Poland-Belarus border: Shivering, hungry migrants hope the EU will make a good decision

After a week shivering in sodden woodland, the largest group of migrants stuck between the serried ranks of Belarusian and Polish border guards decided to move. We were en route to their camp but they had other plans.

“It’s too cold and we are in a place that’s quite open, we have no protection from the rain and snow. And all the children are coughing because of smoke,” a contact, Dino, told me by voice message as I tried to arrange our meeting.

His next message was telling: “Hopefully the EU will make a good decision for us.”

Clearly rumours were abounding. The EU was looking to resolve the situation. They would help. If the migrants positioned themselves directly on the road crossing to Poland, maybe the EU would pay attention.

“They are working every day to push the Polish government to open the gates and let us in,” Mohammed Latif, a migrant from Iraqi Kurdistan, told me once we arrived. I didn’t want to break it to him that that was probably not the plan.

The EU was actually deliberating tougher sanctions on the Belarusian regime. An attempt to hold those involved in the movement of migrants to account – Alexander Lukashenko‘s lackeys, state-run travel agencies and airlines involved in ferrying migrants to what they hoped would be a better life.

But the German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in also in conversation with the Belarusian leader about how to resolve the crisis. Iraqi authorities were talking of repatriation flights starting this week.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was not all that keen on Lukashenko’s threat to turn off the gas taps from Russia. The Belarusian leader had the air of a rabbit in the headlights.

Still, pitching their tents on tarmac with a tiny bit of cover from the customs awning, repatriation was far from the minds of those I spoke to. They were looking forwards, not back. Just one older woman, sobbing, desperate to go back to her home in Suleimaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“Deport, deport,” she begged, one of the few English words she knew.

What is surprising about this particular wave of migrants is that almost all of them come from Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the more stable corners of a troubled country in a war-torn region of the world. Jobs are hard to come by, they said.

Salaries are not what they should be. Corruption is rife. Europe promises a better life and they know people there who encourage them to keep trying.

Someone somewhere in the Belarusian administration must have a good thing going with Iraqi Kurdistan, because the connections run deep.

“They said the Belarusian president has a problem with the EU and Poland so he decided to open up the gates,” one man tells me. “Before this we were going to Turkey and Italy and Greece in small boats, this way is more safe.”

It is definitely more safe but it is still dangerous. Nights are now sub-zero temperatures. Everyone is shivering, dirty and hungry.

Children should not be here. But they are also the only ray of light, playing in the dirt, a kaleidoscope of tears and laughter, dragging toys past the sleeping bags and the sad-looking tents which is all the shelter their parents can give them.

Many of these families have sold everything they have to get this far. Going back is not an option.

That is a massive problem for them, for Lukashenko and for Europe. We will return tomorrow to the border crossing on the M6, between Belarus and Poland, as the migrants rub their eyes from yet another sleep depraved night, as Europe wonders what to do, as Lukashenko wonders whether he’s pushed it too far.

“What can you tell us?” they’ll ask again. And again, I won’t know what to say.

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