A massive exodus of migrants is underway from Belarus to Iraq as Poland claims victory in the battle for Europe’s borders.
Hundreds who sought refugee status in the European Union by breaching the Polish border are now seeking daily flights back to the Middle East.
Video and photos from Minsk airport showing returnees – including children – waiting for flights home.
“It shows that by taking decisive action, it is possible to stop the malicious and illegal exploitation of migrants,” a Polish source said.
Hundreds of migrants leave Belarus and return to Iraq after failing to cross Poland’s borders and enter Europe
Men and boys, mostly Iraqi Kurds, were photographed at Minsk airport waiting to catch a flight home after failing to reach Europe.
Poland claims that its “decisive action” on the border prevented dictator Alexander Lukashenko from using the weak as a weapon.
Two men record a flight from Minsk to Iraq after being lured to Belarus with false promises of passage to Europe
One Iraqi Airways flight left last night at 10:15 pm local time, while another flight left today at 2:45 am.
Both were heading to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, from which many immigrants came at the border between Belarus and Poland.
More than 1,000 people said they wanted to go home, according to the airline. Belarus had previously said it was trying to deport the migrants, but they didn’t want to go.
The retreat to Erbil and Baghdad is a major embarrassment for Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who has authorized the influx of thousands of migrants into his country in what European Union leaders have described as a “mixed war” for the bloc.
Immigrants were promised a better life in the EU and Britain, and the KGB secret police and Lukashenko’s border guards crafted several unsuccessful attempts to illegally breach the border.
Lukashenko’s goal was to punish European countries for the sanctions imposed on him for rigging the presidential election, and to use a warplane to shoot down a Ryanair tourist plane in order to arrest a political enemy.
The West says it colluded with people-smuggling gangs in a blatant attempt to wreak havoc on migrants across Europe.
A young family investigates an early morning flight from Belarus to Iraq in what Poland says is a victory for its hard-line stance on the border.
Iraqi men wait on board a flight back to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, after failing to cross the Belarus border into Poland.
Migrants waiting for an Iraqi Airways flight at Minsk National Airport all night
Migrants check their arrival on an Iraqi Airways flight at Minsk National Airport after the airline organizes repatriation flights
An Iraqi boy is seen in his mother’s lap at Minsk airport, returning home after failing to cross the Polish border and enter the European Union.
Some of the returnees – who returned to Iraq – complained of being beaten by Lukashenko’s security forces.
Now the autocrat is demanding that the European Union pay for return flights.
In volatile comments, he said: “Let the Europeans pay. They are bastards. We have allocated money, millions and thousands …
What is the cost of this trip? And no one pays. Let the European Union pay for it.”
Many of the returnees are destitute – they spent all their savings on tickets to Minsk after mediators and Lukashenko’s officials promised them that the European Union would welcome them.
On Thursday, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said it had evacuated 617 migrants stranded in Belarus, including women, children and the elderly.
“The ministry’s efforts are continuing to evacuate the migrants voluntarily, and now 617 Iraqis, in coordination with Iraqi Airways, have returned from the Belarusian capital, Minsk,” said spokesman Ahmed Al-Sahhaf.
Earlier, Baghdad Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kazemi said that he is taking “all necessary joint measures to maintain the security and safety of Iraqi citizens and work to avoid any Iraqi becoming a victim of human trafficking networks.”
A migrant woman in a temporary shelter near the Polish border takes a selfie with Alexander Lukashenko during his visit to the region today.
Lukashenko delivers a speech at a temporary shelter for migrants set up a few miles from the border with Poland
Migrants arrive at Erbil airport in Iraq after returning from Belarus
Migrants board buses back to their hometowns in Iraq after returning from Belarus
He stressed that “the Iraqi government is working to voluntarily return all stranded Iraqis.”
The immigrants in Belarus were also from Syria and Yemen.
The New York Times International reported that some of the returnees were threatened with violence.
“The Belarusians beat us with sticks, but the Lithuanians attacked us with sticks and electric detonators,” the newspaper quoted Diab Zeidan as saying.
Nizar Shamsuddin, 34, a laborer, said a Belarusian police officer put a gun to my head and said he had been ordered to retry to seek entry to Lithuania from Belarus, an EU country.
Lukashenko’s forces told him: “If you don’t come back, we will kill you.”
Returnee Azad and his wife told Al Jazeera that they were treated like animals on Belarus’ border with Poland.
“For now, we will try not to think about our future too much because once we start thinking, it will become clear to us that we don’t have one here in Kurdistan,” he told Al-Jazeera in Dohuk.
Thousands of migrants remain in Belarus but numbers are dwindling after what the European Union said was an attempt to wage a “mixed war” using vulnerable people as a weapon.
Most migrants are now living in makeshift camps far from the Polish border after failing to cross into the European Union
“But we both know we’ll probably be stuck here for the rest of our lives.”
Poland maintains its border guards and has warned that the “dangerous development of the situation” could “continue for months”.
But Warsaw said Thursday that it does not currently see an immediate military threat and will not invoke Article 4 of NATO, under which alliance members consult together, in the opinion of any of them, on the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any member state. Parties are threatened.
While the flow of migrants has stopped, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has expressed concerns that Lukashenko will then seek to encourage Afghan refugees to follow the same path.
He claimed that “this will most likely be one of the next moves on the chessboard” with Russia backing Belarus.