Minsk proposes plan to ease Belarus-Poland border crisis

BELARUS-Belarus has pledged to return 5,000 asylum seekers and refugees back to their home countries as part of a proposal to fix the crisis along its border with Poland, a spokeswoman for President Alexander Lukashenko has been quoted as saying.

Natalya Eismont said on Thursday that the Belarusian leader had discussed the plan with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Belarus's BELTA state news agency reported.

Under the proposal, Minsk also wants the European Union to take in 2,000 asylum seekers and refugees who are camped out in freezing conditions along the frontier, having been denied entry into the bloc.

"The European Union creates a humanitarian corridor for the 2,000 refugees who are in the camp. We undertake to facilitate – as far as possible and if they wish – the remaining 5,000 to return to their homeland," Eismont said, summarising the plan.

Iraqis board repatriation flight

Merkel, who has spoken to Lukashenko twice in recent days, had agreed to discuss the proposal with the 27-member EU, of which Poland is a member, BELTA reported.

However, there was no immediate reaction from Berlin and it was unclear if the plan would be acceptable to the bloc, especially as the return of 5,000 of the asylum seekers and refugees was hedged with conditions.

The EU's executive arm, the European Commission, had earlier said there was no question of negotiation with Lukashenko over the crisis, while Slovenia's Interior Minister Ales Hojs on Thursday called for the bloc to seal its external borders.

Speaking at an international conference on migration in Sarajevo, Hojs compared the current with the 2015 European refugee crisis, when the EU accepted about a million people fleeing war in Syria.

But, he said, there was a big difference.

"There is no more 'Refugees Welcome'," Hojs told the conference.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Iraqis who have camped for weeks at the border boarded a Baghdad-bound repatriation flight on Thursday.

"Unfortunately, only about 400 refugees have agreed to return home. In all, to be precise, in the plane that left today there were 374 passengers, mostly Iraqi citizens," Eismont said.

"We're fulfilling our promises, while the EU has not yet fulfilled a single obligation," she added.

Conditions worsening

The EU recently expanded sanctions against Belarus due to the migration crisis.

The bloc has accused Lukashenko's government of having lured the asylum seekers and refugees to Belarus's border with Poland in revenge for earlier sanctions over a disputed August 2020 election, which gave him a sixth term and sparked mass anti-government protests.

Minsk has rejected that as absurd and said the EU must lift sanctions if it wants the crisis resolved.

Al Jazeera's Jonah Hull, reporting from the town of Sokolka, near Poland's border with Belarus, said conditions on the ground remained grim.

"It's getting colder by the day here, and that is going to take its toll on people living in very different circumstances," he said.

"They are aware now that there is nowhere else for them to go, there is no way forward into the European Union, which is the only reason they came here, on a promise from the Belarusians that they would be allowed through."

Aid groups have said at least 11 asylum seekers and refugees have died on both sides of the border since the crisis began earlier this year.

Alongside Poland, fellow eastern EU member states Latvia and Lithuania have refused to accept asylum seekers and refugees aiming to enter the bloc via Belarus.

People who have managed to enter the EU are reluctant to turn back, and many are effectively trapped in forested borderlands as winter sets in.(mr/aje)

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