Iraq has begun to fly back some of its citizens who had flown in to Belarus on tourist visas, in the hope of making it over the border to Lithuania and the EU. Eighty reportedly returned to Baghdad on Monday, and 200 are expected to make the journey on Tuesday.
A spokesperson at the Iraqi Foreign Ministry told the German news agency dpa that Iraq is in the process of flying back "280 stranded migrants from Minsk." The foreign ministry confirmed that 80 were booked on to a flight on Monday and they expect 200 to board an Iraqi Airlines flight on Tuesday, August 10.
In the last few weeks, hundreds of Iraqis have reportedly flown in to Minsk from Iraq on tourist visas in the hope of crossing the country’s border with Lithuania, and thus making it into the European Union (EU) bloc.
Dpa reports that Lithuania has said around 3,500 migrants have already crossed the border into Lithuania from Belarus. The Baltic states fear that in August and September a total of 18,000 migrants from Iraq and other countries could try to cross the border.
Voices from Rudninkai camp
Conditions in the border camps for those who have already arrived are reportedly difficult. An InfoMigrants team has been talking to migrants in the Rudninkai camp in south-eastern Lithuania about the conditions they find themselves in.
The camp is not far from the Belarus-Lithuanian border. According to the InfoMigrants team, about 800 people are currently being housed in the camp, the majority from Iraq, about 25 Syrians, one Egyptian and a couple from various African states.
One Iraqi man told the team that he would like to return to Iraq. "Here it is worse, it is like I am in prison," he explained. "This was not what I was aiming for."
A second man said that despite the conditions in the camp, where people complain of a lack of sanitary conditions or access to proper healthcare, "I will do everything I can to stay here. I will not return to Iraq."
A Syrian man is also determined to stay, declaring "if someone tries to deport me then the only option left to me would be to kill myself."
Pictures show some of the men in the camp standing at the wire fence, some of them lifting their tops to show their ailments.
Migrants as bargaining chips
The Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko has been accused by countries like Lithuania and the EU of using the migrants as bargaining chips, pushing them to cross the border in the hope of putting pressure on the EU to relieve its sanction regime on his country.
Recently he has openly threatened the EU that he will let migrants and asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other countries cross the border to increase the pressure. He has also ordered some parts of his borders to be closed, in an attempt to stop Lithuania and other neighbors pushing some of those who crossed back to Belarus.
Repression and sanctions
On Monday one year ago, Lukashenko won the national elections, which opponents said was rigged. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in an unprecedented protest against his rule since he became president in 1994.
Western governments like the United States, Britain and Canada increased their sanctions on the country on Monday. France24 reported that the White House accused Lukashenko’s regime of committing "an assault against the democratic aspirations and human rights of the Belarusian people."
The UK, reported France 24, said it would stop Belarusian air carriers from flying over or landing in Britain and tightened the screws on various financial sanctions.
The West will 'choke on these sanctions'
Lukashenko insisted he won the election fairly and responded with a brutal crackdown on opponents in which many have been arrested or gone into exile abroad. Lukashenko said that Belarus would retaliate when "hit" and that western countries should not use sanctions against Belarus.
"(Sanctions) can have the opposite effect, which is shown by the reality of today's events on the Belarusian-Polish, Belarusian-Ukrainian, Belarusian-Lithuanian, and Belarusian-Latvian borders," he told reporters during an eight-hour news conference on Monday, reported the BBC.
The mood at the press conference, commented the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg, appeared "defiant." France 24 said that Lukashenko vowed the West would "choke on these sanctions." He added, "you are risking starting World War II. Is that what you are trying to push us and the Russians to?"
With Reuters and dpa, BBC and France 24 and additional on the ground reporting by InfoMigrants at Rudninkai camp in Lithuania.