Second group of Iraqis returns after failed European bet

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Some cited the cruelty of Belarusian border authorities — from beatings to threats — and attempts to push them to cross into neighboring EU countries Poland and Lithuania. They had hoped to cross, just not under threats from the Belarusians. Thousands of migrants remain stranded between borders. Most are fleeing conflict or hopelessness in the Middle East and aim to reach Germany or other western European countries. But Poland has taken a hard line about letting them in, and Belarus didn’t want them returning to the capital of Minsk or otherwise settling in the country.

Over 170 people returned on a flight that landed in Irbil International Airport after 2 a.m. in Iraq’s northern Kurdish-run region. A disproportionate number of repatriated Iraqis from Belarus have been Iraqi Kurds. It is the second repatriation flight to return from Minsk. On Thursday 430 Iraqis returned home. Another flight was expected to arrive at 7 a.m. Friday morning, according to a tweet by Lawk Ghafuri, spokesman for the semi-autonomous Kurdistan government. Word on that flight has yet to emerge. “We are very thankful for arriving home, because the humanity and justice that people say about Europe is far from reality. It is not true at all. We have been beaten badly,” said Awat Nassir, a returnee at the airport.

“Now people are regretting they went there and demand to come back home, because it is 15 degrees below zero in Belarus now,” he said. Iraqi Kurds in large numbers have chosen to make the perilous journey by selling their belongings to pay smugglers. They cite rising unemployment, endemic corruption and a recent economic crisis that slashed state salaries in the Kurdish-run region as driving their desire to leave.

Budget shortfalls spurred by a crash in oil prices last year has made life more difficult for Iraqi Kurds. The autonomous region relies on budget transfers from the federal government to pay public wages, but these have been intermittent because of a long-standing dispute over Kurdistan’s independent oil export policy. As a result, austerity measures were introduced and wages were slashed last year. Iraqi Kurds have taken to the streets to protest salary cuts and budget shortfalls. Water cannons were used to disperse dozens of student protesters in Sulaymaniyah province this week. They were mostly university students demanding the Kurdistan Regional Government pay their student allowances fallen into arrears. The West has accused Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko of using the migrants as pawns to destabilize the 27-nation bloc in retaliation for its sanctions on his authoritarian regime. Belarus denies engineering the crisis, which has seen migrants entering the country since summer and then trying to cross into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

“The most difficult thing is when you see children stuck there,” said Emad Hussein, another returnee. “It is very hard.”

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