Canal drownings are unlikely to slow down emigration from Iraqi Kurdistan Iraq

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They were driven to the icy beaches Europe out of desperation, or did several thousand Kurds instead make the dangerous journey in search of opportunity?

When Iraqi Kurdistan officials wrestle with what is driving a crisis that is believed to have led to it crowds of citizens drowning in the canal on Wednesday, and thousands of others to defy insecure migrant routes to Europe, are preparing even more to leave.

“I will do what I need to do,” said a recent graduate of Sulaymaniyah University. “If I stay here, I’ll drown in debt anyway.”

News of the deaths at sea, some distance from British waters, as tens of thousands kurder has sought to achieve in recent decades, met with a dumb response in the capital Erbil and the other city of Sulaymaniyah. Many of the drowning victims are believed to have come from the Ranya region north of the city, where families on Thursday eagerly awaited news from their sons and daughters.

“The last time I spoke to my brother was yesterday, in the morning,” said Razen Salim, 26. “He said we will now go from France to Britain but since then we have not heard anything about him or his group. We have seen some pictures online that indicate that some have gone to the other side, but we can not recognize them so well.We hope that they managed and that they may now have been caught by British police and that is why they are not online . ”

Kurds from Ranya make up a disproportionate number of those who have traveled to Belarus in recent weeks, hoping to cross the Polish border that serves as a gateway to the European Union. “It’s the holy grail for us,” said the recent graduate. “If we get there, we will be respected and can live our lives. If we stay, we will have neither respect nor life.”

The Prime Minister of the Kurdish regional government, Masrour Barzani, who has been trying to stop the emigration from Iraq’s Kurdish north, said that a search for opportunities had been the main driving force – not economic desperation.

“Unfortunately, it seems that these people have been exploited by a number of people, let’s say ‘travel agents’, human traffickers, some political merchants, if I may say so, and of course some people from within Belarus likewise, he said at the Middle East peace and security meeting in the city of Duhok last week. “These people did not leave this area under any kind of pressure, and they were not legally persecuted, or imposed any restrictions on their travels, so most of these people traveled freely of their own accord through airlines and official channels.

Kurdish Regional Prime Minister Masrour Barzani
Kurdish Regional Prime Minister Masrour Barzani: “Many want to go to Europe in search of another opportunity.” Image: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

“Many people want to go to Europe in search of another opportunity,” Barzani said. “It’s not an escape from desperation. I hope the world knows that these people went where all the other immigrants want to travel and look for different opportunities in different parts of the world. But if they want to return, they can always return here.”

Repatriation flights organized by Iraqi national airlines, Iraqi Airways, have returned 400 Kurds from Belarus to Erbil in the past week. Another 700 have signed on to return, and Kurdish officials say they have arrested 10 travel agents who had made their travels easier. Airport security officials have also tried to block passengers from leaving for Minsk, reviewing travel and looking for known stopovers – Istanbul and Damascus in particular.

Those who are still determined to leave say that the opportunities that officials are talking about either do not exist or are limited to small sectors of a struggling economy. “They want this to happen, but to say that it is so does not make it so,” said the student. “As long as it’s as bad as it is, people will want to leave.”

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