'There is no life': Why Iraqi Kurdish migrants are fleeing to Europe
Azad, 33, an Iraqi Kurdish university graduate, bought a heavy black overcoat at a marketplace in downtown Sulaymaniyah as he made his final preparations to seek a better life in Europe through the risky Belarus-Poland border migration route.
More and more frustrated Kurdish youths are packing their bags on a daily basis to join fellow migrants who are stuck at the Belarusian border with Poland, awaiting an unknown fate.
Around 4,000 migrants - mostly Kurds - have become trapped at the border, where they face dire humanitarian conditions, with four Kurdish migrants, so far, including two children, having died to due extreme weather conditions.
Their misery is a reminder to the world of the 1991 mass exodus of Kurds fleeing persecution under the former Iraqi Baath regime following the first Gulf War.
"Around 4,000 migrants - mostly Iraqi Kurds - have become trapped at the Belarus-Poland border, where they face dire humanitarian conditions"
“This overcoat keeps me warm from the snow of Belarus. I have graduated since 2012 and worked in several private sector companies, but the salary I was earning was hardly covering my own expenses,” Azad told The New Arab.
“I could not get married or have my own business since life here is not stable. Therefore, I decided to take the risk to migrate to Belarus and then try to cross into the European countries via Poland. Life itself is taking risks.”
'Cold, hunger, and humiliation'
Azad and two other migrants told The New Arab that there are several travel agencies in the Iraqi Kurdistan region that will arrange a package including the visa, airfare, and several days’ accommodation in return for nearly $4,000. Once in Minsk, migrants pay nearly $3,000 to smugglers in order to take them to the Polish border.
Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq, is rich in oil and other natural resources with a population of nearly six million. But for many, the Kurdish ruling parties - the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - have maintained an unjust, undemocratic, and kleptocratic system of rule since 1991.
According to the World Bank, unemployment in Iraq was estimated at 13.74 per cent in 2020. The number is particularly high among Kurdish youth.
Migrants at the border, including Arabs, Iranians, and Afghans, have all formally visited Belarus via tourism visas, but the country has been accused of using them as pawns to weaponise migration against the European Union (EU) for sanctions imposed on Minsk over human rights abuses.
“There is no life in the Kurdistan region, I have taken this irregular migration route since all these people cannot afford to migrate legally,” Rebaz, 26, a Kurdish migrant from Sulaymaniyah told The New Arab from the Belarusian border with Poland.
“We have all chosen this harsh route in hope for a better life and reaching Europe. We are always facing the danger of death, very cold weather, hunger, thirst, beatings and mistreatment by both Poland and Belarusian police and soldiers.”
Two weeks in the forest
He said that Kurdish migrants have reached Belarus via commercial airlines and transit journeys from Damascus, Lebanon, and Turkey, with many arriving in Minsk directly from Dubai’s airport.
“This is my fifth time that I am trying to cross into Poland with the help of smugglers. I have been living in this forest for more than two weeks. Polish police first arrested me and others deporting us into the Belarusian territories; then the Belarusian police told us they would help us cross the Polish border,” Rebaz said.
“Belarusian and Polish guards are beating migrants ruthlessly, and Polish guards have snatched all our money, they broke our mobile phones and humiliated us.”
He stressed that their fate is in the hands of the EU, hoping Brussels will make a decision to let them enter their countries. He also said that the Belarusian police are forcing them to cut the razor wire fence on the border so that migrants might enter Poland en masse.
"We have all chosen this harsh route in hope for a better life and reaching Europe. We are always facing the danger of death, very cold weather, hunger, thirst, beatings and mistreatment"
Belarus’ authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, recently accused some unidentified parties of trying to arm the migrants to create “chaos”.
“Belarusian police have asked the migrants who has experience in using arms, in case any side or country tries to give weapons to us, no one would obey,” Rebaz said.
Conditions are deteriorating
Zanyar, another Kurdish migrant at the Belarusian border with Poland, told The New Arab that Belarusian charity organisations are offering a little food and water to the stranded migrants.
He cautioned that if the international community would not move to rescue them, more migrants would soon perish as food and timber for making fires are running out as temperatures fall to below freezing, especially at night.
Ari Jalal, director of the Kurdish NGO Summit for Refugees and Displaced Affairs (Lutka) told The New Arab in a phone interview that since early 2021 more than 40,000 Iraqis have asked for asylum in European countries, with 25 Iraqis dying and 14 others missing during their journey.
He also said that tens of thousands of other Iraqis and Kurds are living in camps in Turkey, Lithuania, Belarus, Poland and Balkan countries and have yet to ask for asylum.
“If the current conditions of the migrants continue, it would definitely lead to a humanitarian crisis. A large number of migrants, especially children and the elderly, could die due to cold and hunger because the EU and Poland are not letting humanitarian aid be delivered to the migrants,” Jalal said.
“Belarus has been using the migrants as a political pressure card against Poland and the EU to force improving relations with Minsk,” he added.
“The best solution is that the Iraqi federal government should make a total revision regarding the living conditions of its citizens. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) also should pay unemployment insurance to graduates, and create more job opportunities.”
"When the youths, especially university graduates, see that the Kurdish ruling elites have become very rich due to rampant and institutional corruption, but the youths are jobless, this makes them feel frustrated"
Lack of social justice
The Iraqi Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ahmed al-Sahaf told state media that by the 18th of November it will conduct its first flight for Iraqi migrants who are willing to return home from the Belarus-Poland borders.
“The Iraqi government must compensate those Iraqi migrants who want to return home voluntarily, as they have already sold everything before leaving the country,” Jalal asserted.
“I’m deeply concerned by the plight of our citizens, as well as the many others on the EU borders. Their wellbeing is our shared responsibility. They’ve been deceived by traffickers; exploited by networks abroad. I’m working with our partners to ensure their safety & security,” Masrour Barzani, the KRG Prime Minister, tweeted on 14 November.
Adnan Saied Hussein, a Kurdish political analyst, told The New Arab that the main motivation for Kurdish youth to migrate en masse is the lack of social justice in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“When the youths, especially university graduates, see that the Kurdish ruling elites have become very rich due to rampant and institutional corruption, but the youths are jobless, this makes them feel frustrated,” Saied Hussein said.
“This frustration makes them seek illegal migration [routes] and flee their homeland in search of a better life in Europe. However, this better life is never guaranteed, rather, the migrants take a risk with their own lives.”
Dana Taib Menmy is an investigative freelance journalist from the Iraqi Kurdistan region writing on issues of politics, society, human rights, security, and minorities. His work has appeared in Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English, Middle East Eye, The National, among many other outlets
Follow him on Twitter: @danataibmenmy