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Hundreds of migrants remain trapped at the Belarus-Poland border

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Hundreds of migrants remain trapped at the border between Belarus and Poland. They're pawns in a political standoff between Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko and the European Union. NPR's Charles Maynes joins us from Belarus, where he's been talking with some of the migrants at the border. And, Charles, what did you hear from them? What did they tell you about what led them there?

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, first of all, these people primarily are from the Middle East. They started hearing this past fall about a way - basically, were hearing on social media and through word of mouth that they could get visas to Belarus and, from there, make their way to the EU. In particular, they seem to want to go to Germany. And they paid a large sum of money, somewhere around $4,000 per person, to travel agencies and smugglers. Only when they found themselves at Poland's border, Polish border guards forcibly turned them back amid charges that Lukashenko was intentionally manufacturing a crisis by funneling migrants to its EU border. Now, everyone I spoke to had these harrowing stories from the jungle - that's the nickname they've given the swampy forest land in the border zone. This is where migrants have been trying to find ways to sneak into the EU. Among them, 50-year-old Zainda Metad from Baghdad, Iraq, who told me she spent four days hungry in the forest before her health gave out.

ZAINDA METAD: And I got to the jungle, and I failed. I can't go to the Germany. And I came here.

MAYNES: Now, there were several thousand people here at the border, but now many have gone home. Metad says the ones who left had the means to do so, but she has nowhere to go.

BLOCK: And when you say they're here, where is here exactly? And what are the conditions like?

MAYNES: Yeah, it's about 700 people at this big warehouse on the border. It's a logistics center. And here's a little bit of tape from inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN SHOUTING)

MAYNES: So you can probably hear kids playing there. There were a lot of families with children. And most of these people come from Iraq, in particular Kurdistan. Others were from war-torn Syria, some fleeing poverty on the African continent. You know, as to conditions, they're primitive but certainly a lot safer in that warehouse than outside, where it's freezing. People sleep on makeshift beds. There are mattresses on the floor or on wooden pallets. But most basic washing and cooking takes place outside, and not everyone has proper winter gear. And in fact, I'd say a lot of people seem quite sick - a lot of coughing, which is, of course, a concern for obvious reasons, given the pandemic. But it's not as crowded as it once was. My fundamental sense was that people are grateful to be out of the cold but not happy with where they are, which is stuck and under guard by Belarusian troops.

BLOCK: Yeah, it's hard to imagine what they must have gone through just to get there. What are Belarusian authorities saying about the migrants and what's going to happen to them?

MAYNES: Yeah, sure. You know, Alexander Lukashenko visited the warehouse a few weeks ago and insisted these people are still free to try and make their way to the EU, although I was told several times that migrants had been forcibly deported to their countries of origin by Belarusian authorities. In the meantime, the tactic seems to be showing the press how well Belarus is treating these people. The day I showed up, they were constructing a makeshift school for children. There are volunteers working on the site as well. For example, Red Cross Belarus is giving out free meals, but only once a day, and they're awfully lean. It's just a bowl of porridge. Meanwhile, there's a mobile food truck as well for anyone who can still have the cash to spend.

BLOCK: And briefly, Charles, what are the migrants hoping is going to happen now?

MAYNES: Well, they're kind of under a news blackout because they have basically nowhere to charge their phones since they have no way to read news, but they have all these rumors flying around this warehouse, and in fact, the biggest one is that the EU or Germany will suddenly let them in on Christmas Day, on December 25. That seems unlikely, though. But if nothing changes, many of these people say they'll go back to the jungle - in other words, risk freezing temperatures to try and make that journey.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Charles Maynes reporting from Belarus. Charles, thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "VAULTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Charles Maynes