The hastily constructed migrant encampments at the main border crossing into Poland from Belarus were cleared by the Belarusian government on Thursday morning, removing, for the moment, a major flashpoint that has raised tensions across Europe.
The patch of land nicknamed “the jungle” — only days ago the site of violent clashes between migrants trying to push through the razor wire and Polish security forces blasting them with water cannons — was now a wasteland of garbage, abandoned tents and smoldering fires.
Along the tangle of razor wire at the border, there was not a migrant in sight on Thursday afternoon. Under the gray gloom of the November sky, a phalanx of Polish soldiers remained in formation, pressing up against the wire.
While the clearing of the camps promised to ease the immediate suffering of those living rough in freezing conditions, the authorities in Belarus offered no indication of where those who flew to the Eastern European country in the hope of building a life in the West would go now that they were being directed away from the border.
Still, on Thursday, a steady stream of people — escorted by heavily armed Belarusian security forces, their faces covered by black balaclavas — made their way down a half-mile road to a government-run warehouse where they were offered refuge from the mud and the muck.
For Masoud Mahdi, 35, who had spent 11 days in the jungle with his pregnant wife and young daughter, it was enough to just get out of the cold. “We were living worse than dogs,” he said as he made his way to the warehouse.
“Last night was impossible,” he added. “It was raining and freezing and we had to leave.”
Still, Mr. Mahdi said, he did not want to return to Iraqi Kurdistan. He wanted to make it to Germany.
Western leaders believe the crisis at the border was manufactured by the Belarusian government, which lured migrants, mostly on flights from the Middle East, to Belarus with easily obtainable visas and the suggestion of a path across its borders to the European Union.
The flow of migrants into Belarus has been largely cut off as airlines restrict flights from the Middle East and the crowds moving to the border appear to have stopped.
But thousands already in Belarus face an uncertain fate, and the authorities have given little indication of where they might go.
Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said that 430 Iraqis had registered to return home on a repatriation flight on Thursday. But that is only a fraction of the thousands of migrants in Belarus, and there was little sign that most would volunteer to leave. Many expressed hope they could still find a way into the European Union. Some said they would simply stay in Belarus, which would present an unexpected challenge for President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus.
Even as Belarus cleared a large migrant encampment on the border with Poland on Thursday, easing tensions along the European Union’s eastern flank, Western leaders were skeptical that the crisis was drawing to a close.
In recent days, Belarus has sought to portray itself as taking the lead in what it has described as a humanitarian crisis. But Western leaders believe it is a crisis engineered by the authoritarian leader of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, and a cudgel he could brandish again — given that the fate of the thousands of migrants in the country remains uncertain.
The Group of 7 leading industrial powers castigated the Belarusian leader in a statement on Thursday, charging him with the “orchestration of irregular migration across its borders.”
“We are united in our solidarity with Poland, as well as Lithuania and Latvia, who have been targeted by this provocative use of irregular migration as a hybrid tactic,” the group said.
At the same time, the European Union said it would send nearly $800,000 in humanitarian relief to Belarus.
“Europe is at the side of the people trapped at the border with Belarus,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, wrote on Twitter.
While German Chancellor Angela Merkel has led a diplomatic push to find a longer term solution — reaching out to Mr. Lukeshenko for the second time on Wednesday — leaders from Poland and the Baltic States said that engaging with Mr. Lukashenko would offer him legitimacy.
In talks with Ms. Merkel, Mr. Lukashenko reportedly proposed that the European Union create a “humanitarian corridor” that would allow entry into the bloc for 2,000 migrants, and that Belarus would repatriate 5,000 others to their countries. Any deal would need to include the countries that border Belarus, and they have given no indication of going along with such a plan.
A senior German official confirmed the proposal but said that Ms. Merkel had declined it. “Germany did not agree to it. It’s a European problem where Germany does not act alone,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity per diplomatic protocol.
Officials in Poland — where the government has dispatched thousands of soldiers to the frontier and used water cannons this week to push people back from the main crossing — warned on Thursday that the threat to both its border and the European Union remained high.
The Polish Defense Ministry accused the Belarusian security services of directing small groups of migrants to less heavily defended parts of the 250-mile-long frontier. Journalists are barred from the area, so it is impossible to verify their claims.
The Polish authorities released videos they claimed showed migrants being led by Belarusian security officers.
The Defense Ministry said on Thursday that about 100 migrants were caught trying to cross the border overnight.
As the Polish government pressed ahead with legislation that would extend the country’s most sweeping state of emergency in modern history, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told the German publication Bild that “by defending the Polish border, we defend the whole of Europe.”
A Belavia airline boarding pass from Dubai to Minsk left under a birch tree. A child’s overalls abandoned next to the old rail track, linking Belarus with Poland. An eye shadow palette hidden among brown, damp leaves.
