Irbil, Iraq — About 420 Iraqis left Belarus on Thursday to return to the country they thought they had left behind in hope of a brighter future in Europe. The repatriation flight, which landed later Thursday, was part of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’swith his European Union neighbors.
Poland and the EU, along with the U.S. and its G7 allies, accuse Lukashenko, an ally of Russian President Putin, of manufacturing an immigration crisis by luring thousands of migrants and refugees to his country on the false promise of easy passage onto EU soil.
Thousands of desperate people, many from Iraq and Syria, spent huge sums of money on plane tickets and to pay traffickers for what they expected to be a smooth journey into Poland and Western Europe.
Many of the Iraqis who made the trip to Belarus were from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Two Iraqi Kurds are among those known to have died over the past two weeks trying to make the perilous trek through frozen woodland from Belarus into Poland.
S.O., a 23-year-old Iraqi Kurd who didn’t want his name used, told CBS News over the phone that he’d already spent more than three weeks in the makeshift camp known as “the Jungle” on the Belarusian side of the barbed wire border fence. So far, his several attempts to sneak across the frontier into Poland have failed.
He said Belarusian authorities had helped him get to the Polish border. At one point, he said, Belarusian Army troops even helped him explore different spots along the fence that might be easier to break through.
Belarus and Russia have denied using immigration as a “hybrid” tactic in the showdown with the EU, but with pressure mounting, Lukashenko’s regime began moving hundreds of migrants from the camps to shelters set up in warehouses further inside the country on Thursday.
Belarus and Russia have accused Europe of causing the crisis by indicating an openness to refugees. Poland has made it clear from the beginning, however, that it would not allow any irregular migration across its border.
Other Iraqis that spoke to CBS News from Belarus corroborated S.O.’s claims, however.
Ismail Diler sold his house in northern Iraq for $40,000 to finance his children’s trip to Western Europe. His 29-year-old daughter, her husband and their young child, and Diler’s three sons aged 25, 18 and 17, were all among those who flew to Belarus.
Diler told CBS News he was shocked to learn that his son Gaylan, the 25-year-old, who suffered with epilepsy, had died trying to cross from Belarus into Poland. Gaylan’s body was flown back from Belarus to Irbil, in northern Iraq, earlier this week.
The father said he never suspected that he was sending his children to embark on a dangerous trip. The smugglers he paid promised they were taking an “easy and safe journey” to the EU.
Diler said the rest of his family were now trying to get onto the next repatriation flight to Iraq.
More than half of the Iraqi migrants who’ve spent weeks along the frigid Polish-Belarusian border are believed to be from Iraqi Kurdistan, so the regional administration, which operates with semi-autonomy from Baghdad, has made extra efforts to help repatriate people.
Rebwar Babkayi, head of the Kurdistan Diaspora Committee in the region’s parliament, told CBS News that 420 Iraqi migrants would be on the first flight from Minsk on Thursday, and another 420 were already registered for repatriation.
He said the Kurdish administration expected the number of migrants who come forward for voluntarily repatriation to rise, and that everything possible was being done “to guarantee the safe return.”