Iraqi Kurds cite work and transplants as reasons for gambling in Minsk

DOHUK, Iraq (AP) – The smuggler had said the car would arrive in 10 minutes, but Zaid Ramadan had waited for three hours in the thick forest on the Polish-Belarusian border, desperately looking for signs of headlights in the fog – and a new life in Europe.

His pregnant wife Delin was trembling under a blanket. She had objected to abandoning her life in Dohuk, a mountainous province in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq. The trip was dangerous, expensive and the change too drastic, she told him.

“But I convinced her to go. We cannot live a real life in Dohuk; there is corruption, no work, repression, ”said the 23-year-old.

The couple were among a disproportionate number of Iraqi migrants, most from the Iraqi Kurdish region, who decided to sell their homes, cars and other belongings to pay smugglers in hopes of entering the European Union from the Belarusian capital, Minsk – a strange statistic for an oil-rich region believed to be the most stable in all of Iraq. But rising unemployment, endemic corruption and a recent economic crisis that cut government salaries have undermined belief in a decent future for their autonomous region and made many want to leave the country.

Iraqi Kurdistan is co-governed by a two-party duopoly between two families who have divided the region into control zones – the Barzanis in Irbil and Dohuk and the Talabanis in Sulaymaniyah. This arrangement created relative security and prosperity compared to the rest of Iraq, but was accompanied by nepotism and growing repression. These disadvantages caused potential migrants to leave the country. Many were early school leavers who were certain that an education would not guarantee them a job. Others were government employees and their families who were unable to survive in the face of the wage cuts.

Of the 430 Iraqis who returned from Minsk on a return flight last week, 390 disembarked in the Kurdish region. Among them were Zaid and Delin Ramadan, who are now living with Zaid’s parents in Dohuk again.

Like thousands of others, they were lured to the doorstep of the European Union by simple visas offered by Belarus. The EU has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of using asylum seekers in retaliation for sanctions imposed after his victory in the controversial 2020 elections.

The migrants poured into Belarus to get into the EU. Most came from war-torn Iraq and Syria. Smuggling networks appeared to be particularly efficient in the Iraqi Kurdish region, where an economic crisis triggered by a drop in oil prices made the regional government insolvent.

Oil prices have rebounded, but the region relies on budget transfers from the Iraqi federal government to pay public sector salaries. Payments were suspended due to disputes over the Kurdish region’s independent oil export policy.

Thousands of students in Irbil and Sulaymaniyah took to the streets this week to protest the lack of funding from the Kurdish government. Dozens gathered outside the KRG Ministry of Education to demand the grant payments frozen for eight years.

Kurdish officials said Iraqi Kurds were lured into Belarus by human traffickers with false promises of easy travel. “This is not a migrant problem, but an issue of criminal trafficking in human beings,” tweeted Masrour Barzani, Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Migrants said they left of their own accord, desperate for a life of dignity they could not find at home, and were not forced by smugglers.

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Ramadan had dropped out of school in the 9th grade. At first his father, a teacher, and his mother, a nurse, were against it. But they gave in when Ramadan countered that his two older sisters in Dohuk were trained dentists and still unemployed.

He was never able to secure a steady job. Ramadan has been a park servant, waiter, construction worker and taxi driver since 2013. He never made more than $ 200 a month, barely enough for rent. In 2019 he volunteered as an ambulance driver and hoped in vain that it would turn into a paid job.

The government is the most important employer in the Kurdish region. Last year’s austerity measures, including wage cuts of up to 21%, have sparked protests and deepened disillusionment with the ruling class. The cuts were reversed in July, but the effects are still being felt.

Young men often look for work with the Peshmerga, the Kurdish branch of the Iraqi armed forces. Ramadan tried but said it didn’t have the right connections.

Iraqi Kurds say the repressive policies of the ruling Kurdish elite are also driving their departure.

Journalists, human rights defenders and protesters who questioned or criticized the actions of the Kurdish authorities were subjected to intimidation, threats and harassment and arbitrary arrests over the past year, according to reports from the United Nations and Human Rights Watch. The Kurdish government rejects allegations of systematic suppression of differences of opinion. KRG officials say nepotism is a product of the abuse of power by individuals.

Ramadan said he was too scared to speak out in the current repressive environment.

After hearing of the route to Belarus in October, Ramadan deposited $ 10,000 with a local money exchange office in Dohuk that had ties to a smuggler.

He and his wife were expecting their first baby and he was determined to start over in Germany.

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When dusk fell, the car that was supposed to be bringing them to Germany hadn’t arrived and Ramadan was worried.

He and his wife had walked through the damp forest with 12 others and came to Poland in search of a GPS point marked by the smuggler. Hours passed.

When the vehicle finally arrived, it was a minibus, not the small car expected. Ramadan knew that a larger vehicle would arouse suspicion by the Polish authorities, but the migrants got on anyway as they couldn’t withstand another cold day.

A few miles down the street they heard sirens. The minibus and its dreams came to a standstill.

Ramadan and his wife, now five months pregnant, returned on the flight back to Dohuk last week, his dream of escape shattered.

“What can I say? My heart is broken. I’m back to where I started,” he said.

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Many other Iraqi asylum seekers have chosen to stay in Belarus in the hope that they will somehow still be able to enter Poland. About 2,000 people are currently in a warehouse near the border.

Miran Abbas, 23, once a day laborer and former hairdressing assistant, is among them.

His father, Abbas Abdulrahman, spoke to him on video this week from the family home in Sulaymaniyah Province.

“How are you?” he asked the hollow-eyed face on the screen.

Abbas said food was running out and the Belarusian authorities poured cold water over them to urge them to cross over to Poland.

But he won’t return.

“How can I live in Kurdistan? I prefer to stay here, even if they disregard me a thousand times, ”he said.

He could not secure a job in Kurdistan, said his mother Shukriyeh Qadir.

“It was time for him to get married, but he couldn’t afford it. He wanted to buy a car, but he couldn’t afford that either. He wanted to start a family and settle in a house, but that couldn’t be done, ”she said.

“So he left because of his ailments.”

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