For months, thousands of people from northern Iraq, Syria and a few other war-ravaged countries have been hiking hundreds of kilometers from Belarus to Poland, an EU member state.
News coverage has largely been focused on the diplomatic spat between European leaders and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has exacerbated tensions with his provocative statements.
But almost half the migrants and refugees stuck in the forested border are from areas under the control of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.
“It seems no one in Iraqi Kurdistan has any guarantee about what’s going to happen in the future. Everyone wants to just get out for a better life in Europe,” says Mahmood Yaseen Kurdi, a journalist-based in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq.
Kurdi is in touch with a friend stuck at the Balarusian border. He shared videos on social media, showing the plight of refugees, and the footage immediately went viral.
“Give me a thousand visas right now and a thousand people will line up to get their hands on them,” he tells TRT World.
Rampant corruption and a system of political patronage where politicians vie for government jobs for their relatives and friends have undermined the economy of oil-rich Iraq.
Successive coalition governments have failed to create sufficient jobs for young people or address other problems such as chronic power outages.
Mismanagement of natural resources, such as the water supply, has led to deadly protests in cities like Basra.
KRG remained largely immune to terrorist attacks when Daesh was on the rise and Iraqi and international forces battled to contain its spread. The educational facilities and small businesses in Iraq’s north were often presented as a success story.
“Yes, we have stability, a parliament and government (in KRG) but we also have a lot of corruption. We have two families – the Baraznis and Talabanis – who control everything from the local economy, university, social media to police,” says Kurdi.
A case of liberal visas
Unlike other refugees who take dangerous boat journeys to cross the Mediterranean Sea and reach Europe, the Iraqi Kurds have taken the air route to reach Minsk, Belarus.
“Travel agencies, which are helping these people get tourist visas, have a role to play in the current situation,” says Dr. Ayselin Yildiz, UNESCO Chair on International Migration at Yasar University in Izmir.
Many Iraqis have flown to Istanbul and then hopped onto connecting flights to Minsk. Turkey on Friday banned Iraqi , Syrian and Yemeni citizens from using its airports to fly to Belarus.
“Belarus has a liberal visa arrangement with many countries. This makes the route cheap and secure compared to the risk of getting apprehended and getting stranded in Greece if the sea-route is taken,” Dr. Yildiz tells TRT World.
The EU and Poland accuse President Lukashenko’s government of orchestrating the crisis by issuing transit visas and giving safe passage to refugees to reach the border with Poland.
The EU slapped sanctions on Belarusian government officials last year for interfering in elections and curbing human rights. More sanctions are on the way after the latest diplomatic spat.
Dr. Yildiz says the fact that so many refugees and migrants are able to reach the border from the airport means Belarus is escalating the situation.
“But whether it’s a manufactured crisis or not is another question. At the moment, these people are on the border and asking for protection. They need support.”
No turning back
At least 10 people have died in the stand-off in recent weeks. With winter approaching and temperatures already dipping below zero at night, there is concern about the women and children stuck in makeshift camps.
Kurdi, the Iraqi journalist, says he’s in touch with some refugees on the Belarusian side, but the communication has become infrequent as phone batteries are running out.
The Poland-Belarus border falls within one of the main migratory routes to the European Union and Dr. Yildiz says Iraqis have used it since last summer to cross over.
The Eastern portion includes the EU’s 6 000-kilometre-long land border between Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia and its eastern member states.
This eastern section seems to be a comparatively new route to the immigrants’ bloc.
Until two years back only a few hundred migrants attempted to use it. But from January to October this year, at least 6,571 illegal crossings have been reported on the Eastern land borders. More than 3,800 of those crossing were Iraqis.
Poland has constructed a barbed wire fence, deployed thousands of soldiers and imposed a state of emergency in its border towns to stop the flow of migrants and refugees.
But Dr. Yildiz says until Belarus makes it harder for migrants to get visas, it will be difficult to stop the influx at the border.
Those who have already left after spending thousands of dollars won’t easily be turned away.
“People have sold their houses and land to get out of the country,” says Professor Mohammed Ihsan, a visiting senior fellow at King’s College London.
Besides paying thousands of dollars in visa fees and airfare costs, the migrants pay substantial sums to agents and smugglers who take them from the Polish border to Germany, a final destination for many migrants.
Ihsan, who comes from the KRG region of Erbil, says thousands of Iraqi Kurds had willingly come back to lend a hand in building the Iraqi state after former strongman Saddam Hussain was overthrown. “But now many of them have gone back to Europe,” he tells TRT World.
A fear that Iraq will descend into a civil war after American troops leave the country by the end of year has raised anxieties and given reason for Iraqis to find refuge somewhere else, he says.
“I know a guy who transfers money abroad and he told me that he had managed to transfer $2 million in just the past two months on behalf of a (human) smuggler.”