Nawazt Shamdin/ This investigation was published in Al Aalem Al Jadeed (The New World) website – Translated by Walaa Rayya
About 10,000 migrants arrived in Belarus and wanted to cross to the European Union, most of them were stuck in forests in border areas surrounded by barbed wire between Belarus and Poland. Almost half of them were Iraqis, which the vast majority of them were Kurds who came from the Kurdistan region.
On 28 October 2021, late in the evening, Kelan Diler, 25, a Kurd from Erbil, breathed his last at the Belarusian-Polish border, chasing his dream of crossing to Germany, while the wailing of his brother, embracing his cold body, broke the silence of the wet and rainy forest in the darkness that surrounded everything.
“I could not save him, I begged the Polish border guards to help him, but they did not listen to me, I begged the Belarusian guards to let us go back so that I could save him, but they refused… We were surrounded by death there, we were hungry and thirsty for days, resisting in the hope of crossing or receiving help, but his body could not resist “ his blood sugar was high and he needed to take an insulin needle,” said Kelan’s brother while crying, and he added: “Our dream has turned into a nightmare.”
Two months earlier, on the morning of Wednesday, August 4, 2021, Jaafar Hussein Yusef, a forty-year-old Iraqi man from Najaf, died in front of members of the Belarus border guards in the Medininkai region near the Lithuanian border.
According to the testimony of residents who found the man who did not own any identification papers, he was returning from the Lithuanian side and he had bleeding wounds in different parts of his body.
He died the very next day after Lithuania forcibly returned about forty immigrants to Belarus hours after crossing to the Lithuanian side, most of them were Iraqis and severely beaten.
The Belarusian media reported the story, which Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvidas Anushauskas described as “a play orchestrated by Minsk.”
Dozens of Iraqis aspiring to immigrate to Europe have flocked daily to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, since the beginning of 2021, in various ways, including tourist flights from Turkey, the UAE, and Syria, and before that from Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Organizations working with refugee estimated that more than 10,000 Iraqi immigrants arrived in Belarus and wanted to cross to the European Union countries, most of them were stuck in forests in border areas surrounded by barbed wire between Belarus and Poland. About half of these were Iraqis, and the bulk of them came from the Kurdistan region.
Kurdish deputies and activists estimated that 4000 is the average number of Kurds who were stuck on the Polish border without tents, food, or water and faced a life-and-death battle in the cold and temperature was close to zero in the night hours.
It was the largest influx of refugees from Belarus to Europe. Belarus was not only a transit field, but it has become a major crossing point. since the spring of 2021, with the encouragement of the authorities.
In 2020, only 81 illegal refugees crossed the borders of the two eastern European countries, Belarus and Lithuania while more than 4,000 people crossed them in the first eight months of 2021, the majority of them were Iraqis according to official statistics.
Most of the immigrants are from Kurdistan
Ari Jalal, an official of the “Lotke” Foundation for Migrants and Refugees Affairs, says that during the first ten months of 2021 37,000 Iraqis emigrated, most of them from the Kurdistan region, and he expected the rise of this number due to “the regional government’s indifference to the demands of youth. In addition, recruiting university graduates and providing job opportunities has stopped.”
Jalal adds that in 2021 “Lotke” recorded about 10 deaths and 12 missing persons, while the number of those who migrated from Iraq during the last seven years reached 633,273 immigrants, 261 of them lost their lives and 185 are still missing.
He points out that the number of immigrants during 2020 was 34,000, while it reached 37,000 immigrants during the first ten months of 2021.
The daily trips map
Traveling to Belarus with the aim of immigration was not limited to Iraqi Kurds, but also included hundreds of Arabs, confirmed the director of a travel and tourism office in central Baghdad: “the demand for tourist airline tickets to Belarus in May 2021 increased suddenly”.
He explained that the ticket price ranged between 800-1500 dollars per person. “The travel reservations before the summer of 2021 were normally booked for study or tourism purposes, but with the spread of news about people crossing from there to Lithuania, the number of travel seekers increased, so that flights from Baghdad airport alone was four flights per week, “which was a good thing for us.” He facetiously said.
He indicated that he receives inquiries every day about available flights to Belarus, “It is clear that an influential party is promoting that this road is open for those who want to immigrate, even if the crossing is closed here and there.” He added with a smile, “Certainly, it is not travel and tourism offices!”
What the workers in the tourism offices said secretly, was announced by immigrants. (T. Qassem), an Iraqi Yazidi, who arrived in Belarus in August 2021 and went from there to Germany, said that his journey was easy and required only a few days and it was before the deployment of guards on the borders was intensified. “On the Belarusian side, no one is blocking your way to the border, but some security officers were supporting and guiding the refugees to the best way to cross.”
