Belarus has moved migrants and refugees away from the main camps at the Polish border, according to Belarusian media and officials, in a change of tack that could help ease a crisis that has spiralled in recent weeks.
Thousands of refugees and migrants have tried to reach the European Union via Belarus since the summer.
European countries have accused Belarus of deliberately creating the crisis by flying in people from the Middle East and pushing them to attempt to cross its borders into Poland and Lithuania. Minsk has rejected the allegations.
Belarusian state-run media reported on Thursday that many asylum seekers had moved into a heated warehouse not far from the border, emptying out a makeshift camp.
A spokesperson for the Polish border guard said the camps on the frontier in western Belarus were completely empty on Thursday, which a Belarusian press officer confirmed, the Reuters news agency reported.
“These camps are now empty, the migrants have been taken most likely to the transport-logistics centre, which is not far from the Bruzgi border crossing,” the Polish spokesperson said.
“There were no other such camps … but there were groups appearing in other places trying to cross the border. We’ll see what happens in the next hours.”
The move comes after a flurry of diplomatic activity. Earlier this week, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by telephone twice to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, normally shunned by European leaders.
And Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called on him to start a dialogue with his opponents – who swiftly rejected the idea unless Lukashenko freed political prisoners.
French President Emmanuel Macron also spoke to Putin about the crisis.
Germany, EU reject Lukashenko proposal
Meanwhile, the European Commission and Germany rejected a proposal by Belarus that European Union countries take in thousands of the refugees and asylum seekers currently in its territory.
Earlier on Thursday, a spokeswoman for President Alexander Lukashenko was quoted as saying said during the first call with Merkel, Minsk had asked the European Union to take in 2,000 refugees and migrants.
“The European Union creates a humanitarian corridor for the 2,000 refugees who are in the camp. We undertake to facilitate – as far as possible and if they wish – the remaining 5,000 to return to their homeland,” Natalya Eismont was quoted as saying, summarising the plan.
— Bundesministerium des Innern, für Bau und Heimat (@BMI_Bund) November 18, 2021
However, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer outright rejected the proposal.
“If we took in refugees, if we bowed to the pressure and said ‘we are taking refugees into European countries’, then this would mean implementing the very basis of this perfidious strategy,” Seehofer said on Thursday at a news conference in Warsaw.
Shortly before the plan was announced, the European Commission had said there could be no negotiation with Belarus over the plight of the migrants.
It declined to comment on the proposal, with a spokesperson saying: “We made our position very clear – this is an artificially created, state-orchestrated crisis and it is a responsibility of Lukashenko’s regime to stop it and to solve it.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of Iraqis who have camped for weeks at the border boarded a Baghdad-bound repatriation flight on Thursday.
“Unfortunately, only about 400 refugees have agreed to return home. In all, to be precise, in the plane that left today there were 374 passengers, mostly Iraqi citizens,” Eismont said.
“We’re fulfilling our promises, while the EU has not yet fulfilled a single obligation,” she added.
The EU recently expanded sanctions against Belarus due to the migration crisis.
The bloc has accused Lukashenko’s government of having lured the asylum seekers and refugees to Belarus’s border with Poland in revenge for earlier sanctions over a disputed August 2020 election, which gave him a sixth term and sparked mass anti-government protests.
Minsk has rejected that as absurd and said the EU must lift sanctions if it wants the crisis resolved.
Aid groups have said at least 11 asylum seekers and refugees have died on both sides of the border since the crisis began earlier this year.
Alongside Poland, fellow eastern EU member states Latvia and Lithuania have refused to accept asylum seekers and refugees aiming to enter the bloc via Belarus.
People who have managed to enter the EU are reluctant to turn back, and many are effectively trapped in forested borderlands as winter sets in.