Migrants returning to Kurdistan from Belarus border say they saw no opportunity to cross into EU states

Iraqi nationals, mostly Kurds, arrive at Erbil International Airport after being stuck for weeks on the Belarus-Poland border, Nov. 18, 2021. (Photo: Wladimir van Wilgenburg/Kurdistan 24)
Iraqi nationals, mostly Kurds, arrive at Erbil International Airport after being stuck for weeks on the Belarus-Poland border, Nov. 18, 2021. (Photo: Wladimir van Wilgenburg/Kurdistan 24)

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – As over 400 Iraqi nationals, most of them Kurds, returned to Erbil on Thursday evening after weeks of being stuck with others from Syria and other countries at the Belarus-Poland border in freezing conditions, several of them told Kurdistan 24 that they had given up trying to cross into European Union member states.

The migrants gave a mix of reasons for setting out on the dangerous journey, from Yezidis (Ezidis) who had been living in Kurdistan Region displacement camps since fleeing the disputed district of Sinjar (Shingal) when ISIS took over the area in 2014 to others who cited a lack of local job opportunities as their motivation.

A woman from Zakho who declined to give her name told Kurdistan 24 that her family had paid $20,000 to smugglers who took them as far as the border of Poland.

“We are returning because they did not allow us in. If the situation in Kurdistan was good, we would not leave. But, I regret it a bit when we suffered after we left, and Kurdistan, in the end, is our homeland.”

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Dalya Xalaf, a 24-year-old member of the Yezidi religious minority from Sinjar said that her family paid $20,000 to make the trip as well. “Belarus was treating us very bad and the Polish authorities did not allow us to cross the border. When we tried to go back to Minsk, they also forbade us to return.”

“They told us, ‘If you come back toward Minsk, we will unleash our dogs against you.’ So, we were stuck,” she said. “So we were stuck there, and not able to enter Poland, also not able to return to Minsk.”

However, most migrants told Kurdistan 24 that, eventually, Belarusian authorities allowed them into Minsk and transported them by bus to the international airport there to be flown back to the Kurdistan Region. Some of the migrants have also returned to Baghdad.

Xalaf added that the weather was “very bad,” with “no food, or water,” and that she feared for the safety of her daughter in the extreme winter conditions. “If the road remains this difficult, then we will not try again.”

According to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Media and Information office, “over 460 have registered to return” so far, and that a total of roughly 430 have now returned to the Kurdistan Region and Iraq.

“Some have passport issues, having either lost them or their visas had expired,” read a statement.

“The Iraqi Foreign Ministry and the Department of Foreign Relations of the KRG sent a team from Baghdad’s embassy in Russia to tackle this.”

A 19-year-old Kurdish male from Zakho arrives in Erbil after being stuck for weeks on the Belarus-Poland border, Nov. 18, 2021. (Photo: Wladimir van Wilgenburg/Kurdistan 24)
A 19-year-old Kurdish male from Zakho who gave his name as Harun arrives in Erbil after being stuck for weeks on the Belarus-Poland border, Nov. 18, 2021. (Photo: Wladimir van Wilgenburg/Kurdistan 24)

A 19-year-old male, also from Zakho, who gave his name only as Harun called on “Iraqi and Erbil authorities to also bring back the others still trapped on the border because the situation is very bad.”

“There are many children and women among them,” he added. “Now there are more than 200 people on the borders of Lithuania,” in a precarious and threatening position.

“I will return to my house and wait for the government to find me a job; no one wants to leave his house and family,” adding, “If I find a good job in Kurdistan I will stay here. I hope the government will find a solution for all those youths as the situation was very bad (at the border).”

A Ministry of Health Team at the Erbil International Airport gave the returnees free coronavirus tests and also medical aid to those suffering from a variety of conditions that included those caused by exposure to the cold.

“I'm relieved by the safe return of our citizens caught up in the border between Poland and Belarus,” said Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani. “Their stories will inform our efforts to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

“We will continue working with the federal govt and partners to bring home all those who wish to return,” he said, referencing the longstanding policy of both the Kurdistan Region and the federal government in Baghdad to refuse forced repatriations of their citizens.