Migrants used as pawns in E.U.’s geopolitical tug-of-war return home traumatized

Thousands of migrants remain trapped at the border between Belarus and Poland — with many living without shelter amid winter conditions. They're pawns in a standoff between the leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenka, and the European Union. Producer Ali Rogin starts with the situation in Belarus, and special correspondent Simona Foltyn reports from northern Iraq on some migrants who've returned.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, thousands of migrants remain trapped at the border between Belarus and Poland, now with the snow falling, and many living without shelter. They're pawns in a standoff between the leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, and the European Union. And while many migrants remain, many have decided to return home.

    In a moment, special correspondent Simona Foltyn will report from Northern Iraq on some who've returned there.

    But, first, Ali Rogin starts with the situation in Belarus.

  • Ali Rogin:

    On the Belarus side of the border with Poland, migrants who once hid in the woods are now stacked in government warehouses. They clamor for electrical outlets. They use outdoor hoses to bathe in the freezing cold.

    It beats sleeping in the forest, but not by much. Despite the shelter, the migrants are still left out in the cold, caught in a power play by Europe's last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko.

  • Melinda Haring, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council:

    Lukashenko has orchestrated the migrant crisis on the border, and it's retribution for E.U. sanctions.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Melinda Haring is the deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank. She said that, as Lukashenko became more authoritarian and more isolated in the West, he sought ways to appear legitimate.

  • Melinda Haring:

    He is saying: I control the migrants. I'm in charge of the situation here, and you're going to have to negotiate with me.

  • Ali Rogin:

    His regime used social media campaigns, offering visas, direct flights and hotel reservations to people in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. They lured migrants to Belarus with the promise of getting to the European Union.

    But when they arrived, authorities abandoned them at European borders. In response, the European Union threatened new sanctions. In the past week, camps on the Belarus side of the border have disappeared.

  • Melinda Haring:

    It reached such a fever pitch that Lukashenko had to back down.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Belarus sent some migrants to the warehouses, and many others back towards Europe. These siblings from Syria said Belarus officials drove them to the Polish border.

  • Man (through translator):

    They forced us every day to cross the Polish border. They told us: "You either die in Belarus or you keep pushing towards Poland."

  • Ali Rogin:

    An aid group found the siblings, and Polish border guards reviewed their documents.

    But most migrants on the Polish border are treated harshly, leading to scenes like this, pushed out by Belarus state TV, of clashes between guards and civilians. Aid workers say Poland set up an exclusion zone from which they are forbidden.

    Stefan Lehmeier is the deputy director of Europe programs for the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian group.

  • Stefan Lehmeier, International Rescue Committee:

    Anybody who is in there and needs help can only get that help from local residents, if those local residents respond or happen to find them. We cannot go in and help them, and even ambulances are turned away.

  • Ali Rogin:

    He said Poland won't process asylum claims.

  • Stefan Lehmeier:

    These asylum seekers know that they will have a hard time having their asylum claim assessed by Poland. They know that, most likely, if they get caught here in this country, they will be pushed back into Belarus, which would be disastrous for them.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Poland says it is fighting a Russian-backed scheme to destabilize Europe.

  • Mateusz Morawiecki, Polish Prime Minister (through translator):

    Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of a longer crisis that Lukashenko's regime has caused, probably directed by the Kremlin. It is an attempt to breach the Eastern border of NATO and the European Union.

  • Ali Rogin:

    But the scenes on the border play straight into Lukashenko's hands.

    Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus (through translator): We need to show the poles that we are not barbarians. We don't want any escalation, but we will protect those hapless folks as much as we can.

  • Melinda Haring:

    So, this is a great opportunity for Lukashenko. Lukashenko can get in their face and say: You guys are hypocrites. You say you believe in international law. Well, how on earth are you pushing people back to Belarus?

  • Ali Rogin:

    Sick of being pawns in a long game, cold, tired, and abused, many migrants are now heading home.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    I'm Simona Foltyn in Northern Iraq.

    This is the final stop of a two-month-long odyssey to reach Europe, a half-finished house in a dusty, desolate suburb of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. This Kurdish family of eight sold all their belongings and borrowed $20,000 to pay for the journey to Belarus, in hopes of reaching Germany.

    Instead, they became pawns in the geopolitical tug-of-war between Belarus and the European Union.

    Jeehan Harbi tells me their story.

  • Jeehan Harbi, Returned Migrant (through translator):

    We reached Lithuania. They beat us and sent us to Belarus. Then Belarus sent us back to Lithuania. It's like they were playing football with us.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    For weeks, they camped out in the forest, braving freezing temperatures. Jeehan's husband, Dhiyab, pictured here, was badly beaten by border police on both sides.

    The sixth time Lithuanians forcibly returned them to Belarus, the family decided to return home traumatized, humiliated, with the heavy burden of repaying their debt.

  • Dhiyab Zeydan, Returned Migrant (through translator):

    I have nothing left here. I will work as a daily laborer to return the money, but I don't know if I will manage.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    The family is among hundreds of Iraqi Kurds who've returned over the past week, many on government repatriation flights. To claim asylum in Germany, Jeehan and Dhiyab had planned to cite threats and the kidnapping and killing of a relative during Iraq's sectarian conflict in 2007, when they lived in the Sunni Arab majority city of Mosul.

    But they have lived in Kurdistan for 14 years now. What's really driving them away is poverty and what they call an unjust government.

  • Dhiyab Zeydan, Returned Migrant (through translator):

    They don't do a good job for the poor people. They just work for themselves.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    He is referring to the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, which runs this part of Iraq. Kurdistan is often described as a beacon of stability.

    The region has better infrastructure and services than other parts of Iraq, and has offered refuge to persecuted minorities and activists fleeing violence elsewhere in the country.

    But beneath this veneer of stability, many Kurds don't see a future amid a prolonged economic crisis and rising authoritarianism. Kurdish officials, however, blame their woes on long-lasting disputes over oil revenue with the federal government in Baghdad.

  • Dindar Zebari, International Advocacy Coordinator, Kurdistan Regional Government:

    The KRG has one million, above, public sector members and staff, civil servants, but, unfortunately, we're cut off of sort of full budget and payments from Baghdad for seven years.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    In the nearby town of Rania, the city center teems with unemployed men. Those we spoke to blamed not Baghdad, but nepotism and corruption inside Kurdistan's own government, long dominated by two families and their respective political parties.

    These two friends are both recent university graduates. One is a licensed lawyer, the other a microbiologist who graduated top of his class. Neither has been able to find work.

  • Hangaw Ali, Attorney (through translator):

    If you have political support, you can go far in many fields. But if you don't have political support, nobody will hire you.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    And so the only option they see is to head for Europe, no matter how.

    The window of opportunity to reach the E.U. through Belarus may be closing, but, already, travel agencies here in Iraqi Kurdistan are offering package deals for other European countries. A ticket and visa to Croatia for example, sells for 7,000 U.S. dollars. It's a price many here are willing to pay.

    We meet a man who facilitates trips to Europe through a group on the messaging app Telegram. He claims that he isn't a smuggler, but wanted to remain anonymous, for fear of authorities. He explains how the process works.

  • Man (through translator):

    People will give the money to an intermediary in Irbil. When they reach their final destination in Germany, they will confirm that they are at a certain hotel in Germany, and the intermediary will release the payment to the smuggler.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    The Kurdish government has vowed to crack down on these networks. But without addressing the structural issues fueling the latest exodus of Iraqis, the crisis at Europe's borders is likely to endure.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Simona Foltyn in Iraqi Kurdistan.

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