The couple were among a disproportionate number of Iraqi migrants, most of them from Iraq’s Kurdish region, who chose to sell their homes, cars and other belongings to pay off smugglers with the hope of reaching the European Union from the Belarusian capital of Minsk — a curious statistic for an oil-rich region seen as the most stable in all of Iraq. But rising unemployment, endemic corruption and a recent economic crisis that slashed state salaries have undermined faith in a decent future for their autonomous region and kindled the desire in many to leave. Iraqi Kurdistan is co-ruled by a two-party duopoly under two families that carved the region into zones of control – the Barzanis in Irbil and Dohuk, and the Talabanis in Sulaymaniyah. This arrangement created relative security and prosperity, compared with the rest of Iraq, but it has been accompanied by nepotism and growing repression. Those downsides prompted would-be migrants to leave. Many were school dropouts, certain an education would not guarantee them work. Others were government employees and their families, no longer able to survive amid salary cuts.
His pregnant wife Delin shivered under a blanket. She had been against leaving their life in Dohuk, a mountainous province in the northern Kurdish-run region of Iraq. The journey was perilous, expensive and the change too drastic, she told him. “But I convinced her to leave. In Dohuk, we can’t live a real life; there is corruption, no work, repression,” the 23-year-old said. Of the 430 Iraqis who returned from Minsk on a repatriation flight last week, 390 disembarked in the Kurdish region. Among them were Zaid and Delin Ramadan, now back living with Zaid’s parents in Dohuk.
Like thousands of others, they had been lured to the European Union’s doorstep by easy visas offered by Belarus. The EU has accused Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko of using asylum-seekers to retaliate for sanctions imposed after he claimed victory in a disputed 2020 election. The migrants flocked to Belarus in hopes of getting into the EU. Most were from war-scarred Iraq and Syria. Smuggling networks appeared to be particularly efficient in Iraq’s Kurdish area, where an economic crisis triggered by a crash in oil prices rendered the regional government insolvent.
Oil prices have rebounded but the region relies on budget transfers from Iraq’s federal government to pay public sector salaries. The payments have been intermittent because of disputes over the Kurdish region’s independent oil export policy. Thousands of students in Irbil and Sulaymaniyah have taken to the streets this week to protest lack of funding from the Kurdistan government. Dozens gathered in front of the KRG Ministry of Higher Education to demand stipend payments frozen for eight years. Kurdish officials said Iraqi Kurds were lured to Belarus by traffickers with false promises of an easy journey. “This isn’t a migrant issue but a criminal human trafficking issue,” tweeted Masrour Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Migrants said they left by their own accord, desperate for a life with the dignity they couldn’t find at home, and were not coerced by smugglers. __ Ramadan had dropped out of school in the 9th grade. At first his father, a teacher, and mother, a nurse, were against it. But they relented when Ramadan countered that his two older sisters were trained dentists in Dohuk and still unemployed.
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