Poverty and despair: Iraqi Kurds return from Belarus | Immigration

Baghdad, Iraq- Three hours after taking off from Minsk, the capital of Belarus, when the plane was taxiing on the runway of Erbil Airport, Azad held his wife’s hand and looked out the window.

Azad, a 28-year-old man from the Kurdish city of Dohuk, recalled: “We will lower our hats, put on masks and leave the airport as soon as possible.”

After an unsuccessful attempt to enter the European Union from Belarus, with bruises on their arms and indescribable emotional pain, Azad and his wife told Al Jazeera that they tried to keep a low profile and declined to be named. They were treated as animals at the border between Belarus and Poland, and they didn’t want to be questioned by reporters again as soon as they returned to the place where they desperately wanted to leave.

“For now, we will try not to think too much about our future, because once we start thinking, it is clear that we have no one in Kurdistan,” Azad told Al Jazeera in Dohuk, sitting in their home. “But we all know that we might spend the rest of our lives here.”

Azad and about 430 other Iraqis returned to Iraq from Belarus on a government-authorized repatriation flight last Thursday. This is part of the Iraqi government’s efforts to ease tensions on the Belarus-Poland border in the past few years.

Since most immigrants and asylum seekers decide to stay in Belarus, hoping that one day they will be able to cross the border into Poland, others “gave up their naive hope of success” and decide to return home, Azad said.

‘It’s time to let go’

However, returning to Iraq is not an easy decision. Like many people who went to Belarus to join the European Union, Azad saved money to seek financial support from his family and almost sold his house. When they heard that the Iraqi government provided flights from Minsk to those who wished to return voluntarily, their first reaction was a firm “no”.

“I remember telling my wife in our tent that we didn’t spend all our money and wasted all our energy, so we will return to Iraq,” Azad said. But the next day, the usual clashes broke out between the Belarusian border guards and their Polish counterparts.

Azad said they were being pushed to the other side of the border by the Belarusian police, and then the Polish police would push them back.

“Back and forth, back and forth, they play with us like animals,” he said, obviously becoming unhappy. “At that moment, we thought it was time to give up the dream of moving to Europe.”

What Azad describes is only a small part of the ongoing political and humanitarian crisis on the eastern border of the European Union. So far, at least 11 people have been killed in this round of border crises, and many others are facing cold temperatures and dwindling supplies of necessities.

Despite the efforts of the Belarusian government to send migrants and asylum seekers to the warehouses of temporary shelters, it is still unclear how the government will resolve the crisis. Western politicians accuse Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of using immigrants and asylum seekers as “weapons” to retaliate against EU sanctions against his government.

For many people like Azad, waiting is no longer an option: they decide to go home. Now that they are back in Iraq, Azad said they were lucky that he did not sell the house. But this is also the last thing he has now: he sold the sofa, the refrigerator, and even the coffee maker. Basically anything that can be turned into cash to support their departure from Iraq’s Odyssey can be sold.

Social media posts also revealed the grim situation awaiting returnees in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. For example, a Kurdish family does not even have the money to take a taxi to take them from the airport to the IDP camp where they live.

Migrants rest next to a tent on the border between Belarus and Poland [Oksana Manchuk/BelTA via Reuters]

‘My only choice’

Although compared with other parts of Iraq, the Kurdish region, home to the Kurds and some Yazidis in Iraq, enjoys relative security and prosperity, but people living in the region are facing rising unemployment and local corruption. Ravaged by the armed group Islamic State (ISIS), parts of the Kurdish and Yazidi communities are still struggling to rebuild.

Job opportunities are scarce, and many young people like Azad have no future in the Kurdish region. “I tried and tried again, but I just couldn’t find a job, so leaving Erbil is my only option,” said another young Kurdish man who is still in Belarus.

Faced with the difficulties many people encounter in the area, the local government insists that the immigration crisis was provoked by human smugglers. However, many people who spoke to Al Jazeera said they left their homes voluntarily and traveled to Belarus on flights and visas arranged by travel agencies.

For the 430 people who returned to Iraq from Europe, their future is even bleaker than when they decided to embark on this journey a few months ago. Without government support, many people will face more despair.

“I don’t want the media to really care about us, I don’t think people can really understand what we’re going through, but I’m glad someone can talk to me,” Azad said from the floor and ended the conversation.

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