An Iraqi repatriation flight departed from Belarus and arrived in Iraq on Thursday to bring home migrants who are caught in the middle of a dispute between the Belarusian leader and the European Union.
The move by Iraq is part of efforts to ease the humanitarian crisis at the Belarusian border that has stranded thousands of migrants, many of them from the Middle East, trying to reach the European Union through neighboring Poland, a member of the bloc.
Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said that 430 Iraqis had registered to return on the Boeing 747 operated by Iraqi Airways, the state airline, although it wasn’t clear how many had boarded the plane. That is a fraction of the thousands believed to be in Belarus, either at the border or in the capital, Minsk, after the government of Belarus made it easy for migrants to enter the country and encouraged them to cross into the European Union — in retaliation, European leaders say, for sanctions imposed by the bloc after a disputed 2020 election.
After departing from Minsk, the flight landed in Erbil, in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, on Thursday evening, according to flight tracking websites and news media reports. There, 390 returning Iraqis got off, said the civil aviation spokesman, Jihad Diwan. The flight then left Erbil for Baghdad.
Many Iraqi migrants have said they have no intention of returning to Iraq, and some have suggested that if they cannot find a way into the European Union, they might try to apply for asylum in Belarus — creating a possibly charged situation for the nation’s autocratic leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.
Unlike in past migrant crises, the vast majority of these travelers have arrived in Belarus by plane, but the major air routes they used to reach Minsk from the Middle East have been narrowing for days, slowing the flow of migrants into the country.
On Wednesday, Lebanon’s civil aviation authority instructed airlines to allow only Belarusian citizens and travelers with visas or residency permits for Belarus to board flights to the country. Last week, travel agents and thwarted travelers said that Iraqis, Syrians and Yemenis were no longer allowed to board flights to Minsk from Turkey, Iran or Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
The flight bans come after an intense diplomatic campaign by European Union members alarmed by the arrival of thousands of mostly Iraqi migrants into Belarus after it loosened its visa rules in August. Hoping for a path into the European Union, the migrants instead found themselves in freezing forest camps on the borders with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Belarus has denied fueling the crisis, and on Thursday, the Belarusian state airline, Belavia, said it had stopped allowing citizens from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen to board flights from Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, according to the state-run Belta news agency.
Iraq and the European Union are considering offering incentives for migrants to return home, including cash payments. But many migrants have leveraged their life savings or borrowed thousands of dollars to finance their trips, an amount likely to exceed any payments offered by governments.