The Iraqi government will begin repatriating its citizens stuck on the Poland-Belarus border, as people there face freezing conditions and lack vital supplies.
Iraqi government officials confirmed repatriation flight would begin on Thursday for those who wish to return, on a “voluntary” basis.
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“Iraq will carry out a first flight for those who wish to return voluntarily,” Iraqi foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf said on Sunday.
He did not say how many people would be able to board the first Minsk-Baghdad flight, but said Iraq had recorded 571 of its citizens stuck on the border who have expressed willingness to be repatriated.
Thousands of migrants from the Middle East, including some from the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, are camped out on both sides of the Poland-Belarus border.
Western countries have accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s government of engineering the crisis by encouraging migrants to come to Belarus and attempt to breach the border.
Lukashenko, who has been in power for nearly 30 years and led a crackdown against his opponents, denies the charges and blames the West.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected accusations of being involved and has urged the European Union to speak directly to Belarus.
Stemming the crisis
Regular air links between Baghdad and Minsk were suspended in August, prompting people to travel through Turkey, Qatar, the UAE and Egypt, according to the Iraqi foreign ministry.
The United Arab Emirates barred Afghan, Syrian, Yemeni and Iraqi citizens from flights to Minsk on Monday.
On Friday, Turkey banned the same group of citizens from flying from its airports to Belarus, while private Syrian carrier Cham Wings Airlines on Saturday halted flights to Minsk.
European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas is expected to travel to Baghdad on Monday to discuss the issue.
EU foreign ministers are due to meet on Monday in Brussels to widen sanctions on Belarus.
Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief, said ministers would approve sanctions on anyone taking part in migrant trafficking, including airlines, travel agencies and officials.
“Lukashenko got it wrong. He thought that by acting in this way he would twist our arm and force us to cancel the sanctions,” he told the Journal du Dimanche, a French weekly.
Belarusian officials said some 2,000 people, including pregnant women and children, are living in the biggest camp near the village of Bruzgi.
Poland has refused to allow the refugees and migrants in and has accused Belarus of preventing them from leaving.
Despite the difficulties, some still make it across the border but are often detained. Poland is reportedly carrying out pushbacks, sending those who breach the frontier back to Belarus.
Aid agencies say at least 10 refugees and migrants have died on the border so far – but warn this number is likely underestimated. They say a humanitarian crisis is unfolding as temperatures drop below freezing, urging a de-escalation.