Promoting online migration
For months, many accounts on social media have been posting about tourist trips to Belarus and transit routes from there to other countries such as Germany, one of these Facebook accounts was called “Migration from Belarus to Europe”.
The advertisement usually included the duration of obtaining a visa to Belarus, a flight plan, a reception at the airport, and a hotel reservation for a week, the cost of it all was between 2000 to 2300 dollars per person.
Kazem Gilan, a citizen of the city of Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, said that he had contacted a person via Facebook in May 2021 who had published an advertisement for services he provides to those wishing to immigrate and explained to him how to obtain a travel visa from Baghdad and he received him in Minsk, Belarus, and accompanied him to the borders of Lithuania for a small sum of money, he said.
Kazem made two unsuccessful crossing attempts, in one of them he was severely beaten. But he refused, like hundreds of others, to return to Iraq because militias were targeting him because of his anti-government activity.
Jinan Abdul-Kazim Hadi Al-Salmi (42 years old), from Najaf, confirmed what was said. She was being held in a refugee camp on the Lithuanian side. She described the situation there as dire, noting that the quality of services was very poor and the health service was even worse. “They wait until the patients’ condition had deteriorated significantly before they intervene and send them for treatment,” she said in displeasure.
Jinan has an official paper that includes her photo and her personal information, she has been registered by the Lithuanian border guards: “That’s all we had, my husband and our four children,” she said confused, as she remember her failed trip.
Iraqi commitment to voluntary return
Evan Faeq Jabro, the Iraqi Minister of Immigration and Displacement, has expressed Iraq’s commitment to the voluntary return of Iraqi immigrants without compulsion or preventing any citizen from traveling abroad which is considered as “personal freedom”.
Jabro described the immigrants’ dream of asylum in Europe through Lithuania and Poland by the false promises, she also expressed her regret that Iraqis were victims of “human traffic networks, illegal immigration, and economic exploitation”.
In addition to Jaafar Hussein who died on the border between Belarus and Lithuania in August 2021, and Kelan Diler who died in a forbidden area on the Belarusian and Polish borders, the Belarusian border guards found on September 1, 2021, the body of an Iraqi woman also on the Polish border, she was with her desperate husband and her three young children. The husband said that Polish soldiers forced them to return barefoot to the Belarus border where they entered Poland.
Activists and migrants tell stories about other victims, from Iraq and Syria, who are now considered as missing persons, they were pushed into a river between Belarus and Poland. One of the migrants says in a video: “They threw us into the river, some of us were unable to get out and cross to the other bank, I think they died like others who died in the forests as a result of beatings, disease, and hunger.”
Dozens of Iraqi refugees came across the Lithuanian, Polish and Latvian borders from Belarus according to news published in early August 2021. High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell accused Iraq of allowing the use of Baghdad airport to “transport migrants to Belarus.”
The Iraqi National Security Adviser stated in response to Borrell’s accusation, that there are “gangs of illegal immigration that tempt Iraqi tourists to cross to Lithuania, and that Iraq does not encourage its citizens to immigrate at all.”
The statement repeats what has been announced by Iraqi officials in previous times that Baghdad International Airport is intended for legal travel only and that “Belarus legally allows Iraqi tourists to enter its territory, so the Iraqi state cannot prevent its citizens from traveling to a country legally.”
Although Iraq rejected the European Union’s accusations, it acquiesced to its threats of imposing sanctions against Iraq. As of August 4, 2021, Iraqi Airways suspended its four weekly flights to Belarus and operated only flights to evacuate Iraqi citizens stranded there, and has already returned hundreds of them.
Dr. Mukhlis Abdul-Wahhab, an expert in international law, stated that the European Union’s request from Iraq to stop its flights to Belarus was blatant interference in its internal affairs, and Iraq should not comply with it.
He explained that Iraq could stop its flights to Belarus in several cases, such as the latter’s refusal to receive flights from Iraq or issuing a binding international instrument in that regard.
Otherwise, he sees that Iraq has nothing to do with the disagreements between the European Union and Belarus and that Belarus uses immigrants as a pressure card or to take revenge from the European Union, regardless of the nationality of these immigrants, whether Iraqis or not.
Immigration to the unknown
Immigration was the last solution available to many Iraqis because of the events that took place in Iraq during the last decades.
