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Aid arrives, some migrants head home, but Belarus tensions still high

The prospects for the crowds of migrants massed at the Belarusian-Polish border grew no clearer on Thursday, with some giving up hope of crossing, yet more showing up, and world leaders still seeking to negotiate an end to the crisis.

The prospects for the crowds of migrants massed at the Belarusian-Polish border grew no clearer on Thursday, with some giving up hope of crossing, yet more showing up, and world leaders still seeking to negotiate an end to the crisis.

Hundreds had retreated from the border, after days of hoping to gain access to EU territory, most of them to an emergency centre in the nearby town of Bruzgi.

But even as they moved away from the border, hundreds more seemed to be taking their place. And there were seemingly thousands more who have still not give up their spot despite wintry conditions.

“I’m afraid that I’m going to be deported and die in Iraq,” said Hoshmand Abdalla, a Kurdish student staying in the emergency centre along with about 2,000 others.

The border situation has become the latest source of conflict between the European Union and Belarus. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko stands accused of encouraging thousands of people from war-torn countries to come to Belarus with a promise of a life in Europe.

He allegedly sent them towards EU territory once they arrived in Minsk, to lash out against the bloc for failing to recognize his disputed election last year.

Lukashenko denies any such act. Yet the fact remains that thousands of people have been at the border for weeks, with Poland so far unwilling to let them over. Many fear it has already become a humanitarian crisis because of nightmarish living conditions as temperatures drop.

“We want a better life in the EU, in Germany,” says Faraidun Qadir, a friend of Abdalla’s.

Many of those stuck at the border have hung their hopes on a Wednesday phone call between Lukashenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in which the Belarusian leader agreed to talk to the EU about the crisis.

But that talk didn’t raise the prospect of the border opening any time soon. However, it seems to have jump-started the amount of humanitarian aid coming to the border region.

Nonetheless, the situation there remained worrying, especially as the first confirmed case of Covid-19 was reported at the emergency shelter, a place where around 1,000 people have slept on the floor of the shelter in a very confined space during the past two nights.

A vaccination centre is to be opened in the storage facility and China’s Sinopharm vaccine will be administered, Belarusian authorities said.

Around 900 migrants spent the night from Wednesday to Thursday outdoors for the 11th consecutive day despite the low temperatures.

They tried to warm themselves at campfire sites. But many complained of breathing difficulties due to the smoke from the fires.

Due to the threat of rain, the Belarusian authorities want to prepare more emergency shelters.

The situation has deteriorated to the point where some of the migrants have allowed themselves to be sent back home. A group of Iraqis arrived back in their country on Thursday, on board a plane sent by the Iraqi government. They had been stranded for weeks at the border.

The Iraqi Ministry of Transport published photos on its Facebook page showing people leaving the plane, saying it landed in the northern Kurdish city of Erbil. Earlier, authorities said around 430 were expected to be on the flight. In total, some 460 people have registered to return to Iraq.

The Iraqi government had said earlier it would bring back those who wish to return voluntarily from Belarus.

But that still leaves the fates of many others unresolved.

According to a Lukashenko spokesperson in comments to the Belta news agency, he told Merkel during their phone call that a “humanitarian corridor” should be opened to allow 2,000 migrants into EU territory, after which he would ensure that a further 5,000 people were returned to their home countries.

But Merkel reportedly made no commitments, since any such decision would have to be taken at the EU level, sources in Berlin said.

The concern of a flare-up at the border was also ever-present.

“Belarusian forces are provoking more and more directly. I hope they don’t take that one step too far in the process,” Polish Prime Miniser Mateusz Morawiecki said. “Because we Poles are determined to protect our border by all means. The eastern border of Europe and also of NATO.”

He has warned that Europe will receive an influx of “millions” of migrants if border policies remain lax.

The foreign ministers of the G7 countries plus the European Union’s top diplomat condemned Belarus on Thursday for the “orchestration of irregular migration across its borders.”

“These callous acts are putting people’s lives at risk. We are united in our solidarity with Poland, as well as Lithuania and Latvia,” the officials wrote in a joint statement.

Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the US plus EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell also called for international organizations to be allowed humanitarian access.

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