Belarus said the hastily erected migrant camps on the border with Poland had been cleared of people on Thursday in a sign that Minsk is committed to abolishing the deadly crisis that its leader, Alexander Lukashenko, was helping to create.
On Thursday, the crisis claimed its 13th victim after an NGO reported the death of a one-year-old child after his family attempted the perilous journey through Belarus to the EU.
According to the Polish Center for International Assistance, the child’s family was from Syria and had been trapped outside in the forest for six weeks. The cause of death was not disclosed, although the child’s family is said to have been stabbed from an attack.
Belarusian state media, along with the international press, reported that the campsite near the Polish city of Kuźnica, where people trying to cross the border were forced back with tear gas and water cannons, had been cleared of people Thursday morning. All that was left of the migrant camp, Belarusian state media wrote, were “huts, remnants of tents, abandoned clothes and dying fire”.
The Polish border guard confirmed: “The campsite near the border crossing in Bruzgi was deserted. The Belarusian services sent the foreigners to the transport and logistics center, which is several hundred meters away.” Belarus had already moved more than 1,000 migrants to the warehouse on Wednesday, where they received food.
It is unclear where they will go from there.
On Thursday, a spokesman for Lukashenko also claimed that he and Merkel had discussed creating a humanitarian corridor to Germany for 2,000 of the migrants at the border, and that Belarus had agreed to help transport the remaining 5,000 back to their country of origin, primarily Syria or Iraq.
The spokesman said the first repatriation flight had departed from Belarus on Thursday with 431 Iraqi immigrants on board. The remaining people “have categorically refused to leave, but we will work on it,” they added.
Migrants from Syria, Iraq and other countries in the Middle East have reported that they have spent more than £ 10,000 traveling to Belarus and then contracting smugglers to help them cross the border. Many have said they have no plans to return.
“We keep our promises,” the spokesman said. “Meanwhile, the EU has not fulfilled any of its own obligations.”
The proposal for a secret agreement between Lukashenko and Merkel on migration is politically explosive, but the Belarusian leader has reason to exaggerate the results of his talks with Merkel.
Germany has not confirmed the conclusion of an agreement on a humanitarian corridor with Lukashenko, and media on Thursday quoted government sources as denying that an agreement had been reached. The EU has confirmed that technical talks will only be held with the Belarussian government to control the return of migrants to their home countries.
Nevertheless, European politicians have expressed anger at Germany and Merkel for engaging directly with Lukashenko, who had not spoken to a single EU leader since launching a brutal crackdown on the opposition last year.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis criticized the appearance of a “separate track of negotiations with the dictator, the illegitimate president”. The EU has not recognized Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of Belarus following allegations of widespread abuse and electoral fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
Landsbergis also said at least one EU government had tried to remove Belavia, the Belarusian state airline, from a list of sanctions agreed by EU foreign ministers earlier this week. Politico has reported that Germany and Italy have refrained from signing on the full sanctions list due to the airline’s last-minute restrictions on flights with Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni nationals from Istanbul. The publication also reported that a Syrian airline could be taken off the sanctions list.
Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko’s main supporter, accused the West of using the migrant crisis “as a new reason for tensions in a region close to us, to put pressure on Minsk.” He also criticized Polish border guards for using water cannons and tear gas on children.