Kurds, in particular, had the lion’s share, especially after the 1973 war and the Anfal campaigns against them in the eighties of the last century, the destruction of thousands of Kurdish villages, and the policy of Arabization of their areas followed by the Baath regime who was the ruler in it at the time.
That is why Kurds formed communities in various countries of the world, which later became lighthouses to guide those wishing to emigrate from the Kurdistan region, even after the region was formed in 1991 with an international will because of the deteriorating economic conditions in the nineties and the Islamic State invasion of their land in 2014.
Farhad Bamarni (38 years old) needed seventy days to finally be able to arrive in Germany after traveling a long road that he took in June 2021 from Istanbul Airport to Minsk and then across the Lithuanian border and from there, he passed several other countries before he arrived in Germany, where two of his siblings live since ten years.
He says that the difficult economic situation and the spread of corruption in the Kurdistan region pushed him to emigrate: “I decided to emigrate even though my situation as a taxi driver was better than others, especially employees in state departments whose their salaries are delayed or part of them is deducted without legal basis and they cannot object.”
The migration of Iraqi Arabs is recent compared to the Kurdish one, but since 1991 it has increased due to successive wars, the deterioration of the economy in the nineties due to economic sanctions, and the security collapse and internal conflict after the fall of the Baath Party regime in April 2003. However, another emigration wave has emerged in the past two years, after October 2019 protests against the political system and the ruling powers.
Muhammad Majhoul Abdul Al-Issawi (45 years old), was active in the October demonstrations and sit-ins that took place in Baghdad and the southern governorates, an attempt was made on his life in early 2021, and his house was attacked with sound bombs, so he had to live undercover from the militias for months.
Sadness overtook his voice as he spoke to us via “WhatsApp” from the Lithuanian detention camp, “Before that, I was kidnapped by members of Saraya al-Salam in April 2020 from the city of Najaf, and I miraculously survived.”
Due to the danger that threatened his life, Al-Issawi was forced to travel to Belarus with his wife and five children on an Iraqi Airways flight from Baghdad International Airport on July 18, 2021.
“I should have left.. you don’t know at what hour you could be kidnapped or killed there,” he said, shaking his head, confirming his determination to emigrate to save himself and his family members from the militias’ “revenge” that killed about 600 protesters like him and wounded more than 20000 people.
The costs of his trip with an unknown end were “830 dollars for travel ticket fees for each person from an airline office in the city of Hilla, in addition to 55,000 thousand dinars ($ 37) for each person, medical examination fees for Covid 19, as well as hotel accommodation fees.”
In addition, they paid 150 dollars for two taxis that they took two days after they arrived in Minsk to the Lithuanian border on the morning of July 21, 2021.
Al-Issawi says that they used the GPS application to reach the border point they wanted, and after they got off the taxi, they walked with another group of Iraqis and other nationalities, Arabs and Afghans.
After about half an hour they were right at the border and then walked another four hours deep into a vast forest, hoping to find the street to take a ride to the nearest train station and make their way to Germany. “But instead of finding the street, members of the Lithuanian army found us and put us in a detention center.”
Adel Kamal, a writer and an expert of political affairs, points out that the abnormal conditions experienced by Iraqis, whether in the Kurdistan region or other regions of the country pushed them to take the adventure of immigration.
He says that “abuse detention and other complaints of migrants who did not succeed in crossing Lithuanian, Polish or Latvian lands are nice compared to the horrors faced by Iraqis who took the sea from Turkey to Greece and unfortunately many of them drowned.”
On the border between Belarus and Lithuania, we contacted Shaker Shalaka Hussein al-Kalabi, a man in his forties from al-Mashkhab in the Najaf governorate, who is divorced and has six children. He traveled from Alia Airport in the Jordanian capital, Amman, via Royal Jordanian Airlines to the Turkish capital, Ankara, and from there to Minsk in Belarus, which cost him 2000 USD.
He said that his ex-wife and his six children obtained humanitarian asylum through the United Nations in Canada, but he didn’t. “They traveled in late July 2021. I tried in various ways to cross to Europe to join them.”
Desperate Yezidis and Kurds
More than 100,000 Yazidis are still living in displacement camps built for them in the Kurdistan region for more than seven years because they were unable to return to their land in Sinjar district, western Nineveh Governorate, from which they were displaced on August 3, following an attack committed by ISIS on them, and caused the death and kidnapping of thousands of them.
Various armed factions share control over Sinjar, they prevent its reconstruction and thus hinder the return of the people to their areas, and the majority of them remain in the camps amid poverty and neglect, according to Murad Khader (28 years old) a Yazidi young man.
