- Departure despite the risk of getting stranded or dying on the way
- Smuggling after Belarus opened the corridor in line with the EU
- People are selling houses and cars for a $ 12,000 smuggling fee
- Turkish attacks on Kurdish militants are driving a certain amount of emigration
SHILADZE, Iraq, October 5 (Reuters) – Despite the risk of stranding or dying on the way in Europe, numerous people from a single city in the Kurdish region of Iraq have chosen to use Belarus, local smugglers, being smuggled into European Union countries and officials say.
A local Iraqi Kurdish smuggler said he arranged the trip for about 200 people who wanted to leave the city of Shiladze and the surrounding area – first legally by air to the Belarusian capital, Minsk, then illegally by land.
He said his business got going late spring this year as the number of migrants trying to enter the EU from Belarus increased.
“But you want to go. What else can you do?” he said and asked not to be named.
An Iraqi migrant died last month after entering Poland from Belarus.
Poland, Lithuania and the EU have accused Belarus of encouraging migrants, particularly from Iraq and Afghanistan, to cross their borders to put pressure on the bloc over the sanctions Brussels has imposed on Minsk for human rights violations.
Shiladze, a town with around 40,000 inhabitants, is one of the most important starting points, according to smugglers and local residents.
The city is located in the relatively stable autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. But problems such as low employment and pay, and geopolitical tensions over Turkey’s military operations in Iraq against Iraq-based Kurdish militants, have long pushed people to seek refuge – and a better life – in the West.
But emigration has increased since the Belarus route opened, and migrants believe it offers a safer, faster way out.
The former Soviet republic is one of the rare destinations for which Iraqis can easily obtain tourist visas. As soon as migrants reach Minsk by plane, their further journey is usually handled by local smugglers.
The regional government of Kurdistan, based in Erbil, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In Baghdad, the Iraqi Interior Ministry said human trafficking was a crime and that steps were taken when it happened but did not elaborate on it in a response to a request for comment.
$ 12,000 to be smuggled into the EU
The Shiladze smuggler said his partner in Europe was a man he met in neighboring Turkey.
“I’ve helped about 200 people go to Europe in the last five months,” he said, although it was not known whether they all made it into EU territory. He said he knew at least three other smugglers who worked in his area.
Local officials were unable to provide specific numbers on the number of migrants. A local journalist said the number could be up to 400 from Shiladze and other cities in the area as of the spring of this year, and the numbers are rising.
“A lot of my relatives and friends left like this. Many others want to do the same,” says Abdullah Omar, a 38-year-old hairdresser. “People sold their houses or cars to be able to afford it.”
The trips can cost up to $ 12,000, including flights and overland once in Europe, according to the smuggler and local travel agents involved in booking the air travel.
Iraq stopped direct flights from Baghdad to Minsk in August under pressure from the EU. According to information from smugglers, residents, travel agencies and the Belarusian honorary consul in Erbil, migrants are now flying via Dubai or Turkey.
Iraqi analyst Amin Faraj said that while Kurdistan is more stable and viewed as more prosperous than the rest of Iraq, an ongoing economic crisis that resulted in authorities being unable to pay public sector wages weighed on many ordinary Kurds.
In addition, the residents of Shiladze live in a mountainous region near the Turkish border where security can be fragile. Turkey has carried out air strikes in northern Iraq against the militant Kurdish PKK group that uses the north as a base.
The Kurdish government said earlier this year that the chronic conflict had “increased insecurity and forced thousands of residents from hundreds of villages to flee their homes and lose their livelihoods”.
“Our area is under siege, it is in the hands of the PKK and the Turks. Our region is beautiful, but we are afraid and do not dare to stay here,” said Halkaft Mohammed, a resident of Shiladze, who added that his 19- one year old son arrived in Germany last month.
“Our villages are deserted, we can no longer go to the orchards,” said Ibrahim Mahmoud Ibrahim, a 27-year-old local security officer.
He’s paid $ 400 a month – a pretty normal Iraqi salary for his grade – and said he was considering emigrating too.
Aziz Abdullah, a shopkeeper and father of two, said he would emigrate even if it meant waiting for asylum in a camp in Europe.
Abdullah sells wedding dresses in the city market, but says he gets practically no customers. “Why should you spend $ 10,000 getting married when you can spend it getting out?”
Adaptation by John Davison and Mark Heinrich
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