Iraq is sending more planes to repatriate about 800 migrants stranded on the Belarus-Poland border, adding to nearly a thousand already brought home, the Foreign Ministry said.
Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf said on November 26 that two Iraqi Airways flights would bring back 861 migrants over the next 24 hours.
The flights will bring to 1,894 the number of Iraqis, most of them Kurds, brought home from Belarus on special flights since the operation began on November 18.
One flight on the evening of November 26 will bring 431 people to Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region, followed by a flight on November 27 to collect 430 more, al-Sahaf said.
Poland and other EU nations accuse Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka of waging a “hybrid war” by allowing migrants to fly in, then funneling them to the bloc’s borders in retaliation for sanctions imposed over a sweeping crackdown since last year’s disputed presidential election.
Meanwhile, the EU is readying a fifth package of sanctions against Belarus for orchestrating the migrant crisis.
Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania have put up fences and deployed thousands of border guards, soldiers, and police to seal the border, where thousands of migrants have camped in freezing temperatures during the standoff between Belarus and the European Union. At least 11 migrants have died in recent months, according to aid groups.
In some cases, the frontline states in the crisis have pushed back migrants to Belarus, in a policy criticized by human rights groups.
Returning Iraqis say they have spent thousands of dollars to escape economic hardship or life in displacement camps to start a new life in the EU, only to be mistreated by Polish and Belarusian authorities. Most of the migrants, including minority Yazidis displaced by a genocidal campaign launched by the Islamic State in 2014, are seeking to reach Germany.
Poland says groups of migrants are still continuing to illegally cross the border from Belarus, and has warned against interpreting recent moves by Minsk to repatriate some of the migrants as a de-escalation of the crisis.
Last week, Belarusian authorities cleared makeshift migrant camps at the border and transferred about 2,000 people to a warehouse turned into shelter, while allowing the first repatriation flight to Iraq.
Earlier on November 26, Lukashenka made his first public appearance at the border since the start of the crisis, telling migrants at a warehouse that they were free to choose whether to head to the EU or go home.
“If you want to go westwards, we won’t detain you, choke you, beat you,” he in a campaign-style speech to hundreds of migrants. “It’s up to you. Go through. Go.”
“We won’t in any circumstances detain you, tie your hands and load you on planes to send you home if you don’t want that,” he added.
While Belarus has begun allowing some migrants to fly home, it is pushing for Germany to accept 2,000 people, something the EU has rejected and Germany has denied agreeing to it.
Lukashenka accuses the EU of failing to meet international asylum laws by refusing the migrants entry.
The crisis has added to tensions between Russia and the EU. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who backed Lukashenka as he crushed opposition protests following last year’s election, has also backed Belarus in its migrant standoff with the EU.
With reporting by AFP, Reuters, Iraqi News Agency, and Kurdistan 24