Stranded on Europe’s Border, Migrants Become Pawns in EU-Belarus Battle

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Hundreds of migrants stranded at Belarus’ border with the European Union have become pawns in an escalating standoff between Belarus’s authoritarian leader and the West.

Since spring, authorities in Lithuania, Latvia and Poland have reported a spike in illegal border crossings from Belarus. European officials have accused President

Alexander Lukashenko

of using the migrants, who are primarily from the Middle East and Africa, to pressure the EU by allowing them into his country and dispatching them to the bloc’s border.

The crisis has escalated in recent days after the migrants found themselves marooned in a forest at the Belarusian-Polish border. They are barred from crossing into Poland by Polish authorities and blocked from returning to the Belarusian capital of Minsk by the Belarusian government.

Wesam Gaswat, a Syrian, was stuck in the forest for a week. For at least two days, he had little shelter and no food or water. On Wednesday, he managed to cross the border into Poland and later reached Germany, according to an acquaintance who connected with him.

Mr. Lukashenko has denied using the migrants to retaliate against the EU, which has slapped him and his regime with four rounds of individual and economic sanctions since last August’s presidential elections.

Belarusian authorities in May forcibly grounded a Ryanair plane to detain a Belarusian opposition activist who was aboard. They have violently cracked down on protesters calling for Mr. Lukashenko’s removal from office following last year’s election that he claimed as a landslide victory but opposition leaders and European officials said was fraudulent.

Belarusian authorities forcibly grounded a Ryanair plane to detain an opposition activist who was on board.



Photo:

Imago/Imago/Zuma Press

Mr. Lukashenko has said that Belarus has a right to protect its borders and the EU shouldn’t expect help with the migrant emergency.

“You have launched a hybrid war against us, you are waging a sanctions war against us, and do you want us to protect you here?” Mr. Lukashenko said last month. “It won’t be that way.”

EU lawmakers are now calling for fresh sanctions on Minsk in the wake of the border crisis. Earlier this week, Belarus’s parliament voted to suspend an agreement it had with the EU to take back migrants who illegally crossed the border.

“Belarus is showing now that the West shouldn’t meddle in Belarusian affairs,” said Alexei Dzermant, an analyst at the Minsk-based Center for the Study and Development of Continental Integration in Eurasia.

Armed Polish border guards near the border with Belarus.



Photo:

Str/Zuma Press

Over the summer, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia declared states of emergency over the inflows of migrants, sending military, police and border guards to the border frontier. The EU sent border guards and extra asylum officials to help Latvia and Lithuania with the arrivals.

EU officials have persuaded Iraq to suspend direct flights to Minsk, although Iraqis can still transit to Belarus through other countries and can get an entry visa upon arrival in the Belarusian capital.

The response from Poland toward the migrants has been particularly harsh, with human-rights groups alleging that Warsaw is refusing to process asylum applications and pushing them back to Belarus after being detained. Belarusian officials have also accused Poland of pushing migrants over its border.

President Alexander Lukashenko has said the EU shouldn’t expect help with the migrant emergency.



Photo:

Nikolai Petrov/Zuma Press

Polish officials didn’t respond to a request for comment. Polish customs data shows that hundreds of people are trying to cross the Polish border daily, with 483 attempts on Monday alone.

Six people have died after crossing the Polish border since late summer, according to Marta Gorczynska, a human rights lawyer with refugee advocacy organization Grupa Granica, or Border Group.

The deaths have triggered growing alarm in Brussels over the measures Warsaw is using to keep migrants out.

In recent years, the bloc has become increasingly worried that countries, such as Turkey, Belarus and Russia, could use the issue to cause political damage to the bloc.

As the crisis plays out many of the migrants share tales of desperation.

Balsam Abdul Sattar Khalaf traveled from Iraq to Belarus on Aug. 31, with a goal of reaching Germany or the Netherlands “just to breathe clean air and have a safe life away from threats,” he said.

Speaking by phone through an interpreter, the former police officer and Sunni Muslim from Baghdad said he fled Iraq after being threatened by Shiite Muslim militias, who killed his three brothers and forced him to divorce his wife, who is Shiite.

Mr. Khalaf, 55, said he traveled to Belarus with his eight family members, including four grandchildren under the age of 10. Two of his sons had already made it to Europe, he said.

Upon arriving in Minsk, the family rented an apartment for $40 a day. A smuggler in Poland promised that once they crossed over the Belarusian border, taxis would be waiting to drive them to Germany, Mr. Khalaf said.

Lithuanian guards patrolling the border with Belarus.



Photo:

Mindaugas Kulbis/Associated Press

He said he paid the smuggler €12,000, the equivalent of almost $14,000, but once he arrived in Minsk he couldn’t reach the contact by phone to complete the transport arrangements.

After two weeks, the family paid a regular taxi $600 to drive them to Belarus’ border with Poland. They were taken to an area near a forest, which they traversed on foot for almost a day, before reaching the border, Mr. Khalaf said.

They were met by military personnel, who at first promised to help the family cross the border, Mr. Khalaf said. But the soldiers, some of whom identified themselves as Russian army reservists, detained them. The Russian Defense Ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

“They beat us with sticks, they took our money saying they would bring us food, baby milk and baby diapers, but they lied,” Mr. Khalaf said. “They only brought us a barrel of dirty water.”

The family was held in the forest for more than a week with around 200 other Middle Eastern and African migrants. The children cried day and night from hunger, Mr. Khalaf said. His family ate leftover scraps threw in the trash by soldiers.

They fled the detention area Wednesday night, sneaking into the forest on the Polish side of the border, where the smuggler arranged for a car to meet them several miles away and ferry them to Germany, less than an eight-hour drive away.

They ran through the forest for miles, but Mr. Khalaf, who had previously suffered a heart attack, couldn’t keep up. He told his family to continue without him as he remained in the Polish forest.

On Thursday, his daughter called to say she and her family had managed to reach Germany.

“I’m so happy for them,” Mr. Khalaf said, as he readied to continue the forest trek to a location where he hoped a car would be waiting to take him to reunite with his family.

Children near a holding facility for illegal migrants in Eisenhuttenstadt, Germany.



Photo:

Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Write to Ann M. Simmons at ann.simmons@wsj.com and Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com

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