Iraqi Kurds take smugglers' route to Belarus

Hundreds of people have been smuggled from this Iraqi Kurdish town into the European Union via Belarus in the past five months, locals say, despite the risks of getting stranded, or worse.

This man is a smuggler in Shiladze; he didn't want us to show his face.

He's arranged the trip for about 200 people, he says; first legally by plane to the Belarusian capital Minsk, then illegally overland.

His partner in Europe is a man he met in Turkey.

Business took off for him and other smugglers in late spring, when the Belarus route opened up, he says.

"There is a man who lost two or three people on the way. When this happens, you get very upset. But this is about their livelihood and destiny, what can they do? They want to leave and it is better for them."

Poland, Lithuania and the EU have accused Belarus of encouraging illegal migrants through its borders since Brussels slapped sanctions on Minsk over human rights abuses.

Most are from Iraq or Afghanistan, and Shiladze is a key point of departure, according to smugglers and residents.

Autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan is relatively stable compared to the rest of Iraq.

But residents grapple with low employment and pay as well as geopolitical tensions that affect this border region - namely Turkish military sorties against Iraq-based Kurdish militants, the PKK, based in the area.

Halkaft Mohammed has a 19-year-old son who reached Germany last month. He'd go too, but it costs about $12,000. People are selling homes and cars.

"We have no other choice. We are worried for our youth, our villages are besieged and we are afraid. Right now, I have no money. If I had money, I would go with all my children. The Turks are hitting from one side and the PKK from the other, they are controlling our villages."

Ibrahim Mahmoud Ibrahim is a peshmerga, or local security officer.

It's a steady job but it only brings in $400 a month and he'd like to marry and raise a family. 'It has become a prison here,' he says. He might go too.

An Iraqi migrant died last month after crossing into Poland from Belarus, one of a number of recent deaths in the border area coinciding with the surge in illegal migration.

Belarus, a former Soviet republic, is one of the rare destinations for which Iraqis can easily get tourist visas, though Baghdad stopped direct flights in August under pressure from Brussels.

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