One refugee said he had fled Iraq’s Kurdistan Region because of the lack of a decent life. A second said she was seeking shelter out of fears of a resurgence of the Islamic State (IS) group and attacks on her Yazidi village in Iraq. A third told horrible stories of abuse by pro-Iranian Shia militias in his hometown of Najaf.
The three were talking to an Arab television network from a large encampment on the Belarus-Poland border, where they had joined hundreds of other refugees trying to push through the razor wire marking the border in freezing conditions as Polish security forces blasted them with water cannons.
Hundreds of Iraqis have been fleeing the chaos of their homeland to Europe in the hope of building a new life in the West only to find themselves trapped in a major new world refugee crisis that is threatening to become a major flashpoint and has raised tensions across Europe.
For weeks, the desperate Iraqis have joined thousands of other refugees mostly from the Middle East who have been gathering at the Belarus border in an attempt to reach the EU and escape the political turmoil, violence, natural disasters and poverty at home.
Polish forces have used tear gas and water cannon against refugees marooned in freezing weather on the border as they try to cross into the country from Belarus. The refugees have responded by hurling stones at the Polish border guards.
Over recent weeks, refugees have also been pouring from Belarus into neighbouring Lithuania and Latvia, where the authorities have resorted to sending refugees back to Belarus. Lithuania has already built a wall that has managed to ward off thousands of refugees attempting to enter the country from Belarus.
According to data from the EU’s border force Frontex, most of the refugees are Iraqis who have been flowing for months into Belarus. The latter is believed to have been luring the would-be refugees with promises of easy entry into the EU.
For the EU, which is wary of large numbers of asylum-seekers on its border, the standoff could be a repeat of the refugee crisis of 2015. It has triggered fears that Belarus, which has strained relations with the EU, has been orchestrating the flow to try to destabilise the bloc.
In what seemed to be a tactical step-back to ease the tensions, Belarus took the refugees away from the border with Poland this week to a shelter in a sprawling brick warehouse a few hundred yards away, a move also meant to show the Belarusians as humanitarians.
Under immense pressure from the EU to stem the flow of refugees, Iraq has begun the repatriation of its citizens from Belarus. On Thursday, Iraqi Airways ferried some 431 people from Minsk to Baghdad and the Kurdish Region of Iraq.
Baghdad has suspended all passenger flights by national carrier Iraqi Airways to Belarus and launched a programme for the voluntary return of people stranded at the Belarus border with the EU.
With the dramatic situation on the border now calming, the question is whether this is only a short lull in the Iraqi refugee influx or whether it is the end of the would-be refugees’ dreams of escaping from their reality at home.
Iraq’s waves of emigration can be traced back to the mass flight of opponents of former dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1970s and then to the exodus that followed the Gulf War in 1991 and intensified following the chaos caused by the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Faced with escalating violence, kidnap threats and sectarian death-squad killings, many Iraqis left their country following the sectarian strife in 2006 and sought refuge in neighbouring countries or in countries as far afield as the US and Australia.
Millions of Iraqis have fled the chaos in their homeland since then, with many now resettled in Western countries. Others have found themselves unwelcome guests in other Middle Eastern countries.
The conflict in Iraq has produced one of the biggest movements of displaced people in the Middle East in recent years, triggering fears that the exodus could create a refugee crisis to rival that of the Palestinians who fled wars with Israel in 1948 and 1967.
Most of the Iraqi refugees have found shelter in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Turkey and the Gulf countries, but the governments of those countries have begun imposing restrictions to prevent the refugees from staying permanently.
The conflict in Iraq has also produced one of the biggest movements of internally displaced people in the Middle East, with millions of people returning after the end of military operations to damaged and unsafe houses in Iraq and lacking basic necessities and healthcare.
As their beleaguered nation has continued to struggle with rising political discontent, sectarian tensions and an uncertain future, growing numbers of Iraqi refugees have continued to escape their battered country by using whatever gaps and loopholes are available to them to make their way to safe havens abroad.
More than 10 per cent of the nearly 25,000 people who have made the dangerous journey to the UK from France in small boats across the 21-mile English Channel this year are Iraqi nationals, according to figures from the British Refugee Council.
With Iraq battling apparently endless conflicts, as well as continuous violence, a protracted political deadlock, severe drought, the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and diminishing resources as its future remains uncertain, many Iraqis still hope to flee the country and seek safety and a better life abroad.
Many of those who were flown back from Belarus last week told reporters that they were determined to take the same risks again to escape a “hopeless life” in Iraq. Khairi Hassan Kalo, a Yazidi who had returned with his family of six to a camp for displaced people in northern Iraq, said he had no future in Iraq.
“If it hadn’t been for my children and my mother, I would never have returned. I would have stayed in that forest [in Belarus] at all costs rather than return to this tent,” Kalo told an Associated Press reporter.
“I wish I had died and they were bringing my corpse back,” Awara Abbas, 30, who was among those repatriated from Belarus, told the New York Times. “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.”
Thousands of Iraqi refugees have remained in Belarus, and some have said that despite the futility and mistreatment, they will stay there until they reach the European Union. “I’ll camp all winter if I have to,” one Iraqi who managed to make it to Belarus during the standoff told a reporter from the Moscow Times.
The present Iraqi refugee crisis is thus best understood as another dramatic manifestation of the nation’s chronic dysfunctions and the ongoing struggle to shape its future in the light of its multiple conflicts.
External powers, in this case the EU, have signalled their ability to put maximum diplomatic pressure on the Iraqi government to stop the flow of asylum-seekers to their territories.
But if the EU wants to stem a new wave of Iraqi refugees, it will need to act beyond its current strategy of forcing countries to take back asylum-seekers and address the core issue of state failure in Iraq, which often appears to be out of the reach of current EU diplomatic initiatives and political dynamics.
The international community, in the case of Belarus now and Turkey in 2015, should also stop using the refugees as a political tool, seeing them as pawns for revenge or political deal making.
Under the current EU migration strategy, the bloc focuses on strengthening controls on refugee movement and helping rejected asylum-seekers reintegrate back into their homelands. Other elements involve tough legal and operational procedures to deport them and the use of development or visa restrictions to convince their countries to take them back.
Under the UN Refugee Convention, the EU cannot continue to penalise refugees and their home countries if they enter the bloc to claim asylum as long as they are seeking protection and their lives or freedom are threatened.
Iraq’s refugee problem can only be solved through an integrated strategy that tackles its root cause, primarily the failure of the transition in the country and questions regarding the rule of law, good governance and prosperity.
The EU should stop scapegoating the Iraqi refugees and should adopt a fair asylum policy and also help Iraq to stand on its own two feet in order to maintain stability and restrain migration.
One important contribution the EU and others should make is to work with the international community to facilitate durable solutions to Iraq’s political, security and economic problems and contribute to stability and justice in the country.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.