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 aimed to seek refugee status in the EU by breaking through the Polish border are now seeking daily flights back to the Middle East.
Video and pictures from Minsk airport shows 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 are leaving Belarus and flying back to Iraq after failing to break through Poland’s border and enter Europe
Men and boys, largely Iraqi Kurds, are pictured in Minsk airport as they wait to catch a flight back to their home country after failing to get into Europe
Poland claims its ‘decisive action’ on the border has prevented dictator Alexander Lukashenko from using vulnerable people as a weapon
Two men check into a flight from Minsk to Iraq after being lured to Belarus with false promises of passage into Europe
One Iraqi Airways flight left last night at 10:15pm local time, while another departed today at 2:45am.
Both were flying to Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, from where many of the migrants on the Belarus-Poland border had come.
More than 1,000 have said they want 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 back to Erbil and Baghdad is a major embarrassment for Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko who had sanctioned the flow of thousands of migrants to his country in what EU leaders said amounted to ‘hybrid warfare’ on the bloc.
The migrants had been promised a better life in the EU and Britain, and Lukashenko’s KGB secret police and border guards choreographed multiple unsuccessful bids to illegally break through the border.
Lukashenko’s aim had been to punish European countries for sanctions imposed on him for rigging a presidential election, and using a warplane to force down a Ryanair tourist plane in order to detain a political enemy.
The West say he colluded with people trafficking gangs in a blatant bid to cause migrant chaos across Europe.
A young family checks into an early-morning flight from Belarus to Iraq in what Poland says is victory for its tough stance on the border
Iraqi men wait to board 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 overnight
Migrants check in for an Iraqi Airways flight at Minsk National Airport after the airline organised repatriation flights
An Iraqi boy is seen in his mother’s lap at Minsk airport, returning to his home country after failing to cross the Polish border and enter the EU
Some returnees – back in Iraq – have complained of beatings by Lukashenko’s security operatives.
Now the autocrat is demanding that the EU pay for return flights.
In rambling comments, he said: ‘Let the Europeans pay. They are scoundrels. We have allocated money, millions and thousands…
‘What is the cost of this flight? And there is no-one to pay. Let the European Union pay for it ‘
Many of those returning are destitute – having spent all their savings to buy air tickets to Minsk after being promised by middlemen 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 are continuing to evacuate the migrants voluntarily, and 617 Iraqis are now returned, in coordination with Iraqi Airways, from the Belarusian capital Minsk,’ said spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf.
Earlier Baghdad premier Mustafa al-Kadhimi said he was taking all ‘necessary joint measures to preserve the security and safety of Iraqi citizens and work to avoid any Iraqis becoming a victim of human trafficking networks.’
Migrants arrive at Erbil airport, in Iraq, after flying back home from Belarus
Migrants board buses back to their home towns in Iraq after returning from Belarus
He stressed: ‘The Iraqi government is working to bring back all stranded Iraqis voluntarily.’
Migrants inn Belarus were also from Syria and Yemen.
Among returnees, some were threatened with violence, reported The International New York Times.
‘The Belarusians beat us with sticks, but the Lithuanians attacked us with sticks and tasers,’ said Dhiab Zaydan, according to the newspaper.
‘A Belarusian police officer pointed a pistol at my head’, said Nazar Shamsaldin, 34, a labourer, who said he was ordered to retry seeking entry to EU country Lithuania from Belarus.
‘If you don’t go back, we will kill you,’ he was told by Lukashenko’s forces.
Returnee Azad and his wife told Al Jazeera they had been treated like animals at the Belarus frontier with Poland.
‘For now, we’ll try not to think about our future too much because as soon as we start thinking, it’ll 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 are starting to dwindle after what the EU said was an attempt to wage ‘hybrid warfare’ using vulnerable people as a weapon
Most migrants are now living in temporary camps away from the Polish border after failing to cross over into the EU
‘But we both know we are probably stuck here for the rest of our lives.’
Poland is maintaining its guard at the border and has warned that a ‘dangerous evolution of the situation’ could ‘continue for months’.
But Warsaw said on Thursday it currently does not see an immediate military threat and will not invoke Article 4 of NATO under which alliance members ‘consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened’.
While the flow of migrants has halted, Polish premier Mateusz Morawiecki has expressed the fear that Lukashenko will next seek to encourage Afghan refugees to try the same route.
‘This probably would be one of the next moves on the chessboard’ with Russia backing Belarus, he claimed.