A second group of Iraqi nationals have returned to northern Iraq on two flights after spending weeks or months in Belarus trying to reach the European Union. Several said that they had suffered abuse at the hands of Belarusian authorities.
At least 570 Iraqis, including children, were returned from Belarus to the northern city of Erbil on Friday, November 26, on two flights. The first flight, carrying over 170 people, landed at the airport in the capital of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish-run region after 2 am in the morning. The second flight, carrying over 400 returnees, arrived at 7 am.
One of the returnees at Erbil airport said that he was "very thankful for arriving home, because the humanity and justice that people say about Europe is far from reality. It is not true at all. We have been beaten badly." There were numerous reports of maltreatment at the hands of Belarusian border authorities.
Thousands of people from the region and from other parts of the Middle East have been trying to cross into the EU since the summer by flying to non-EU member state Belarus and hoping to cross its border to Poland, Lithuania or Latvia to enter the bloc.
This was the second time such repatriation flights were carried out. Last week already, 430 Iraqis were returned home from Minsk. Most of the repatriated Iraqi nationals identify as Iraqi Kurds.
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Reports of violence against migrants
Many of the Iraqi Kurds, who had decided to travel to Belarus by paying smugglers after selling most their belongings, say that rising unemployment, corruption and a recent economic crisis in the autonomous region had driven them into the desperate situation.
Some of the returnees highlighted the cruelty the had suffered by Belarusian border authorities, mentioning verbal threats and beatings. A group of children were also seen with wounds and infections on their hands. There were also reports repeated attempts by border guards to forcibly push the migrants to cross into neighboring EU members Poland and Lithuania amid precarious situations.
Read more: At the border, Belarusian soldiers only know three words: 'Go to Poland'
Thousands of migrants remain stranded along the EU's eastern border in the meantime. Poland in particular has taken a hard stance in the escalating situation, closing and fortifying its borders. Meanwhile, Belarus doesn't want the migrants to leave the border region to return to its capital, Minsk, or to otherwise settle in the country.
The EU and its partners in the West have accused Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko of using migrants as pawns to destabilize the 27-nation bloc in retaliation for placing heavy sanctions on his authoritarian regime following disputed elections results last year. Belarus denies the allegations.
Aid groups say that at least 11 migrants have died on both sides of the Belarus border since the crisis began earlier in the year.
Read more: False rumors fuel migrants' hopes of reaching Germany
Belarus' President visits migrant center
Lukashenko meanwhile visited a center holding hundreds of migrants who remain in Belarus on Friday. According to Belarus' state-run Belta news agency, he told the migrants: "If anybody wants to go West, that is your right. We will not try to catch you, beat you, and hold you behind barbed wire."
He then added that as the Belarusian president, he would "do as (the migrants) wish, even if it's bad for the Poles, Latvians and anybody else."
Read more: Belarus: EU to target firms trafficking migrants with 'blacklist'
With AP, AFP, dpa