The first repatriation flight to Iraq ferried home hundreds of migrants who had been trapped in worsening misery in Belarus, caught in an international standoff and unable to reach their goal, the European Union.
“I wish I had died and they were bringing my corpse back,” said Awara Abbas, 30, who got off the flight in Erbil in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, having spent $5,500 in a futile attempt to leave a country where he sees no economic future.
He said he had made eight attempts to cross from Belarus into Poland, and when he finally did, Polish forces caught him and pushed back into Belarus. “From now until my last breath I will try to get to Europe,” he said. “I will try Turkey or Iran or any other way to reach Europe.”
The flight, arranged by the Iraqi government, was part of efforts to ease the humanitarian crisis that has unfolded as migrants, many of them from the Middle East, have tried and failed to enter Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, European Union countries that border Belarus.
Thousands of migrants remain in Belarus, and among those who returned, many said that despite futility and mistreatment, they would try again to reach the European Union.
Iraqi authorities said 430 people boarded an Iraqi Airways Boeing 747 in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. Of those, 390 disembarked in Erbil, and the rest at the next stop, Baghdad.
In the last few months, Aleskandr G. Lukashenko, the leader of Belarus, made it easy for migrants to enter the country and encouraged them to cross undocumented into the European Union — in retaliation, European leaders say, for sanctions imposed by the bloc after a disputed 2020 election. But the migrants found themselves in appalling conditions, abused on both sides of the frontiers and increasingly penniless, camped in freezing forests along the borders without adequate food, shelter or medical care.
Iraq had said it would only repatriate people who were returning voluntarily, but Ashti Younis, 29, who also flew to Erbil, said the Belarusian authorities tricked him and forced him to return. He said the police came to his hotel on Thursday morning and said they were just taking him to renew his visa, but instead took him to the airport.
“I told them can bring my stuff? They told me no everything will be normal so I left my bag in the hotel,” he said.
“They didn’t have any humanity,” he added. “They lied to us and made us come back by force.”
Arshad Hassan, 32, who flew to Baghdad, said that he and a group of friends flew to Belarus on Nov. 8, and when they reached the Polish border, Belarusian soldiers promised to help them cross. Instead, he said, the soldiers took their passports, phones and cigarettes, detained them for four days, and then drove them to the Lithuanian border.
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“They gave us back our mobiles and passports but they kept the mobile phone chips,” he said. “They wanted us to die. They left us in a forest with no means of communication.”
“We suffered a lot,” he said. “They beat us. There were women, children and elderly people who were suffering from the cold. They took us to the river that separates the two countries and if we didn’t go down to the river they beat us.”
But Mr. Hassan, who said “Iraq has no future,” said he would not give up trying to get to Europe.
The vast majority of the travelers have arrived in Belarus by plane, but airlines have been reducing flights from the Middle East to Minsk, and barring passengers from Iraq, Syria and Yemen.