The Iraqi government has announced the first flight to repatriate migrants at the Belarus-Poland border. Iraqi nationals could return home on a "voluntary" basis on Thursday, Foreign Office spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf told Iraqi television Monday night. He said authorities had "registered 571 Iraqis" in the border area who had agreed to return home voluntarily.
Thousands of people, mainly from the Middle East, are currently stranded in the Belarusian-Polish border region. On Monday, the Belarusian state news agency Belta once again published photos of people warming themselves at campfires in makeshift camps. The migrants, who are said to have been pushed into the border area by Belarusian security forces, are persevering in the forest despite sub-zero temperatures. Several times, larger groups tried to break through the fence in the direction of Poland.
The EU accuses authoritarian Belarusian ruler Alexandr Lukashenko of smuggling people in from crisis areas and then pushing them toward the EU's external border - in retaliation for sanctions. Poland's border guard recently expressed fears that Belarusian security forces were preparing migrants to breach the barrier. A rumor had apparently spread in the camp that the border would be opened at the beginning of the week and people would be allowed further into Germany. Both Poland and the German government denied this from the official side.
EU foreign ministers will meet in Brussels on Monday to discuss further steps in the conflict. According to German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD), sanctions against the Belarusian regime are to be expanded to include people "who directly or indirectly" support the smuggling of migrants to Belarus. Airlines that continue to participate in the transport of refugees via Belarus could have their overflight rights and landing permits in the EU revoked, according to Maas.
Over the weekend, the private Syrian airline Cham Wings had suspended its flights to Belarus. The Turkish government had previously banned people from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen from traveling on to Belarus. Air traffic between Baghdad and Minsk had already been suspended in August.
The Belta news agency quoted Lukashenko as warning Monday that his country would respond in the event of further sanctions by the European Union. About the migrants at the border, Lukashenko said Belarus was trying to convince them to go home, but unsuccessfully.