BAGHDAD: Iraq is sending more planes to Belarus to repatriate more than 800 migrants stuck on the border with Poland, adding to around 1,000 already collected since operations started, authorities said on Friday.
Hundreds of Iraqis, most of them Kurds, have been flown back since repatriation flights began on Nov. 18 from the ex-Soviet state.
Thousands of migrants have been camped on the border there for weeks hoping to enter the EU, often in bitter conditions — with those returning to Iraq showing injuries from the freezing cold.
Another flight on Friday will bring 431 people, followed by a flight on Saturday to collect 430 more, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Al-Sahaf said.
Most of the thousands of Iraqis stranded on the border say they have spent their savings, sold valuables and even taken loans to escape economic hardship in Iraq and start a new life in the EU.
The West accuses Belarus of bringing in would-be migrants — mostly from the Middle East — under the false pretense they would be to cross into EU members Poland and Lithuania.
Belarus has denied the claim and criticized the EU for not taking in the migrants.
Aid groups say at least 11 migrants have died on the two sides of the border since the crisis began in the summer, and have criticized the Polish government over its policy of pushing migrants back.
Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko told migrants on the border with Poland on Friday that he would not try to stop them from reaching the EU, urging Germany to take them in.
In footage released by state media, Lukashenko was shown visiting a center near the Polish border hosting hundreds of migrants who traveled to Belarus in the hopes of reaching Europe.
Lukashenko was shown walking among and talking to the migrants in the center, then addressing them outside from a podium in a campaign-style speech.
Dressed in winter coats as they stood in the cold, the migrants appeared confused, though there were scatterings of applause.
“If anybody wants to go West — that is your right. We will not try to catch you, beat you, and hold you behind barbed wire,” Lukashenko said.
“We will work with you to achieve your dream.”
With many of the migrants hoping to reach Germany, Lukashenko said he was asking the German people to welcome them.
“Please take these people in. This number is not very big. They want to live in Germany — 2,000 people is not a big problem for Germany,” he said.
In recent months thousands of migrants from the Middle East have traveled to Belarus in the hopes of getting across the border into EU member Poland.
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