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Belarus border crisis: hundreds of migrants fly back to Iraq

A major exodus of migrants is underway from Belarus to Iraq, as Poland claims victory in the battle for control of Europe’s borders.

Hundreds who wanted to achieve refugee status in the EU by crossing the Polish border are now seeking daily flights back to the Middle East.

Video and photos from Minsk airport show the returnees – including children – awaiting repatriation flights.

“It shows that with decisive action it is possible to stop the malicious and illegal exploitation of migrants,” said a Polish source.

Hundreds of migrants leave Belarus and fly back to Iraq after failing to breach Polish border and enter Europe

Men and boys, mostly Iraqi Kurds, are pictured at Minsk airport waiting for a flight back to their homeland after failing to enter Europe

Men and boys, mostly Iraqi Kurds, are pictured at Minsk airport waiting for a flight back to their homeland after failing to enter Europe

Poland claims its 'decisive action' at border has prevented dictator Alexander Lukashenko from using vulnerable people as weapons

Poland claims its ‘decisive action’ at border has prevented dictator Alexander Lukashenko from using vulnerable people as weapons

Two men check in on a flight from Minsk to Iraq after being lured to Belarus with false promises of passage to Europe

Two men check in on a flight from Minsk to Iraq after being lured to Belarus with false promises of passage to Europe

One Iraqi Airways flight departed at 10:15 PM local time last night, while another departed at 2:45 AM today.

Both flew to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, from where many of the migrants had arrived at the Belarus-Poland border.

More than 1,000 have indicated that they want to go home, the airline said. Belarus had previously said it tried to expel the migrants but they would not go.

The retreat to Erbil and Baghdad is a great disgrace to Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who had authorized the flow of thousands of migrants to his country in what EU leaders say amounted to ‘hybrid warfare’ in the bloc.

The migrants were promised a better life in the EU and Britain, and Lukashenko’s secret police and border guards from Lukashenko’s KGB choreographed several failed attempts to illegally breach the border.

Lukashenko’s aim was to punish European countries for sanctions imposed on him for rigging presidential elections and using a fighter jet to shoot down a Ryanair tourist plane to arrest a political enemy.

The West says he colluded with people-smuggling gangs in a blatant attempt to cause migrant chaos across Europe.

A young family checks in on an early flight from Belarus to Iraq in what Poland says is a victory for its tough stance at the border

A young family checks in on an early flight from Belarus to Iraq in what Poland says is a victory for its tough stance at the border

Iraqi men wait for a flight back to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, after failing to cross the Belarus border into Poland

Iraqi men wait for a flight back to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, after failing to cross the Belarus border into Poland

Migrants wait for an Iraqi Airways flight at Minsk . National Airport at night

Migrants wait for an Iraqi Airways flight at Minsk . National Airport at night

Migrants check in for an Iraqi Airways flight at Minsk's domestic airport after the airline organized repatriation flights

Migrants check in for an Iraqi Airways flight at Minsk’s domestic airport after the airline organized repatriation flights

An Iraqi boy is seen on his mother's lap at Minsk airport, returning to his homeland after failing to cross the Polish border and enter the EU

An Iraqi boy is seen on his mother’s lap at Minsk airport, returning to his homeland after failing to cross the Polish border and enter the EU

Some returnees – back in Iraq – have complained of beatings by Lukashenko’s security agents.

Now the autocrat is demanding that the EU pay for return flights.

In rambunctious remarks he said: ‘Let the Europeans pay. They’re villains. We’ve allocated money, millions and thousands…

‘How much does this flight cost? And there is no one to pay. Let the European Union pay for it’

Many of those who return are destitute – they have spent all their savings to buy plane tickets to Minsk after being promised by intermediaries and Lukashenko’s officials that the EU 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 continue to voluntarily evacuate the migrants, and now 617 Iraqis have been returned, in coordination with Iraqi Airways, from the Belarusian capital of Minsk,” said spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf.

Earlier, Baghdad Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said he was taking all “necessary joint measures to ensure the safety and security of Iraqi civilians and to prevent Iraqis from becoming victims of human trafficking networks.”

A migrant woman in temporary shelter close to the Polish border takes a selfie with Alexander Lukashenko as he visits the area today

A migrant woman in temporary shelter close to the Polish border takes a selfie with Alexander Lukashenko as he visits the area today

Lukashenko delivers a speech at a temporary shelter for migrants a few kilometers from the border with Poland

Lukashenko delivers a speech at a temporary shelter for migrants a few kilometers from the border with Poland

Migrants arrive at Erbil airport, in Iraq, after flying back home from Belarus

Migrants arrive at Erbil airport, in Iraq, after flying back home from Belarus

Migrants board buses back to their hometowns in Iraq after returning from Belarus

Migrants board buses back to their hometowns in Iraq after returning from Belarus

He stressed: “The Iraqi government is working to voluntarily return all stranded Iraqis.”

Migrants in Belarus also came from Syria and Yemen.

Some of the returnees were threatened with violence, The International New York Times reported.

“The Belarusians beat us with sticks, but the Lithuanians attacked us with sticks and tasers,” Dhiab Zaydan said, according to the newspaper.

“A Belarusian police officer pointed a gun at my head,” said Nazar Shamsaldin, 34, a worker, who said he was ordered to try again from Belarus to enter EU country Lithuania.

“If you don’t go back, we’ll kill you,” he was told by Lukashenko’s troops.

Returned Azad and his wife told Al Jazeera that they had been treated like animals on the Belarusian border with Poland.

“For now, we will try not to think too much about our future, because once we start thinking about it, it will become clear that we don’t have one here in Kurdistan,” he told Al Jazeera in Duhok.

Thousands of migrants remain in Belarus but numbers begin to dwindle after EU said it was an attempt to wage 'hybrid warfare' using vulnerable people as weapons

Thousands of migrants remain in Belarus but numbers begin to dwindle after EU said it was an attempt to wage ‘hybrid warfare’ using vulnerable people as weapons

Most migrants now live in temporary camps away from the Polish border after failing to cross the EU

Most migrants now live in temporary camps away from the Polish border after failing to cross the EU

“But we both know we’re probably stuck here for the rest of our lives.”

Poland is maintaining its border surveillance and has warned that a “dangerous evolution of the situation” could “continue for months”.

But Warsaw said on Thursday it sees no immediate military threat at this time and will not invoke NATO’s Article 4, under which alliance members “consult with each other when, in the opinion of either of them, territorial integrity, political independence or security of one of the parties is threatened’.

While the flow of migrants has come to a halt, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has expressed fears that Lukashenko will then try to encourage Afghan refugees to try the same route.

“This would probably be one of the next moves on the chessboard” if Russia backs Belarus, he claimed.

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