Iraqis fly back home after failing to cross over from Belarus to the EU

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BAGHDAD / ERBIL, Iraq, November 18 (Reuters) – Hundreds of Iraqis who had camped for weeks at Belarus’ border with the EU and tried to enter the bloc flew back home on Thursday.

About 430 prospective migrants, mostly Iraqi Kurds, landed 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, including small children, got off and made their way through the Arrivals Hall in Erbil with suitcases filled with the warm clothes they had taken to survive the European winter.

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Some looked resigned, but promised to try to emigrate again.

Mohsen Addi, a Yazidi from Sinjar in northwestern Iraq whose community suffered massacres and slavery during the 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 until death, but my family was in danger. If the situation does not improve in Iraq, I will leave again. There is no other choice,” he said.

Addi complained that his Iraqi hometown still lacked basic services such as electricity and medical care years after the defeat of the Islamic State.

Belarusian authorities on Thursday cleared the main camps where migrants had huddled together on the border with Poland, in what could potentially be a turning point in a crisis that in recent weeks has spiraled into a major east-west confrontation.

Iraqis, especially Kurds, have made up a significant number of the estimated 4,000 migrants waiting in icy forests and trying to cross into Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.

For several months, EU countries have accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of orchestrating the migrant crisis in retaliation for sanctions imposed after he won a disputed 2020 election and the 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 enter the bloc with 27 nations – an accusation he denies.

Hundreds of prospective migrants are now returning home after failing to cross the heavily guarded border. Some described the difficult conditions of living in the woods in the winter, often with small children, and the beating of border guards.

A 30-year-old Iraqi Kurd, who refused to give his name, decided to sign up for the evacuation flight with his wife after trying to cross at least eight times from Belarus to Lithuania and Poland.

“I would not go back (to Iraq) if it were not for my wife,” he told Reuters a day before the evacuation flight. “She does not want to go with me back 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 trying to enter the EU will eventually ease the crisis.

Several airlines have already agreed to stop flights to the Belarusian capital for most passengers from Iraq and Syria, among others.

At least eight people have died at the border in recent months, including a 19-year-old Syrian man who drowned in a river as he tried to cross into the EU.

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Reporting by Charlotte Bruneau; additional reporting, written by John Davison; Edited by Mike Collett-White and Mark Heinrich

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