Iraq is to begin repatriation flights on Thursday for migrants stranded on the Belarus-Poland border as aid agencies warn of a humanitarian crisis with the onset of winter.
The EU said on Wednesday it will send €700,000 worth of food, blankets and other aid to migrants at the Belarus border after criticism it had done too little to help. Germany’s acting chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by phone for the second time in three days to Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko.
A day after Polish border guards used water cannons against migrants hurling stones, the situation at the frontier appeared to have grown calmer.
Iraqi foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf said that 571 Iraqis were ready to return “voluntarily”, although many remain determined to stay on in the hope of entering the EU. The first special Iraqi airways flight is expected to carry 200 passengers.
Iraq has dispatched diplomats to the border to “check on [the migrants’] safety and communicate with the relevant authorities”, Mr Sahaf said.
Regular service between the two capitals has been suspended, and Belarusian diplomatic missions in Baghdad and Erbil, capital of the Iraqi Kurdish region, have been closed for 10 days.
Western and Middle Eastern governments accuse Belarus of encouraging migrants to travel to the border with Poland to create a crisis at a time when the EU seeks to curb the flow of migrants into the bloc.
Up to 4,000 men, women and children from Iraq, Syria and Yemen seeking asylum in Europe are camped on the Belarus side of the border, and are enduring freezing conditions in makeshift shelters without proper food, clothing, medicine, and other essential supplies.
At least eight have died at the Polish border since the crisis started this summer.
Smugglers lure migrants to Belarus by claiming that once they get across the Polish border they can easily reach Germany, the favoured destination. Migrants can pay from $3,500 (€3,000 ) to $14,000 (€12,000) each for the journey.
Among the Iraqis are many Kurdish families from the Kurdish autonomous region. Although relatively more stable than elsewhere in Iraq, they argue this region suffers from poor governance, rampant corruption, high unemployment and lack of freedom.
Dominated for decades by two clans, the Barzanis in the west and the Talabanis in the east, the Kurdish region became a refuge for both Kurds and Arabs from the upheaval in the rest of Iraq caused by the 2003 US occupation.
Professionals and businessmen flocked to the Kurdish area, bringing skills and commercial acumen needed to build prosperity in a region long neglected by Baghdad.
However, the region became burdened with thousands of destitute refugees after June 2014 when Islamic State seized Mosul and a wide stretch of territory in northern Iraq. A further wave of refugees flowed into the Kurdish region during the US-led military campaign to crush Islamic State.
This created crowded refugee camps and insecurity. The problem has been exacerbated by attacks mounted by pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia militias on bases in Erbil hosting US troops. – Additional reporting Reuters