Belarus authorities cleared the main camps where migrants had huddled at the border with Poland on Thursday, in what appeared to be a major development in a crisis that has spiralled in recent weeks into an East-West confrontation.
Belarus state news agency Belta said the migrants sheltering in the forest had been brought to a warehouse in Belarus away from the frontier. A spokesperson for Polish border guards confirmed the camps had been cleared.
“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. … There are still some people around, but it’s clearly emptying out.”
European countries accuse Belarus of having deliberately created the crisis by flying in migrants from the Middle East and pushing them to attempt to cross the borders illegally into Poland and Lithuania. Minsk denies deliberately fomenting it.
In recent weeks, hundreds of migrants per night have tried to cross the frontier and have clashed with Polish troops at the border. Around ten are believed to have died in the freezing woods.
The move to clear the camps comes during a week of intensified diplomacy. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by telephone twice in three days the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, normally shunned by European leaders.
Belarus said earlier on Thursday Lukashenko had proposed a plan to Merkel to resolve the crisis, under which the EU would take in 2,000 people while Minsk would send another 5,000 back home.
There was no immediate response from the EU to the announcement of that plan. However, shortly before it was announced, the European Commission said there could be no negotiation with Belarus over the plight of the migrants.
Earlier on Thursday, hundreds of Iraqis checked in at a Minsk airport for flight back to Iraq, the first repatriation flight of its kind since August.