Baghdad, Iraq – As the plane took off on the runway of Erbil’s airport after a three-hour flight from the Belarusian capital Minsk, Azad looked out the window and grabbed his wife’s hands.
“We will drop our hats, wear masks and leave the airport as soon as possible,” Azad, a 28-year-old man from the Kurdish city of Dohuk, recalled telling his wife.
After a failed attempt to enter the European Union from Belarus that left them with bruises on their arms and indescribable emotional pain, Azad and his wife, who asked not to be named in full as they tried to stay as low as possible, told Al Jazeera. they were treated like animals at the Belarus-Poland border and did not want to be subjected to rounds of questioning by reporters once they returned to the place they so desperately wanted to leave.
“For now, we will try not to think too much about our future, because once we start thinking, it will become clear that we do not have one here in Kurdistan,” Azad told Al Jazeera as he sat in their house. has. in Dohuk. “But we both know we’ll probably be stuck here for the rest of our lives.”
Azad, along with about 430 Iraqis, returned from Belarus to Iraq last Thursday on a government-sponsored repatriation flight as part of the Iraqi government’s effort to ease tensions with Belarus over the past few years. -Russia-Poland border flared up. months.
As the majority of the migrants and asylum seekers decided to stay in Belarus with an increasingly slim hope that one day they could cross the border into Poland, others “gave up their naive hope that they could succeed” and decided that they would return home. Azad said.
‘Time to let go’
However, returning to Iraq was not an easy decision to make. Like many others who left for Belarus in hopes of joining the EU, Azad saved and asked for financial support from his family and almost sold his house. When they heard that the Iraqi government was offering repatriation flights from Minsk to those who wanted to return voluntarily, their first reaction was a resounding “no”.
“I remember telling my wife in our tent at night that we did not spend all the money and wasting all this energy so we would go back to Iraq,” Azad said. But then the next day, the usual clashes between the Belarusian border forces and their counterparts took place in Poland.
Azad said they were being pushed to the other side of the border by Belarusian police, and Polish police would then repel them.
“Back and forth, back and forth, they played us like animals,” he said, becoming visibly upset. “It was the moment when we thought it was time to abandon this dream of moving to Europe.”
What was described by Azad is only a fraction of a political and humanitarian crisis that has unfolded through the EU’s eastern border. So far, at least 11 people have died in this round of the border crisis, and many others are facing freezing temperatures and a declining supply of necessities.
Despite the Belarussian government’s efforts to transport migrants and asylum seekers to warehouses for temporary shelters, it remains unclear how the government will resolve this crisis. Western politicians accuse Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of using migrants and asylum seekers as “weapons” in retaliation for EU sanctions on his government.
For many like Azad, waiting is simply no longer an option: they have decided to go back home. Now that they are back in Iraq, Azad said they were happy he did not sell the house. But it’s also the last thing he owns now: he sold the benches, the fridge and even the coffee pot. Basically anything that could turn into cash to support their odyssey from Iraq was buying fair game.
Social media posts also revealed a grim picture of what awaits the returnees in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. One Kurdish family, for example, did not even have money for a taxi to take them from the airport to the internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camp where they lived.
‘Only choice I had’
Even though the Kurdish region, home to the Iraqi Kurds and some Yazidis, enjoys relative security and prosperity compared to the rest of Iraq, people living in the region are facing rising unemployment and endemic corruption. Some parts of the Kurdish and Yazidi communities, which are plagued by the armed group ISIL (ISIS), are still struggling to rebuild.
Jobs are scarce and many young people like Azad do not see a future in the Kurdish region. “I tried and tried, but I simply could not get a job, so leaving Erbil was the only choice I had,” said another young Kurdish man who is still in Belarus.
The regional government, in light of the hardships experienced by many of the people in the region, insists that the migrant crisis has been fueled by human traffickers. Yet many people who spoke to Al Jazeera said they voluntarily left their homes and went to Belarus with travel agency-arranged flights and visas.
For the 430 people who have returned from Europe to Iraq, their future is now even darker than when they decided to embark on this journey a few months ago. Without government support, many more are facing despair.
“I do not expect the media to really care about us and I do not think people can really understand what we are going through, but I am glad I have someone to talk to,” Azad said as he stood up. got off the floor and ended the conversation.