In Iraq Kurdish town, many undertake smuggling route to Europe via Belarus By Reuters
© Reuters. A square decorated with the flags of Kurdistan Democratic Party in advance of elections is seen in Shiladze (Iraq), September 21st, 2021. REUTERS/Charlotte Bruneau
Charlotte Bruneau, Kawa Omar
SHILADZE (Iraq) – Despite being stranded or perished on their journey to Europe, many people hailing from one town in Iraq’s Kurdish area have chosen to be smuggled in via Belarus. Local smugglers, officials and others say they are willing to risk it.
Local Iraqi Kurdish smuggler claimed that he had organized the journey for around 200 people who wanted to leave Shiladze. They flew first legal by plane to Minsk in Belarus, and then they traveled illegally via land.
Although he said that his company grew rapidly during the surge in migrants from Belarus trying to reach the EU, he also admitted that it was disappointing to hear of the deaths of people trying to get into the EU.
They want to go. They don’t know what else to do. He said so, refusing to be named.
Last month, an Iraqi immigrant was killed after crossing from Belarus into Poland. He was the latest victim of illegal migration.
Poland, Lithuania, and the EU accuse Belarus of encouraging migrants from Iraq and Afghanistan to cross their borders in a bid to put pressure on the bloc. This was due to sanctions Brussels imposed against Minsk because of human rights abuses.
According to residents and smugglers, Shiladze has been cited as one of the most important points of departure.
It is located in an autonomous area of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has a relatively stable population. Problems such as low pay and employment, and geopolitical tension over Turkey’s military sorties in Iraq against Iraqi Kurdish militias has long pushed people to seek safety and better living conditions elsewhere.
However, the flow of migrants has increased since opening up the Belarus route, believing that it provides a faster and safer way to escape.
It is rare that Iraqis are able to obtain visas for the former Soviet Republic. Most migrants arrive in Minsk via plane. The rest of their journeys are handled by smugglers at the ground.
Requests for comment were not received by the Kurdistan region government, based in Erbil. Baghdad’s interior ministry stated that human trafficking is a crime, and steps were taken to prevent it from happening again. However, they did not respond in detail to requests for comment.
12,000 TO BE SMUGGLED to EU
Shiladze’s smuggler claimed that his European partner was a man he had met in Turkey.
“I have helped 200 people get to Europe within the last five month,” he stated, but it wasn’t clear if they all made it. He claimed to know at least three more smugglers in the area.
The exact number of migrants was not given by local officials. One local journalist stated that the number of migrants could reach 400 in Shiladze alone since this spring, with numbers increasing.
“Many of our relatives and close friends left this way.” Abdullah Omar, 38 year-old barber, said many other people want to do it the same. People have had to sell their cars or homes in order to make the purchase.
These trips may cost upwards of $12,000, including airfares and being smuggled across the border once they reach Europe. This is according to both the local travel agents and the smugglers who booked the travel.
Under EU pressure, Iraq cut off direct flights between Baghdad and Minsk during August. According to Erbil’s honorary Belarusian consul, smugglers and residents, migrants are flying through Turkey or Dubai.
Amin Faraj, an Iraqi analyst said that Kurdistan was more stable than other parts of Iraq and is considered more wealthy. However, the ongoing economic crisis has made it difficult for many Kurds to get their wages.
Shiladzes live in an area of mountainous terrain near the Turkish border. This region is known for its vulnerability to security threats. Turkey conducted air strikes in northern Iraq to defeat the Kurdish PKK militants group that uses the region as its base.
According to the Kurdish government, this year’s chronic conflict “resulted [in an increase in insecurity] and caused thousands of people from hundreds of villages fleeing their homes and lost their livelihoods”.
“Our region is under siege, it’s at the control of the PKK or the Turks. We are happy in our region, but it is dangerous and unsafe to stay there,” Halkaft Mohammed of Shiladze said. His 19-year old son, however, had already reached Germany.
Ibrahim Mahmoud Ibrahim a local security officer aged 27 said that “our villages are deserted and we cannot longer go to orchards”.
The salary he receives is $400 per month, which is a standard Iraqi salary for his job grade.
Aziz Abdullah was a shopkeeper and father to two children.
Abdullah is a vendor at the local town market, but he said that he has very few customers. You don’t need to spend 10,000 USD for getting married when it is possible to spend the money on traveling.