Hours after the fighting broke out, Belarusian border guards moved many of the migrants to take refuge in a nearby warehouse, where they spent the night on thin mattresses, receiving hot tea, bread and medical treatment from the Belarusian Red Cross, the Agency of the UN for Refugees and other aid groups. But it was not clear what would be next for the migrants, many of whom feared that their new accommodation was only a first step in a deportation process back to their countries of origin.
Families who left the scene of the fighting Tuesday night with exhausted children in tow were defeated. When asked by CNN where he would go next, one man said, “Back to Iraq. Goodbye Belarus.”
But as of Wednesday afternoon, there were still between 600 and 700 migrants stationed at the border fence, refusing to budge.
Heshw Muhammad, a 27-year-old from Iraqi Kurdistan, said she has been camping there for more than two weeks in the cold with her husband and young daughters, ages 2, 4 and 7. She says the family has nothing left in Iraq and is terrified that they will send her home.
“Before my children die, we need help. I have [a] message, we want to ask to go to Germany, “he said.
Tuesday’s violence, the worst in a confrontation on the eastern border of the European Union, underscores the dire human cost of the geopolitical deadlock unfolding between Belarus, a Russian ally, and Poland, a member of the EU bloc and the NATO. Neither side has been willing to back down, leaving migrants caught in the middle. At least nine people have died at the border in recent weeks, many of them from hypothermia, according to the Polish border guard agency.
Ahmed al-Hassan, a 19-year-old Syrian who drowned in a river last month while trying to cross from Belarus, was buried in a small town in northeastern Poland on Tuesday. His grieving family in Syria watched the torchlight funeral via video link.
Thousands of migrants like al-Hassan, mostly from the Middle East and Asia, began to appear on the Belarusian side of the border during the summer, walking on foot through forests, rivers and swamps, to reach Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, in its search for a better life in Europe. Few have succeeded.
And even for those who have crossed into Poland, it is not known whether they will be allowed to stay.
CNN spoke with two brothers from Afghanistan, ages 20 and 21, who walked for days on foot through forests in Belarus and crossed the border into eastern Poland, where they said they were met by a smuggler who took them to Warsaw. But shortly after arriving in the capital, they were detained by the police.
The brothers were being treated at a hospital in eastern Poland for hypothermia. They say they are desperate to meet their uncle in Germany, but are not sure whether the Polish authorities will allow them to continue their journey.
“When the government changed [and the] The Taliban took control of Afghanistan, they all quit their jobs and my parents are not working at the moment, there is no money, there is no food … I can’t get an education, schools and universities have been closed for a long time, “he said. one of the brothers: “That’s why I want to go to Germany.”
The Polish police took the brothers from the hospital after CNN left. It is unclear where they were taken.
Poland is under fire from international aid organizations who say they are violating international law by pushing asylum seekers back to Belarus, rather than accepting their applications for international protection. Poland defends its actions, saying they are legal.
Authorities across the border in Belarus told CNN on Wednesday they were awaiting news from officials in Munich about a possible “humanitarian corridor” to transport migrants into the country. President Alexander Lukashenko on Monday offered to take them to the German capital on his state airline if Poland refused to open its border.
But that option seems incredibly unlikely. German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass said on Monday night that Germany would not welcome the migrants and that the European Union’s plan was for them to return home.
In her second phone call in nearly as many days, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Lukashenko on Wednesday to underscore the need to ensure humanitarian care and return opportunities for affected people, with the support of the UN. and in cooperation with the EU Commission.
Early Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the commission would mobilize 700,000 euros (about $ 791,000) to deliver food, blankets, hygiene and first aid kits to refugees at the Belarusian border. “We are ready to do more. But the Belarusian regime must stop attracting people and putting their lives at risk,” von der Leyen said.
The EU has blamed Belarus for fabricating the crisis on the bloc’s eastern border, claiming the government has opened the floodgates to people desperate to flee a region beset by unemployment and instability. EU officials have called it a “hybrid war,” which they say is designed to punish Poland for harboring the president’s political opponents and pressuring the bloc to lift sanctions against Belarus. But it has had the opposite effect.
On Monday, Europe said it would impose new sanctions on Belarus targeting “everyone involved” in exacerbating the border crisis. The head of EU Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, announced at a press conference in Brussels that in the next few days the new sanctions would be confirmed against “people, airlines, travel agencies and all those involved in this illegal push by immigrants against our borders”.
It will be the fifth round of sanctions against Belarus by the EU following a disputed presidential election and the crackdown on dissidents.
Lukashenko’s government has repeatedly denied such claims, instead blaming the West for the crossings and accusing it of mistreating migrants.
To back up its own description of the crisis, Minsk has allowed CNN and other international media outlets to visit the border and report on scenes of migrants camped there. Many have been housed in flimsy tents, with temperatures falling well below freezing overnight.
Warsaw, meanwhile, has tried to hide the crisis, blocking the Polish side of the border from journalists, humanitarian workers and doctors amid a widespread state of emergency.
On Wednesday, CNN spoke with families who had sought refuge in the warehouse about a kilometer from the border, which normally houses cargo. Spread out on blankets and sleeping bags, their belongings piled up around them, they were relieved to emerge from the cold but worried for their future and bruised by the ordeal, in which some spent thousands of dollars on Belarusian visas and flights to Minsk. .
Many of the migrants say they traveled to Belarus in search of job opportunities, health care for family members and a more stable life in Europe.
28-year-old mother Shoxan Bapir Hussain, her husband and four-year-old son Azhi Ali Xder were among them. CNN met the family a few days earlier at the frozen border camp. Hussain said the warehouse was better, warmer. “We have food, we have [a] bed, “he said.
Hussain’s family embarked on the journey from Iraqi Kurdistan because of their son, whom they say needs surgery for a back condition. Azhi, who has splints on her legs, cannot walk. It is those hopes and dreams that have kept people here despite the conditions.
“I want to go to Germany … I think Germany has humanity,” Hussain said.
Matthew Chance and Zahra Ullah reported from Belarus, while Antonia Mortensen reported from Poland. Eliza Mackintosh wrote and reported from London. Magda Chodownik, Kung Kaminski, Fred Pleitgen, and Stephanie Halasz contributed to this report.