- Leaving despite the risk of being stranded or dying on the way
- Smuggling after the opening of a corridor through Belarus with the EU
- People sell houses and cars to pay $ 12,000 smuggling fees
- Turkish strikes against Kurdish militants lead to some emigration
SHILADZE, Iraq, October 5 (Reuters) – Despite the risk of being stranded in Europe or perishing on the way, dozens of people from one town in Iraq’s Kurdish region have chosen to be introduced smuggled into European Union countries via Belarus, local smugglers and officials say.
A local Iraqi Kurdish smuggler said he organized the trip of around 200 people wishing to leave the town of Shiladze and its surroundings – first by air legally to the Belarusian capital Minsk, then illegally by land.
He said his business took off at the end of the spring of this year when the number of migrants trying to enter the EU from Belarus rose, while admitting it was heartbreaking that people had died in the process. trying to enter EU countries.
“But they want to leave. What else can they do? he said, asking not to be named.
An Iraqi migrant died last month after entering Poland from Belarus, one of many recent deaths in the border area coinciding with an increase in illegal migration across the EU’s eastern border.
Poland, Lithuania and the EU have accused Belarus of encouraging migrants, mainly from Iraq and Afghanistan, to cross their borders as a form of pressure on the bloc over sanctions that Brussels has imposed on Minsk for human rights violations.
Shiladze, a town of around 40,000 residents, is one of the main starting points, according to smugglers and locals.
The city is located in the relatively stable autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. But issues such as low jobs and wages, as well as geopolitical tensions over Turkey’s military exits inside Iraq against Iraqi-based Kurdish militants, have long pushed people to seek refuge – and a better life – in the West.
But the outflow has increased since the Belarusian route opened, with migrants believing it offers a safer and faster exit.
The former Soviet republic is one of the few destinations for which Iraqis easily obtain tourist visas. Once migrants reach Minsk by air, their on-going journey is usually handled by ground smugglers.
The Kurdistan regional government based in Erbil did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In Baghdad, the Iraqi interior ministry said human trafficking was a crime and action was taken when it happened, but did not elaborate in a response to a request for comment.
$ 12,000 TO BE smuggled into the EU
Shiladze’s smuggler said his partner in Europe was a man he met in neighboring Turkey.
“I have helped around 200 people to leave for Europe in the past five months,” he said, although it is not known whether all of them had arrived in EU territory. He said he knew at least three other smugglers working in his area.
Local officials were unable to give precise figures on the number of migrants. A local reporter said there could be as many as 400 from Shiladze and other towns in the region as of the spring of this year, and the number is growing.
“A lot of my relatives and friends have left this way. A lot of others want to do the same,” said Abdullah Omar, a 38-year-old barber. “People have sold their homes or cars to afford it.”
Travel can cost up to $ 12,000, including theft and smuggling overland once in Europe, depending on the courier and the local travel agencies involved in booking the air travel.
Iraq suspended direct flights from Baghdad to Minsk in August under pressure from the EU. Migrants are now flying via Dubai or Turkey, according to smugglers, residents, travel agencies and Belarus’ honorary consul in Erbil.
Iraqi analyst Amin Faraj said that while Kurdistan is more stable and seen as more prosperous than the rest of Iraq, an ongoing economic crisis that has prevented authorities from paying public sector wages has put a strain on many ordinary Kurds.
Additionally, the people of Shiladze live in a mountainous area near the Turkish border where security can be fragile. Turkey has carried out airstrikes in northern Iraq against the Kurdish militant group PKK which uses the north as a base.
The Kurdish government said this year that the chronic conflict had “led to heightened insecurity and forced thousands of people in hundreds of villages to flee their homes and lose their livelihoods”.
“Our region is under siege, it is in the hands of the PKK and the Turks. Our region is beautiful, but we are afraid and we are not confident to stay here,” said Halkaft Mohammed, a resident of Shiladze who added that his 19- year-old son reached Germany last month.
“Our villages are deserted, we can no longer go to orchards,” said Ibrahim Mahmoud Ibrahim, a 27-year-old local security officer.
He is paid $ 400 a month – a fairly standard Iraqi salary for his rank and has said he is also considering migrating.
Aziz Abdullah, a shop owner and father of two, said he would migrate even if it meant ending up in a camp in Europe awaiting asylum status.
Abdullah sells wedding dresses in the city market, but said he has virtually no customers. “Why spend $ 10,000 to get married when you can spend it to go out?” “
Editing by John Davison and Mark Heinrich
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