DOHUK from Iraq
The smuggler had said the car would arrive in 10 minutes, but Zaid Ramadan had been waiting in the dense forest straddling the Poland-Belarus border for three hours, desperate for signs of headlights in the haze – and new life. in Europe.
His pregnant wife Delin shivered under a blanket. She had opposed their leaving their lives in Dohuk, a mountainous province in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq. The trip was perilous, expensive, and the change too drastic, she told him.
“But I convinced her to leave. In Dohuk, we cannot live a real life; there is corruption, no work, repression, ”said the 23-year-old.
The couple were among a disproportionate number of Iraqi migrants, mostly from the Kurdish region of Iraq, who chose to sell their homes, cars and other property to reimburse the smugglers in the hope of reaching the European Union from the Belarusian capital of Minsk – a curious statistic for an oil-rich region considered to be the most stable in all of Iraq. But rising unemployment, rampant corruption and a recent economic crisis that slashed state wages have undermined confidence in a decent future for their autonomous region and made many people want to leave.
Iraqi Kurdistan is co-ruled by a bipartisan duopoly under two families who have divided the region into zones of control – the Barzanis in Erbil and Dohuk, and the Talabanis in Sulaymaniyah. This arrangement created relative security and prosperity compared to the rest of Iraq, but it was accompanied by nepotism and increasing repression. These inconveniences prompted potential migrants to leave. Many were dropouts, certain that an education would not guarantee them a job. Others were government employees and their families, unable to survive amid the pay cuts.
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, who are now living back with Zaid’s parents in Dohuk.
Like thousands of others, they were lured to the gates of the European Union by easy visas offered by Belarus. The EU has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of using asylum seekers to fight back sanctions imposed after claiming victory in a contested 2020 election.
Migrants have flocked to Belarus in the hope of entering the EU. Most came from war-torn Iraq and Syria. Smuggling networks have appeared particularly effective in the Kurdish area of Iraq, where an economic crisis triggered by a collapse in oil prices has rendered the regional government insolvent.
Oil prices have rebounded, but the region depends on budget transfers from the Iraqi federal government to pay public sector wages. Payments have been intermittent due to disputes over the Kurdish region’s independent oil export policy.
Thousands of students from Erbil and Sulaymaniyah took to the streets this week to protest the Kurdistan government’s lack of funding. Dozens of people gathered outside the KRG Ministry of Higher Education to demand a freeze on benefits for eight years.
Kurdish officials said Iraqi Kurds were lured into Belarus by traffickers with false promises of easy travel. “It is not a problem of migrants but a criminal problem of human trafficking,” tweeted Masrour Barzani, Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
The migrants said they left of their own accord, desperate for a life with the dignity they could not find at home, and that they had not been coerced by smugglers.
Ramadan had dropped out of school in grade 9. At first, her father, a teacher, and her mother, a nurse, were against it. But they gave in when Ramadan retorted that his two older sisters were dentists trained in Dohuk and still unemployed.
He was never able to get a stable job. Since 2013, Ramadan has been a valet, waiter, construction worker and taxi driver. He never made more than $ 200 a month, barely enough for rent. In 2019, he volunteered as an ambulance driver, hoping in vain that it would turn into paid work.
The government is the main employer in the Kurdish region. Last year’s austerity measures, including pay cuts of up to 21%, have spurred protests and increased disenchantment with the ruling class. The cuts were reversed in July, but the impact is still being felt.
Young men often turn to the peshmerga, the Kurdish branch of the Iraqi armed forces, for work. Ramadan tried but said he didn’t have the right relationship.
Iraqi Kurds say the repressive policies of the ruling Kurdish elite are also behind their departure.
Over the past year, journalists, human rights activists and demonstrators who questioned or criticized the actions of the Kurdish authorities have been subjected to intimidation, threats and harassment as well as arbitrary arrests, according to reports from the UN and Human Rights Watch. The Kurdish government has rejected allegations of systematic stifling of dissent. KRG officials claim that nepotism is the product of individuals abusing their power.
Ramadan said that in the current repressive environment, he was too afraid to speak.
In October, after hearing about the Belarusian route, Ramadan deposited $ 10,000 at a local money changer in Dohuk that had links to a smuggler.
He and his wife were expecting their first baby and he was determined to start over in Germany.
At dawn, the car supposed to take them to Germany had not arrived and Ramadan was worried.
He and his wife had walked with 12 other people through the soggy woods, crossing Poland in search of a GPS point marked by the smuggler. Hours passed.
When the vehicle finally arrived, it was a minibus, not the small car they expected. Ramadan knew that a larger vehicle would arouse suspicion from Polish authorities, but the migrants still boarded, unable to withstand another cold day.
A few kilometers further on, they heard sirens. The minibus and his dreams stopped.
Ramadan and his wife, now five months pregnant, returned to Dohuk on last week’s repatriation flight after his dream of escape was dashed.
” What can I say ? My heart is broken. I’m back where I started, ”he said.
Many other Iraqi asylum seekers have decided to stay in Belarus, in the hope that they can still enter Poland in one way or another. Around 2,000 people are currently staying in a warehouse near the border.
Miran Abbas, 23, day laborer and former assistant barber, is one of them.
His father, Abbas Abdulrahman, spoke to him by video call this week from the family home in Sulaymaniyah province.
“How are you?” he asked, his face with hollow eyes on the screen.
Abbas said food was lacking and Belarusian authorities poured cold water on them to urge them into Poland.
But he won’t come back.
“How can I live in Kurdistan? I prefer to stay here even if they disrespect me thousands of times, ”he said.
He could not find work in Kurdistan, said his mother Shukriyeh Qadir.
“It was time for him to get married, but he couldn’t afford it. He wanted to buy a car, but he couldn’t afford it either. He wanted to start a family and move into a house, but that was not possible, ”she said.
“So he left because of his suffering.”