a wasteland of garbage, abandoned tents and smoldering fires.
The clearing of the camps alleviated the immediate suffering of migrants who were living in the open in miserable conditions, as they were moved by Belarusian authorities to a giant warehouse. And it has brought relief to a border the European Union has been watching with growing concern, fearing it will be crossed by a new wave of migrants, even as Western leaders – and Poland – are skeptical of an end to the crisis. volatile standoff. .
The situation has also left Belarusian President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko with a troubling dilemma: what to do with all the people he has lured to Belarus but who, barred from entering Europe, are quickly 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 meters from entering the European Union, has vowed to stay in Belarus ‘until I die “unless it somehow makes it to Europe. .
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken the initiative to find a diplomatic way out of the crisis, meeting with Mr Lukashenko, but has given no indication that she will repeat the offer of welcome she made to the migrants in 2015, when more than one million people flocked to Germany.
On Thursday, escorted by Belarusian guards wearing black balaclavas and Kalashnikov rifles, a scruffy procession of migrants moved away from the border, abandoning their border camps like a routed army. Hundreds more had been evacuated 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 on 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 surviving in the freezing forests that straddle the border.
Although they left the immediate vicinity of the border to shelter from the biting cold of the warehouse, many migrants kept the hope of still being able to go to Europe and, failing that, to settle in Belarus. rather than being forced to return home, which for many is Iraq.
Yuri Karayev, an aide to Mr Lukashenko representing the border region surrounding Grodno, declined to answer questions about what awaits the migrants now that they have relinquished their hold on the patch of border forest land they have occupied since weeks – but not their desire to go to Europe.
Poland, backed by other members of the European Union, shows no signs of letting up in its tough stance against migrants trying to enter the country. The Polish Prime Minister told a German newspaper that “by defending our border, we are defending all of Europe”.
Under gray November skies, phalanxes of Polish soldiers remained in formation around the Bruzgi border post on Thursday, still flanked by water cannons – used on Tuesday to repel a push of migrants into Poland from Belarus. The government in Warsaw had repeatedly described the migrants as a horde of invaders, but now they had suddenly disappeared, at least from sight.
Polish officials said on Thursday they had recorded 501 attempts to cross the border from Belarus in the past 24 hours and, reiterating a claim made daily by Warsaw, accused Belarusian security officials of leading groups of migrants to try to cross the border. Migrants give conflicting accounts about whether their almost all unsuccessful forays into Poland were aided by Belarus.
Poland, unlike Belarus, has banned all journalists and aid workers from approaching the border, making it impossible to assess the veracity of its often belligerent claims.
On a dirt road on the Belarusian side of the border a few hundred meters from the Bruzgi crossing, a red and white Polish flag waved near an abandoned migrant shelter made of pine branches. A campfire still smoldered outside the shelter, where freshly cut logs had been piled as if in preparation for a long siege.
The withdrawal of migrants from what the European bloc has described as the front line of a “hybrid war” unleashed by Mr Lukashenko is likely to reduce border tensions, although it is unclear for how long.
The Group of 7 major industrial powers lambasted the Belarusian leader in a statement on Thursday, accusing him of “orchestrating irregular migration across its borders”.
For now, most of the migrants housed in the warehouse – which is located less than a mile from the Bruzgi border crossing – say they have no intention of returning home.
An Iraqi repatriation flight left Thursday from Minsk, the Belarusian capital, carrying several hundred migrants who had given up entering the European bloc. The plane, a Boeing 747 operated by Iraqi Airways, the national airline, landed Thursday evening in Erbil, in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, then continued on its way to Baghdad.
Many Iraqis still crammed into the warehouse, however, say they have no plans to take future flights 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 with plastic bags containing Dirty clothes and clean blankets provided by Belarusian aid 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 shook convulsively all day. night.
Seizing on thin straws of hope provided by wild rumors circulating among migrants of an impending airlift to Germany and possible intervention by the Vatican to persuade devoutly Catholic Poland to give in, she said: “Maybe the pope will help us get to Europe”.
Mr Sabah said he agreed to leave the border encampment on Thursday after hearing unfounded rumors that Germany would soon take 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, did not use force to persuade people to leave the border, but made it clear that “if you don’t go there by yourself, you will be have to go.”
For Masoud Mahdi, 35, who had spent 11 days in “the jungle” with his pregnant wife and young daughter, it was just enough to get out of the cold. “We were living worse than dogs,” he said as he walked towards the warehouse.
“Last night it was impossible,” he added. “It was raining and very cold and we had to leave.”
Yet, Mr. Mahdi said, he did not want to return to Iraqi Kurdistan. He wanted to go to Germany. “If I am sent back to Iraq, I will kill myself,” he said.
Marc Santora and Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting from Warsaw, Jane Arraf of Baghdad and Sangar Khalil from Erbil, Iraq.