He and 35 other Yazidis, mostly young men, traveled from Damascus to Belarus. He said that he knows very well that the conditions there are bad and that his attempt may not succeed in crossing to Lithuania, Poland, or Latvia, but he doesn’t have any other choices than trying, perhaps he will be lucky once.
“I stayed in the displaced people camp for more than seven years. The state will do nothing for us, the Yazidis. It s all just promises that are not fulfilled. At least I will try my luck instead of waiting for something that will never happen in the camp in Dohuk.”
Yazidi organizations and institutions estimate that more than 120,000 Yazidis have migrated to more than 120,000 people since the ISIS attack in August 2014.
Sarro (23 years old), another young Yazidi from the Sharya district in Dohuk governorate, traveled on August 10, 2021, from Baghdad airport to Damascus and from there to Belarus. He tried several times to cross the Lithuanian border, but his attempts were unsuccessful, and it became difficult after closing the border with barbed wire and strengthening supervision by the army.
He says that hundreds of Yazidis, including women and children, are stuck on the border between Belarus and Lithuania, suffering from cold and hunger, “perhaps the number is close to a thousand, and no one can blame us, for years we have been without hope and a homeland.”
Observers of the Yazidi affairs confirm that between 30 to 40 Yazidis travel daily to Belarus in hopes of finding a road from there towards Germany, which has the largest Yazidi community.
Miyasar Al – Adani, a Journalist, and civic activist said that his people live in tragic conditions in displacement camps “if the roads were opened for them, none of them would remain in Iraq.”
Thousands of Yazidi families, according to Al-Adani, emigrated from Iraq, legally or illegally, to Europe, America, Canada, and Australia, leaving everything behind to start a new life. Compensation and destruction are everywhere, and the vast majority of them are unemployed and depend on assistance for their survival.”
The representative of the Parliament of the Kurdistan Region Rebwar Babke Ye said in a press statement that the migration of Kurdish youth is due to the unemployment and economic problems in areas such as Rania Peshader, Zakho, and Shiladze in Dohuk, and it is not related to political or security reasons.
But this statement opposes the fact that migrants pay to get there, besides the cost of travel is more than ten thousand dollars per person, and the advertisements of some visa offices say that the cost of the trip to Minsk is between 3000 and 4000 dollars, depending on the route that will be taken after the flights through Baghdad were stopped.
The representative holds part of the responsibility for the offices of “smugglers” who promote immigration and, through partners, propose many ways in exchange for large sums. ”These offices, whose number has increased, advertise themselves and their services on social media pages, and they must be closed because they contribute to illegal immigration and provide opportunities for communication with smugglers internally and externally.”
The suspension of flights from Iraq to Belarus did not end the dream of emigration that many Iraqis have despite their belongings “to escape their living conditions, the absence of justice and equality, or the prosecution of militias,” says activist Ahmed Hassan. Rather, Belarus encouraged them by continuing to open its airports to these dreams using the suffering of refugees in its war against the European Union. “A war in which the dignity of the Iraqis, whose state, as usual, fails to preserve, is wasted”, says researcher Adel Kamal.
On November 8, 2021, about 2,000 Kurdish immigrants moved collectively to the Polish border under the Belarusian police’s watch, after many calls on social media pages used by immigrants, to put pressure on Poland and the European Union countries to open the borders. Hours later, the crowds arrived at specific border points, but the Polish security services had preceded them and reinforced the deployment along the border and under air surveillance to prevent any crossing attempt.
The crowds in the main point and several other small points had to stay because Belarus cut off the return way, and they had to fight a battle to stay there in low temperatures and without food or water while humanitarian organizations were unable to reach the legally forbidden area.
A woman in her forties who was covering her body with a blanket while embracing her little girl said: “Now we have no choice but to stay here, we are at the mercy of European countries and the mercy of heaven.” The lady said that and stopped talking because her baby started crying.
Her husband, who was standing next to her, said, “We are not a victim of the war that Belarus is waging against European countries only, nor are we a victim of smugglers and travel agencies that exploit our circumstances. We are victims of corrupt governments in countries that do not know the value of a human being.”
The husband, who seemed weak, added, as he put more firewood into the burning fire in front of his wife, “All the choices are bitter… Maybe the most bitter one is returning to a country whose leaders view our dreams and our suffering as a deplorable adventure because it harms their reputation.”
* A group of journalists from the Iraqi Network for Investigative Journalism participated in the investigation: Salah Baban, Abdul-Muhaimin Basil, and Moyasar Al-Adani.