ERBIL – Two flights brought hundreds of Iraqis who had sought to enter the European Union back to Iraq from Belarus on Friday, as more migrants begin to lose hope of getting safely into the prosperous bloc.
The planes touched down in Erbil, capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, in the early hours carrying around 600 Iraqis, mostly Kurds, the Kurdistan government and officials at Erbil airport said.
Many of the passengers said they were relieved to be home.
“I don’t want to go back along that route. It was bad, there was a lot of rain and snow,” said 11-year-old Malak Hassan, whose family had tried to get across the Belarus border into the EU.
Awat Qader, from Kurdistan, said he had seen migrants beaten while he camped near the Belarus-Lithuania border, and that he would not try the journey again.
“We had to pay a lot of money even just to get back to Minsk” from the border, he said.
Iraqis who fled seeking economic opportunity and in some cases political asylum began returning to their country a week ago having failed to get into the EU via a route that smugglers promised them would work.
The EU accuses Minsk of creating the crisis as part of a “hybrid attack” on the bloc – distributing Belarusian visas in the Middle East, flying in the migrants and pushing them to cross the border illegally. Belarus denies fomenting the crisis.
In a separate incident on Wednesday, 27 migrants died trying to cross the English Channel when their dinghy deflated, an echo of the 2015 migrant crisis when thousands of people fleeing war in the Middle East drowned on boats bound for Europe.
Iraq is no longer at war since the defeat of Islamic State in 2017, but a lack of opportunities and basic services, as well as a political system most Iraqis say is corrupt and nepotistic, mean ordinary people see little chance of a decent life at home.