These are not regular sights in the Bialowieza Forest, one of the last remaining swathes of a primordial forest that used to stretch across Europe, home to bison and deers. The people who come across them are not regular hikers, either. They are residents and activists looking for asylum seekers from the Middle East, victims of a standoff between a Belarusian government trying to funnel them into Poland, and a Polish government, supported by the European Union, adamant at keeping them out.
“We used to come to the forest in search of the beauty of nature,” said Iza, a local resident who has been helping asylum seekers, and who asked to be identified only by her first name for fear of repercussions from authorities and far-right groups. “Now we are looking for things that seem out of place.”
In the face of a growing humanitarian crisis and a near-total absence of state support, locals have stepped in, providing migrants with food, water, warm clothes and power banks. They relentlessly patrol the forest, looking for people in need.
“In the beginning, I could not even look into their eyes,” said Maciej Jaworski, who lives close to the border in what is known as the exclusion zone, which the Polish authorities designate as off-limits for nonresidents. “I can give them food and water, talk to them. If they don’t need medical help, this is pretty much it.”
Sometimes they spot migrants, shivering under ancient trees, starving and desperate. But more often they find objects: haunting traces of people that passed through and disappeared. Some seem to have been abandoned in haste. A backpack filled with documents written in Arabic, one page carefully folded into a green-and-red jewelry box. Warm shoes scattered at the edge of the forest.
“This probably means they were running from border guards,” said Iza’s husband, who asked to be identified only as Roman. “If they were rushing to get into a smuggler’s car, they would have taken the documents with them.” Since the beginning of the crisis, many asylum seekers have been summarily pushed back into Belarus by Polish guards.
A mass of empty backpacks, sleeping bags and waterproof jackets abandoned in a meadow, where the forest transforms into vast fields, betray the location of a pickup spot for smugglers, who drive some of the asylum seekers who make it through the forest farther west, toward Germany.
Some objects hang on trees — like a pair of ski pants, carefully folded on a branch, lying under an empty tuna can with a Belarusian label. Perhaps that person had made it out of the forest. Iza recognized the pants as part of a rescue package that she had hung on a tree a few days earlier. “We will now give them to someone else,” she said. “Winter is coming.”
An Iraqi repatriation flight departed from 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 operated by Iraqi Airways, the state airline, although it wasn’t clear how many had boarded 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.
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.
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 soon 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 trial, which was postponed on Thursday, is expected 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 François Crépeau, 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.
Asylum seekers from the Middle East arriving on the Polish side of the border, many of them in dire condition, are at risk of being pushed back into Belarus by the Polish authorities. Their best chance for getting food, water or medical assistance is reaching out to local activists.
Although providing help is legal, activists describe operating in fear of the authorities. They say it is like playing “a cat-and-mouse game” to get to stranded migrants before border guards.
The Polish government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice party, has been accused by human rights organizations of illegally pushing back asylum seekers who manage to enter Poland from Belarus.
Local roads and forests surrounding the emergency zone, which is off limits to anyone but residents, are being patrolled by the police and special army units.
In the absence of organized help, volunteers roam the forests looking for stranded migrants, leaving rescue packages containing food, water and warm clothes on trees. Support is coming from across Poland, with people sending homemade soups, some of them attempts at Middle Eastern cuisine, and good wishes. Tamara, a 4-year-old from Torun, about 300 miles from the border, made a drawing wishing asylum seekers good luck that her parents put in an aid package.
At least eleven people have died at the border in recent weeks, according to the Polish authorities, but the real death toll might be much higher.
Medics on the Border, a team of volunteer doctors, has been providing aid to migrants stranded in the vast and damp forests straddling the Polish-Belarusian frontier. Even the doctors are barred by Polish authorities from operating in the emergency zone.
The doctors describe the dilemma of treating patients they then have to leave in the middle of the forest. Most asylum seekers do not want to visit a hospital because of the risk of being detained and pushed back into Belarus.
“There is no follow-up, and you cannot survive in the Polish woods for a long time in winter,” Jakub Sieczko, an anesthesiologist from Warsaw and a coordinator for Medics on the Border, said in an interview. “It is sick that we have to hide people from state authorities.”
Wojtek Wilk, the head of the Polish Center for International Aid, a charity that took over operations on Monday from Medics on the Border, called the situation “an unusual crisis.”
He said that he had 20 years of humanitarian aid experience in countries like Nepal, Ethiopia and Lebanon, but that he had never come across such legal uncertainty for the people he was supposed to be helping. The charity is currently negotiating with the authorities for access to the emergency zone, Mr. Wilk added.
With the news media barred from the border area, a growing misinformation crisis is contributing to the sense of confusion and insecurity among local residents. And as the standoff on the border has been escalating, some locals say it brings back bloody memories of World War II, still vivid in the border region of Podlasie, which suffered extensively under the Soviet and the Nazi occupation.
“During the war, I would face death by firing squad,” said Maria Ancipuk, who has been helping migrants in her hometown, Michalowo. “Today, in the worst-case scenario, I will go to prison. This is nothing.”
Mr. Sieczko said the situation reminded him of “the darkest moments in Poland’s history.”