Live Updates: Plane to Bring Iraqi Migrants Home From Belarus

The evacuation flight comes amid a diplomatic push to ease the standoff at the E.U.’s eastern border. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany spoke with the Belarusian leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, angering some European allies who accuse him of manufacturing the crisis.,

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Migrants near a hotel on Wednesday in Minsk, Belarus.Credit…The New York Times

The Iraqi government said that a plane was expected to leave Belarus on Thursday to bring home migrants who are caught in the middle of a dispute between the Belarusian leader and the European Union.

The move by Iraq is part of efforts to ease the humanitarian crisis at the Belarusian border that has stranded thousands of migrants, many of them from the Middle East, trying to reach the European Union through neighboring Poland, a member of the bloc.

Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said that 430 Iraqis had registered to return on the flight, although it wasn’t clear how many would board the plane. That is a fraction of the thousands believed to be in Belarus, either at the border or in the capital, Minsk, after the government of Belarus lured migrants to the frontier and encouraged them to cross into the European Union — in retaliation, European leaders say, for sanctions imposed by the bloc after a disputed 2020 election.

The flight was scheduled to land first in Erbil, in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, at 6:15 p.m. local time (10:15 a.m. Eastern) and then in Baghdad.

Many Iraqi migrants have said they have no intention of returning to Iraq, and some have suggested that if they cannot find a way into the European Union, they might try to apply for asylum in Belarus — creating a possibly charged situation for the nation’s autocratic leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.

Unlike in past migrant crises, the vast majority of these travelers have arrived in Belarus by plane, but the major air routes they used to reach Minsk from the Middle East have been narrowing for days, slowing the flow of migrants into the country.

On Wednesday, Lebanon’s civil aviation authority instructed airlines to allow only Belarusian citizens and travelers with visas or residency permits for Belarus to board flights to the country. Last week, travel agents and thwarted travelers said that Iraqis, Syrians and Yemenis were no longer allowed to board flights to Minsk from Turkey, Iran or Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

The flight bans come after an intense diplomatic campaign by European Union members alarmed by the arrival of thousands of mostly Iraqi migrants into Belarus after it loosened its visa rules in August. Hoping for a path into the European Union, the migrants instead found themselves in freezing forest camps on the borders with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Belarus has denied fueling the crisis, and on Thursday, the Belarusian state airline, Belavia, said it had stopped allowing citizens from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen to board flights from Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, according to the state-run Belta news agency.

Iraq and the European Union are considering offering incentives for migrants to return home, including cash payments. But many migrants have leveraged their life savings or borrowed thousands of dollars to finance their trips, an amount likely to exceed any payments offered by governments.

A picture provided by the press office of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus shows him at a meeting in Minsk in Tuesday.Credit…Belarus President Press Office, via EPA

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is taking the lead in trying to find a diplomatic way out of the migrant crisis on the European Union’s eastern frontiers, talking with President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus — and aggravating some of her European allies.

Ms. Merkel, who on Wednesday had her second phone call this week with Mr. Lukashenko, is the first leader of an E.U. or NATO country in more than a year to have direct contact with a ruler the West calls illegitimate.

Her phone calls have not gone over well with Poland — which has described the massing of migrants on its border as an attack by Belarus — or with the Baltic states, all of which are on the eastern frontiers of both NATO and the E.U. They have accused the German leader of bypassing them and playing into the hands of Mr. Lukashenko and his main ally, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, speaking while traveling in Montenegro on Wednesday, said that his country “will not accept any agreements reached over our heads.”

Estonia’s foreign minister, Eva-Maria Liimets, said the West was in danger of rewarding Mr. Lukashenko for a crisis of his own making, as he tries to pressure the E.U. to lift sanctions against Belarus. “He wants the sanctions to be stopped, and to be recognized as head of state so he can continue,” Ms. Liimets said on Wednesday.

The governments of Lithuania and Latvia — which, like Poland, border Belarus and are trying to keep out migrants — were also displeased, according to European news media.

But Ms. Merkel’s spokesman, Stefan Seibert, said her meetings were held in “close coordination with the European Commission and after preliminary information from important partners in the region.”

