Displaced people are expected to continue to cross border, where the authorities say they will ensure people are given medical care
Belarus has cleared a camp for internally displaced people near the border with Ukraine, prompting criticism from Kiev and a condemnation from rights groups who say the country is still doing too little to provide treatment for people who need it.
Thousands of people have fled from the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has killed nearly 10,000 people since April 2014, and settled in five facilities around the Belarusian-Ukrainian border.
After more than three months, the government began clearing one camp in the southern suburbs of Minsk on Friday. The government said security had been raised as a result of the unrest.
Video from the camp suggests that most people have now left. Minsk residents have not yet reported any trouble.
Ukraine cut off border crossings with Belarus last year and closed a corridor that formerly served as a transit route from the Ukrainian border to Minsk.
Hundreds have since crossed the border, prompting an outcry from Ukraine, Belarus, the UN and rights groups.
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Kiev said that, according to the UN, as many as 12,000 people had fled to Belarus, including some 2,000 children, but that as of last weekend only 572 people had returned.
“[Ukrainian] people forced to migrate to Belarus have been forced to take decisions to return because they do not want to become refugees in their own country,” Mariia Shevchenko, the Kiev foreign ministry’s spokesperson, told Reuters.
European Union member states said last month that they would accept some refugees from Belarus, bringing an end to an EU-Russia agreement that banned such entry. The US, Canada and Mexico have also accepted people from Belarus.
Human Rights Watch said Belarus was systematically denying treatment, and provision of life-saving assistance, to people who had left eastern Ukraine.
“The government has been spreading misinformation about the conditions of these camps, claiming that life there was virtually fine and that the only problem was that there was no running water,” the group’s Belarus deputy director, Alexei Malashenko, said in a statement.
He said the only proof of the hardship of people in the camps was the scant provision of medical care.
Officials in Minsk said thousands of people would return to Ukraine.
Minsk is working to help the UN Mission in Ukraine to provide help for displaced families and has set up a committee to consider possible assistance. The government said it would make “reasonable and adequate efforts” to provide medical treatment in Belarus.
Belarus has offered a monthly stipend of $600 to refugees or illegal migrants. More than 500 applications for this were received but accepted.
Thousands of people are thought to be living in Russian-run camps around the border in the Buryatia region of the country, and at least four have died while trying to cross the border, according to a Reuters witness in Minsk.
On Friday, the first repatriation flight with 45 people on board, including a number of minors, departed for Baghdad.
People brought back to Russia face months in transit camps.
Human Rights Watch said a UN commission of inquiry should be given access to Belarus to investigate. The UN mission in Ukraine said on Friday that it continued to receive numerous reports of ongoing mistreatment of refugees and internally displaced people at the border.
“The UN and EU need to do more to end Belarus’s reckless indifference to the plight of refugees and displaced people,” Malashenko said.