50 Iraqi migrants who had been living in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium voluntarily returned to Iraq by plane on Wednesday. It was the first such flight since voluntary return flights were put on hold in March because of COVID-19.
For the first time since travel restrictions were imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic, a joint return flight from several European countries has brought Iraqis back to their home country.
Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) on Thursday said that Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium provided the flight together with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for 50 Iraqis to Erbil and the capital Baghdad. The plane took off on Wednesday, September 2.
According to BAMF, the return flight was supported by the European Union and financed by Frontex, the EU's border and coast guard agency.
Mit dem ersten gemeinsamen europäischen Rückkehrflug reisten heute 50 Migrant*innen #irak|ischer Herkunft zurück in ihre Heimat. Organisiert haben d. Flug 🇧🇪, 🇩🇪, 🇫🇷 & 🇳🇱 in Kooperation mit @IOM, um d. freiwillige #Rückkehr während d. #Pandemie zu fördern. https://t.co/PyAGpnFLGI— BAMF (@BAMF_Dialog) September 3, 2020
Other flights are planned for European countries, the agency said further, adding that infection protection and physical distancing rules were followed on all flights. BAMF also said the returnees will continue to be looked after in Iraq and receive reintegration support.
Read more: Which voluntary return schemes exist for migrants in Germany?
The French Office for Immigration and Integration (OFII) on Thursday tweeted the flight route was "Paris-Munich-Erbil". BAMF told InfoMigrants on request that the returnees first flew from France, Belgium and the Netherlands to Munich with feeder flights. From there, a separate airplane brought the Iraqis to Erbil and Baghdad.
At the time of publication it was unclear whether there were 51 returnees on board, as OFFI said on Twitter, or 50, as BAMF said in its online press release.
According to BAMF, a nation-wide system of voluntary return counselling centers and virtual counseling options in Germany continue to be available during the coronavirus pandemic.
Return flights from Greece, Libya
In early August, the Greek government's migration ministry reactivated the program for the voluntary return of migrants to their country of origin. Just a few days later, a first contingent of 134 Iraqis took off from Athens.
Initially announced back in early March, the voluntary return initiative was suspended due to emergency measures put in place to deal with COVID-19 and border closures.
The scheme is part of IOM's Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) program, which is funded by the European Union and was implemented in the context of decongesting the islands at Greece's behest.
Read more: Voluntary return from Libya: How does it work?
In late August, IOM carried out the first voluntary return flight from Libya in five months when more than 100 migrants from Ghana were flown to Accra.
With dpa, KNA