That is not quite the same as saying she was speaking for the E.U., but Moscow seemed ready to interpret it that way. Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said Wednesday of Ms. Merkel’s contacts: “It is very important that contact has been made between representatives of the E.U. and the leadership of Belarus.”

Western leaders had shunned Mr. Lukashenko since his violent suppression last year of street demonstrations, after he claimed a landslide re-election that critics said was a sham. But the Kremlin says the West should deal directly with him to resolve the migrant standoff.

He wants not only recognition, but the lifting of E.U. sanctions imposed on his repressive government. Instead, the European Union moved this week to impose new sanctions in response to what it said was his deliberate engineering of the border crisis.

Ms. Merkel’s office released a low-key description of her conversation on Wednesday with Mr. Lukashenko, saying only that she had “underlined the need to provide humanitarian care and return options for the people affected,” working with the United Nations and the European Union.

Mr. Lukashenko’s office went much farther, claiming that the two leaders “agreed that the problem will be addressed at the level of Belarus and the E.U., and that the two sides will designate officials who will immediately enter into negotiations in order to resolve the existing problems,” the Belarus state news agency reported.

On Wednesday, Ms. Merkel’s office said she had also called Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, to underline “Germany’s full solidarity with Poland.”

It was unclear, but a subject of speculation, what leverage Ms. Merkel may have tried to use with Mr. Putin or Mr. Lukashenko. She has long been the European Union’s most influential leader, but she is also now a lame duck, holding office only until a new governing coalition is formed in Germany.

Supporters of activists outside a court before their trial in Mytilene port, in the island of Lesbos, Greece, on Thursday.Credit…Panagiotis Balaskas/Associated Press

As Polish volunteers struggle to provide humanitarian relief to migrants who cross the border with Belarus, a trial for two dozen aid workers is set to open on Thursday in Greece that offers a possible warning for those engaged in such efforts.

Two dozen aid workers, some of them foreigners, are being charged with espionage over their role in helping migrants who arrived in the country between 2016 and 2018.

The case will be heard in a court on Lesbos, the Greek island that was at the forefront of the European migration crisis that began in 2015.

The trial is opening at a time when Greece’s conservative government is toughening its stance on migration and on groups working with migrants, aligning itself with a hardening climate in Europe, which is grappling with a new migrant crisis at the Poland-Belarus border.

The Greek government has said it will not allow a repeat of the 2015-2016 crisis which saw thousands of migrants streaming across the Aegean Sea daily, overwhelming Greece’s rescue services. Rattled by fears of a new wave of refugees from Afghanistan, Greece has tightened the policing of its borders.

The defendants in the trial include 17 foreign nationals, some of them well known activists such as Syrian refugee Sarah Mardini, the sister of the Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini. The siblings captured international attention in 2015, at the peak of the migration crisis, after dragging their refugee boat to safety.

Ms. Mardini and the 23 other aid workers on trial could face up to eight years in prison if found guilty on charges of espionage, forgery and the unlawful use of radio frequencies.

Human rights groups say the prosecutions are absurd.

“The charges they face are farcical and should never have come to trial,” Nils Muiznieks, director of Amnesty International’s European Regional Office, said in a statement this week.

Migration experts say the trial on Lesbos is emblematic of a broader shift toward the criminalization of refugees and aid groups in parts of Europe.

“State authorities are progressively emboldened to take constantly harsher measures against migrants and those who help migrants,” said Francois Crepeau, an expert on international law and a former top United Nations official for migrants’ rights. Both official language and policies “increasingly portray migrants and their supporters as criminals,” he added.

In Hungary, the government has gone to extreme lengths to demonize migrants as well as criminalize the work of those trying to assist them. Refugees on the country’s border have been caged, starved and denied legal representation, according to Europe’s leading human rights agency, the Council of Europe.

Civic organizations that have tried to help them have been harassed and censored. And courts meant to protect the rights of these people are under immense pressure to do the bidding of the country’s increasingly authoritarian government.

President Victor Orban’s government has made it a criminal offense to help asylum seekers apply for protection — a policy that the European Court of Justice, the E.U.’s top court, ruled this week was in violation of Hungary’s obligations as a member of the bloc.

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