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Belarus is still using migrants as a political weapon against the EU

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hundreds of migrants remain trapped at the border between Belarus and Poland. They are people seeking a better life, but they're also pawns in a political standoff between Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko and the European Union. NPR's Charles Maynes is in Belarus and just back from the border with Poland. He joins us from the capital, Minsk. Hi there.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: Remind us how these people wound up in Belarus.

MAYNES: Well, over the fall, people primarily in the Middle East and in Africa started hearing from friends and reading on social media that they could get visas to Belarus and with the promise that, for a fee, they could then make their way to the EU, specifically Germany. So suddenly, there was this huge uptick in flights to Belarus from countries in the Middle East, as thousands of migrants tried to take advantage of this and make their way into the EU, both along Belarus' border with Poland, as well as with Latvia and Lithuania.

SHAPIRO: In fact, last summer, the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs told NPR that Belarus was, quote, "using these people as a sort of weapon against my country, against the European Union." And so fast forward to now, and we have migrants at Belarus' border with Poland, too. And when they got to that border, they found the doors closed, right?

MAYNES: Right. It turns out there was no door to the EU. Instead, the migrants have been rebuffed at the Polish border, sometimes with force, as the EU has accused Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko of intentionally stoking a crisis. And in the ensuing weeks, many of these migrants have gone home, but about 700 people remain in Belarus near the border zone. And Belarusian authorities allowed me to go visit a warehouse where these people are living. And here's what I found.

Inside, the floor and shelves have been turned into makeshift beds using wooden pallets, donated mattresses and blankets turned into tents.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

MAYNES: There are kids playing seemingly everywhere, and some look on for an easy, if empty-handed, mark.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I want candy. Candy.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Lollipop.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Lollipop. Lollipop. Yeah, a lollipop.

MAYNES: It's there I meet 23-year-old Salman Tariq, a recent college graduate from Kurdistan, Iraq.

SALMAN TARIQ: Probably, if you ask all of these people, why did you leave your country? They will answer, for a better life - only for this, and nothing else.

MAYNES: For Tariq, that search meant fleeing home where he was bullied because of a stutter he finds magically disappears when he speaks in English.

TARIQ: Weird - when I speak in English, I don't stutter as much as when I'm speaking my mother language, which is great to me. Wonderful.

MAYNES: Now, Tariq, like seemingly everyone in this warehouse, has a story about the jungle, the name migrants have given to the forest near the border where many have tried and mostly failed to sneak into Poland. Belarusian authorities say they have nothing to do with any of this. But in Tariq's case, he says Belarusian soldiers gave him wire cutters to cut through the border fence, which he calls a net. And they also gave him a...

TARIQ: Ladder, even, like, big woods - yeah - to put on the net and go through the net.

MAYNES: But it didn't work out. Tariq says he never got the courage up to challenge the Polish border guards, and he was already weak from several days without food or water, as well as a jacket zipper that wouldn't close.

TARIQ: After that happened, I became ill immediately because, sometimes, here, it's minus 14, 15 at the night, which is so, so cold. You're not going to believe how much it's cold.

MAYNES: Basel Khowli from Syria knows the cold, and he also has stories from the jungle. He says the Polish police caught him and his family 13 times, and it was the last attempt where things got really dangerous.

BASEL KHOWLI: The Poland police catch us and come back to Belarus in river.

MAYNES: Across the river?

KHOWLI: Yeah, it's a very bad way. In river, the water here.

MAYNES: To your chest?

KHOWLI: Yeah.

MAYNES: Now dry with a roof over his head, Khowli says he's grateful to Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko. And even though he still hopes to make it to the EU, Khowli's posted a thank you note to Lukashenko above his tent.

KHOWLI: Yes, Mr. President try to help us, and we thank him about everything.

RACHEL INCROMA: I'm from Ghana. Yeah, you know Ghana.

MAYNES: I know Ghana.

INCROMA: (Laughter).

MAYNES: Rachel Incroma from, yes, Ghana arrived here fleeing a broken family and poverty for a promise of a new life in Europe. Only it hasn't worked out that way, at least not yet.

INCROMA: Belarus police want to catch me, to do bad for me. The Poland police catch - take me to help me, my registration. I said, OK. But he's lying. After that, he sent me to this place.

MAYNES: But for now, she says her biggest problem is finding a way to charge her phone - her only source of news.

INCROMA: I don't know what's going on. I never hear nothing. Here, you can't charge your phone, no.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's difficult.

INCROMA: Difficult to charge your phone. You go beg these police people to charge your phone for you. He - no, too much. He send you to outside to work. After that, he tell you, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, we can't charge it for you.

MAYNES: In fact, the warehouse is full of rumors. What's happening at the border? Will Belarus deport them all? Or a more pleasant one - Salman Tariq from Iraqi Kurdistan says he's heard that maybe the EU and Germany have a Christmas surprise in store.

TARIQ: There is hope, 25th, that something will happen. If doesn't happen, me and my cousin will go to the jungle after 25th. Yeah, maybe a miracle will happen because of the Santa Claus. Something will happen. There will be new decisions.

SHAPIRO: Voices from the border of Poland and Belarus brought to us by NPR's Charles Maynes, who is still with us. And, Charles, is there any indication that the EU is planning to admit these migrants?

MAYNES: Well, the truth is the Poles are taking a hard-line stance on all of this, and the EU has been backing them up. So there is no indication that Poland has any intention of taking migrants or letting them into the EU. And frankly, that's in violation of some of their obligations under both the U.N. charter and also European Union obligations.

SHAPIRO: And what are Belarusian authorities saying?

MAYNES: You know, their version of this has always been that this was never an attempt to sow chaos in the border. In fact, I had a conversation with Yury Karayeu, who is an adviser to Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian strongman. And Karayeu is also the former interior minister of Belarus. He was responsible for the crackdown on a pro-democracy movement last year that saw thousands arrested. And he insists there's no way Lukashenko's government could have forced people to come to Belarus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YURY KARAYEU: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So Karayeu says the migrants were deceived by the EU because the bloc wasn't letting them in. He claims the migrants say that now former German Chancellor Angela Merkel told them to come and promised them there was room for them all in Germany. Now, just a quick fact check - that's not true. And despite many people's desire to get to Germany, I didn't hear from anyone who thought they'd been invited by the German authorities.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Charles Maynes reporting from Minsk and from the Belarusian border. Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.