Desperate Iraqis the latest pawn in Belarus standoff with EU

An increasing number of migrants and asylum seekers have been crossing irregularly from Belarus into Lithuania, but Lithuania says this is a “hybrid attack” and not a refugee crisis. Most are Iraqis and many are from Iraq’s Yazidi minority.

Rising tensions open a new migration route to Europe

Ibrahim Khalil sits in Sabah Sahdun’s barber chair in the Esyan camp in northern Iraq. Khalil says he no longer feels safe in Iraq so he met with a smuggler who said he could get into the European Union through Belarus. (Rebecca Collard/CBC)

In his barber shop in the Esyan camp in northern Iraq, Sabah Sahdun has a steady stream of customers. 

He trims beards and cuts hair for some of the thousands of displaced Iraqis who live here, but in the past two months he says he's been hearing something new from his clientele of mostly young Yazidi men: "Belarus, Belarus." 

Sahdun said in the past few days alone, 20 customers have told him they are going to Belarus — a former Soviet state in escalating conflict with its European Union neighbours — and have plans to sneak across the border. 

In the first two weeks of July, more than 1,100 migrants and asylum seekers reportedly crossed irregularly from Belarus to its EU neighbour, Lithuania.

That's compared with just 81 in all of 2020. Most of them were Iraqis.

But Lithuania says this isn't a refugee flow or migrant crisis. Instead, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said migrants are being used as a "political weapon" by an increasingly isolated Belarus. 

Lithuania has called Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko illegitimate and is hosting Belarussian dissidents and opposition figures. 

Khalil talks to one of his cousins on video chat from his tent in the Esyan camp. She is also trying to find a route to Europe. (Rebecca Collard/CBC)

In May, Belarus used its fighter jets and a forged terror threat from the Palestinian group Hamas to force a passenger jet en route from Greece to Lithuania to land in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

Belarussian authorities arrested an opposition journalist, Roman Protasevic, who was on board. It was a bold violation of international norms and brought Belarus fresh sanctions from the EU.

But in the displacement camps of northern Iraq, few seem to know about that. What they do know is that Belarus is offering visa-on-arrival for 70 nationalities, including Iraqis, and that Belarus has a 600-kilometre, mostly unmonitored, border with EU member state Lithuania. 

Seated in Sahdun's barber chair, Ibrahim Khalil, 23, explained why he wants to join the Iraqis being smuggled through Belarus to the EU. Many of them, like Khalil, are from Iraq's Yazidi minority, who suffered some of the worst atrocities of ISIS. 

Khalil said he narrowly escaped death by ISIS in 2014, when militants took his village in Sinjar. The militants rounded up Yazidi residents, separating the men from the women and children. Khalil said he was held in a mosque with about two dozen other men and guarded by ISIS fighters

WATCH: Take a walk inside Esyan camp:

Take a look inside the Esyan camp in northern Iraq

2 years ago
Duration 1:38
Featured VideoDisplaced Iraqis live in tents with little protection from the elements and lack hope for the future.

"There was an airstrike on the mosque," said Khalil. The militants ran away. Khalil and several other Yazidi men managed to escape. 

He said he never saw most of the women again. One female cousin did eventually escape after being held as a slave by ISIS. She is now in Canada, one of the around 1,400, mostly female, Yazidi survivors taken as part of a federal government program.

In March, Ottawa expanded the program to allow Yazidi survivors in Canada to bring extended family members, in part because so many had lost immediate relatives to ISIS.

But Khalil and tens of thousands of other Yazidis still languish in camps in Iraq, four years after ISIS was pushed from their villages. Many still live in tents, where summer temperatures reach well above 40 C and in winter drop below freezing. 

'We can't go back to Sinjar' 

"We are living in a very bad situation in these tents and we can't go back to Sinjar," said Khalil.

Many here tell of how Iraq's national army and Kurdish peshmerga forces abandoned their villages when ISIS swept into them. They say they will never feel safe in Iraq again.

So Khalil met with a smuggler who said he could get him to Germany through Belarus. 

But Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis says this isn't about desperate asylum seekers — it's about political retribution. 

Yazidi children play in the Esyan camp. Most of the Yazidis who live here are from the Sinjar area of Iraq and say they can’t return home more than four years after ISIS was pushed out. (Rebecca Collard/CBC)

"We are not calling it a refugee crisis, we are calling it a hybrid attack,"  Landsbergis told Turkey's state broadcaster — an attack from its Belarussian neighbour. 

Belarus says the new visa rules foster tourism, but Lukashenko has also said his country would no longer be co-operating with the EU to stem migration.

"If some think that we will close our borders with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine and become a camp for people fleeing Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Tunisia, they are mistaken," Lukashenko said in early July. "We won't hold anyone."

Landsbergis accused Minsk of actually working with the smugglers to send people across the border into his country. 

Buses to the border 

"They spend a few days in Minsk, in government-owned hotels or in apartments," Landsbergis told the Turkish channel. "Then they are by bus transported to the border, shown transit points and given instructions on what to say and how to act when they see border guards."

Khalil and others here don't want to talk about how the smuggling works or even how they find the smugglers. 

But said the smuggler he met wanted $15,000 US. He desperately wants out, but it would take him years to save that.

And the EU is desperate to keep Iraqis like Khalil in Iraq. In Baghdad this month, Landsbergis promised Iraqi leaders better relations with Europe if they co-operate, giving Baghdad its own opportunity to use the migrants and asylum seekers as a pawn for political gain. 

Lithuania wants Iraq to halt commercial flights to Belarus and take back Iraqis who have already made it to Lithuania. 

Almost everyone in the camp says they want a way out of Iraq. They say they have no future and no security. (Rebecca Collard/CBC)

Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein has promised to investigate, but has shown little willingness to repatriate Iraqis from Lithuania. 

Many have previously accused Turkey of using vulnerable migrants and refugees as leverage over the EU. 

Turkey got billions of Euros to stop people from reaching Europe through its territory, a move that also restricted previously well-travelled migration routes and made the Belarus route more appealing — that and two direct flights a week from Baghdad to Minsk — rather than a dangerous Mediterrean Sea crossing. 

Lithuania passed a package of laws this month to restrict the movement of asylum seekers, speed up processing times and stop appeals to refugee claims so failed asylum seekers can be quickly deported. Landsbergis says not a single one has been granted asylum.

Critics say Lithuania is violating migrants' rights and international conventions and Lithuania's Red Cross says 40 per cent of those entering the country belong to vulnerable groups, including women, children and those who have experienced violence. 

In the meantime, the EU is trying to physically stop them, sending more border guards to Lithuania and putting razor wire along the frontier with Belarus.

But in the camps of northern Iraq, people are as desperate as ever to get out.


Rebecca Collard has covered the Middle East for more than a decade. She has reported on the Arab Spring and its regional repercussions, the rise and fall of ISIS and the mass migration spurred by the resulting conflicts. She's based in Beirut.