Belarus: Iraq to fly migrants home in first repatriation flight

The Iraqi government has said a first flight to repatriate its nationals who are among migrants stranded at the Belarus-Poland border will be organised on Thursday “on a voluntary basis”. “Iraq will operate a first flight for those who wish to return home voluntarily on the 18th of this month” from Belarus, foreign affairs ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf announced on television in broadcasts aired overnight. Baghdad’s announcement comes as European Union foreign ministers are due to meet on Monday to extend sanctions imposed on Belarus last year following the repression against opponents of the Lukashenko regime.

The first high-level contact between Brussels and Minsk since the beginning of the crisis on the EU’s eastern border took place on Sunday. Belarus’ autocratic leader is accused of deliberately orchestrating the influx of migrants to damage the bloc. The EU’s diplomatic chief Josep Borrell spoke to the Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei.

Afterwards, he described the humanitarian situation at the border as “precarious”. “People’s lives must be protected and humanitarian agencies allowed access,” he said on Twitter. “The current situation is unacceptable and must stop. People should not be used as weapons.”

Makei said that any sanctions targeting his country would be “hopeless” and “counter-productive”. Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are considering asking NATO to hold emergency talks amid a migration crisis at their borders with Belarus, Poland’s prime minister was quoted as saying on Sunday. Thousands of migrants from the Middle East are camping out on the EU-Belarus border in freezing conditions.

Last week the humanitarian crisis widened into a geopolitical standoff between the EU and the United States on one side, and Belarus backed by Russia on the other. Polish police said on Saturday that a young Syrian was found dead near the border. Volunteer medics treated a migrant woman for what they said was hypothermia after she, and a group of other migrants, were found in a forest near the Poland border on Friday night.

The group called Medics on the Border, a volunteer group that give aid to migrants who cross into Poland from Belarus, said the woman was part of a group of ten people found by them in a ditch near the village of Narewka. The woman was taken to hospital and the rest of the group, including children, were taken away to a nearby Border Guard office. The West accuses Lukashenko’s regime of luring migrants to Minsk from countries including Iraq, Syria and Yemen on the premise they will be able to enter the EU, and of facilitating their transport.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994 and who led a brutal repression of opponents following the 2020 election he is almost universally believed to have rigged, denies the accusations and blames the West for the crisis.