Hundreds of Iraqis who had camped for weeks at Belarus’ borders with the EU seeking to cross into the bloc flew back home on Thursday.
Around 430 would-be migrants, mostly Iraqi Kurds, touched down in Erbil in Iraq’s autonomous northern Kurdistan region on a flight from Minsk. The plane took off again for Baghdad where it will deposit other returnees, the foreign ministry said.
The migrants, who included young children, disembarked and made their way through the Erbil arrivals hall carrying suitcases stuffed with the warm clothes they had taken to survive the European winter.
Some looked dejected, but vowed to try again to emigrate.
Mohsen Addi, a Yazidi from Sinjar in northwestern Iraq whose community suffered massacres and enslavement under Islamic State several years ago, had taken his wife and children to Turkey then Belarus.
“We spent a month in Belarus but it was so cold and so tough there.
“I would have stayed till death, but my family were in danger. If the situation doesn’t improve in Iraq I’ll leave again. There’s no other choice,” he said.
Addi complained that his Iraqi hometown still lacked basic services such as electricity and health care years after Islamic State’s defeat.
Belarusian authorities on Thursday cleared the main camps where migrants had huddled at the border with Poland, in what could potentially be a turning point in a crisis that has spiralled in recent weeks into a major East-West confrontation.
Iraqis, especially Kurds, have made up a significant number of the estimated 4,000 migrants waiting in freezing forests and trying to cross into Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.
For months, EU countries have accused Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko of orchestrating the migrant crisis to avenge sanctions imposed after he won a disputed 2020 election and authorities cracked down on mass protests against him.
They said Belarus had made it easier for people from the Middle East to fly to Minsk and try to get into the 27-nation bloc – an accusation he denies.
Now, hundreds of would-be migrants are returning home having failed to cross the heavily guarded frontier. Some described the harsh conditions of living in the forest in winter, often with young children, and of beatings by border guards.
A 30-year-old Iraqi Kurd, who declined to give his name, decided to register for the evacuation flight with his wife after they attempted to cross at least eight time from Belarus to Lithuania and Poland.
“I would not go back (to Iraq) if it wasn’t for my wife,” he told Reuters a day ahead of the evacuation flight. “She does not want to go back with me to the border, because she saw too many horrors over there.”
Brussels will hope that a combination of pressure on airlines to stop flying migrants to Minsk and migrants giving up attempts to enter the EU will eventually see the crisis ease.
Several airlines have already agreed to halt flights into the Belarusian capital for most passengers from countries including Iraq and Syria.
At least eight people have died at the border in recent months, including a 19-year-old Syrian man who drowned in a river trying to cross to the EU.
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