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Back from the Belarus border, Iraqis recount abuse, eye future with despair

A man covers his face as Iraqis who tried to reach Europe via Belarus arrive at the airport in Irbil on Nov. 18 after a repatriation flight. (Gailan Haji/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

IRBIL, Iraq — Their return felt humiliating. As men, women and children trudged exhausted through the arrivals hall of Irbil airport, camera crews mobbed them and yelled questions about why they had left Iraq in the first place.

Most of the families just kept their heads down. On the outbound journey they had been hopeful, ready for the new life in Europe that travel agents had promised. But it turned out they were unwitting pawns in Europe’s latest migration battle. The repatriation flight brought them back to the place they had spent life savings trying to leave.

The return of more than 400 Iraqis on the Iraqi Airways flight last week appeared to mark an easing of a growing crisis at the border of the European Union. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has facilitated the passage of thousands of mostly Middle Eastern migrants through Belarus and across the border into Poland, where most are now stranded and near-freezing.

On Thursday night, many among the returning Iraqis looked dazed beneath the airport’s glaring lights. Most were from the country’s Kurdish region. In the days that followed, they recounted their ordeals at the hands of European border guards and eyed the future with despair.

The State Border Committee of Belarus released footage showing the conditions at a makeshift migrant camp at the border with Poland on Nov. 12. (Video: State Border Committee of Belarus via Storyful)

At center of Europe’s migrant crisis, Belarus clears the way, punishes those sent back

Migrants said they were fleeing hopelessness. “There’s no life for us here,” said Mohamed Rasheed, 23, back home and facing the task of rebuilding his savings from scratch. “There are no jobs, there is no future.”

Iraq’s coffers are lined with oil wealth, but little trickles down to citizens who aren’t politically connected. More than a quarter of Iraq’s young people are unemployed. Decades of corruption and mismanagement have hollowed out the country’s health and education systems. In the Kurdish region, the U.S.-backed ruling parties are increasingly repressive. Security forces have beaten and arbitrarily detained protesters. Human rights groups say authorities are using vaguely worded laws to bring criminal charges against critics.

As the migrants arrived in Irbil, the regional capital, a television interviewer asked one young man why he had left. The man frowned.

“Those words cannot leave my mouth,” he said, his face partially obscured by a black scarf. “Who dares to tell the truth here?”

It had seemed a golden opportunity. Facebook groups announced that Belarus had eased entry requirements for arrivals from the Middle East and elsewhere, as long as they paid for Belarus-organized travel packages that included visas, flights and hotels in Minsk, the capital.

Social media showed migrants boarding buses or taxis to the border with Poland, an E.U member state. Belarusian border guards were even helping them to cross.

To fund his journey, Rasheed sold his car and other possessions. In the city of Sulaymaniyah, 18-year old Alan Othman gathered four years of savings from his work at a local restaurant.

Fresh hope rippled through displacement camps. The Islamic State led a genocide against Iraq’s Yazidi minority, and thousands remain far from home. Some families wondered whether Belarus would finally offer an escape. “We waited so long for this,” said Hussein Elias Khuder, 36.

His mother said she paused outside the camp’s barren sprawl as they left, taking one last look at a place where the family, dependent on aid groups and still traumatized, had often fallen into despair. She thought: “Leaving feels like being reborn.”

As the migrants were repatriated, Kurdish officials insisted that those who left for Belarus had fallen prey to human traffickers. “This isn’t a migrant issue but a criminal human trafficking issue,” tweeted Masrour Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Returnees insisted that they left by choice, after years of dwindling faith that life might get better.

They carried their savings in zip-top bags and fretted as the piles of bank notes grew thinner. A night in the Minsk hotel cost up to $1,000. Taxi drivers insisted that the going rate to the border was $300 per person.

“They could probably even have charged $100 for a bottle of water,” Rasheed said. “Everyone wanted to make money from us.”

Worse was to come. Belarusian border guards helped the migrants cross into Poland and Lithuania, but each time they were beaten back by security forces on the other side. The Poles set dogs on them, they said. Lithuanian border guards used cattle prods. Then the Belarusians punished migrants who came back their way.

“They were beating us with sticks, they screamed insults in our faces,” Othman said. Like thousands of other migrants, the Iraqis found themselves stuck for weeks in what Polish authorities have designated an “emergency zone,” in a forest, out of sight and off-limits to aid groups and journalists.

Temperatures dropped below freezing each night. Few of the families had tents. On some days, there was no food at all. At least eight people have died, human rights groups say. Othman said he watched an Iraqi man drown after border guards insisted he pass through a freezing swamp. He couldn’t swim.

“And all that for politics,” Khuder said. “No one helped. No one cared.” As he recounted details of the journey, his wife, Ghazala Barakat, 25, turned pale and fainted. She came to several minutes later, but continued to rasp with distressed breaths. “She’s been like this since the forest,” Khuder said.

By the time Iraq announced the first repatriation flight, returnees say, they were running out of money.

Rasheed’s bag of dog-eared dollar bills was empty. Othman’s mother was in tears and begging him to come home. “I was ready to stay there. I was willing to die there,” he said. “I came back for her.”

At the Minsk airport, Iraqi families slumped hollow-eyed in seats as the plane was delayed several hours. “Coming back was a terrible feeling,” Rasheed said.

The arrival in Irbil felt like another blow, returnees said. Khuder didn’t know how he could afford a taxi home. Rasheed’s hunger was overwhelming. Some people covered their faces as journalists swarmed around them. Are you tired? reporters yelled. Why did you leave? What was wrong with Iraq?

Barakat fainted twice. Hussein noted that none of the reporters who swarmed them offered water to revive her. “We left because we wanted to find a better life,” he said. “Not so we could come back, hungry and thirsty, to tell the media what happened to us.”

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