Rejected, extorted, deported: Iraqi family's failed attempt to reach Europe

Teachers who were stuck at Belarus border with their child are back home dejected and with severe debts

After borrowing $10,000, Shamam and her husband Hiwa travelled with their young son Arias to Belarus in search of a better life instead they faced freezing conditions, rejection by border police and extortion from armed men. Photo: Oksana Manchuk
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After being caught in the migrant crisis along the Polish-Belarus border in freezing temperatures, two-year-old Arias is finally warm after being forced back home to northern Iraq.

Arias's Iraqi Kurd parents, Hiwa and Shamam, were schoolteachers who made the decision to leave their native homeland for Europe for economic and social reasons.

Like the many thousands of migrants who tried to make their way across European borders recently, their hopes for a safer life were quickly dashed when opposition by Polish and Belarusian authorities left them struggling for survival in outdoor tent settlements instead.

Two-year-old Arias in the woodlands of Belarus. Photo: Sanna Figlarowicz

“Thousands of us were gathered by the border thinking that the European Union would take us in, we were just waiting for some miracle,” said Arias' mother, Shamam.

Sometimes the Belarus authorities would take people to what she calls a "camp", which she describes as little more than a cordoned off area on bare ground.

“Then they would take a few hundred of us and try and push us through a fence to make our way to the Polish border,” she said. “My biggest fear is that I would be separated from Arias and Hiwa.”

It is a reasonable fear. A four-year-old Iraqi girl has reportedly gone missing after her parents were allegedly pushed to Belarus by border guards resulting in the family’s separation.

'Brutal violence' at the border

The migrant crisis along the border that divides Belarus and the European Union resulted in thousands of people who were trying to reach the EU being trapped between Poland and Belarus, living in freezing camps with no humanitarian aid.

Amnesty International has published several claims of migrant abuse along the border by police who have reportedly beaten people with batons, punched them with knuckle dusters and threatened them with security dogs, according to new evidence.

Largely manufactured by the government of Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko, in retaliation for EU sanctions, the mass migration led to about 20,000 asylum-seekers being lured to the eastern European country and told to cross into Poland.

At its peak, the crisis left about 5,000 people in the wilderness in winter amid dropping temperatures as they continued to be forced back into the forest from either side of the borders, with about a dozen people having been found dead in the wooded area. After weeks of international political stand-offs, Belarus took back some of the migrants into shelters before having them deported back to their country of origin.

The National first wrote about Aria and his family's 10-day plight circling the cold and wet forest along the Kuznica forest in November. They later made another attempt to breach the heavily fortified barriers along the Polish border, but it would be their last. After they were caught by Polish police, the family was rounded up along with dozens of others and sent back to Belarus.

“We were 300 metres away from border but our feet got stuck in wet ground and we were caught. They took us to a building near the fence where we spent the night,” Shamam told The National from Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

Their passports and mobile phones were taken away and they were given a paper slip telling them they could not return to Poland for three years.

“We asked for asylum but they didn’t say anything and forced us back to the border,” she said.

The next day, her family and several others were shepherded into buses and cars and sent across to Belarus.

Smugglers exploit people's desperation

Snow had just begun to fall when they reached Belarusian territory, Shamam said. Fearful of the freezing temperatures and another hostile reaction from border authorities, the family decided it was safer to head back to the capital, Minsk, and reconsider their options.

They paid $300 for someone to transport them and a dozen other asylum-seekers the one hour’s drive to the city, but their troubles were far from over. Soon after they set off they were driven to an abandoned building where armed men were waiting for them.

“Two men approached us and pulled out guns. They told us we had to pay them $2000 otherwise they would drive us straight to the airport. It was like a mafia,” said Shamam.

After failing to get through to Polish territory to claim asylum, Arias and his parents spent a week in Minsk before being deported back to Belarus. Photo: Shamam

Terrified, the 14 adults in the vehicle pooled the money they had together and paid the unknown men. Shamam said the driver was given just $100 of the money they had handed over and told to continue the journey to Minsk.

Once they reached the city, a Polish activist helped Shamam and Hiwa find a place to stay for them to recuperate. A week later, the family decided to try and make for the border again but before they did, they were picked up by Belarusian police and taken straight to the airport where a plane to Iraq was waiting.

“I begged them to let us stay but it was pointless,” Shamam said. “All that suffering, all that cold and thirst we experienced in the forest, all that effort and money, for nothing.”

Shamam said there were 430 people on the flight she and her family took back to Iraq. More than 3,000 migrants have been flown back there from Belarus in the past few weeks after unsuccessful attempts to cross into Poland turned into a humanitarian and political crisis. Many asylum-seekers reported being beaten by guards on both sides of the borders, others described being stripped of their clothes and belongings before being pushed into the freezing forest.

Shamam and Hiwa had borrowed $10,000 to take the journey that would lead them right back to where they started. She said they paid intermediaries $3500 for each of the three visas they got to travel to Belarus. Having been absent from his job for over a month, Hiwa was dismissed by his employer and is now unemployed. They are now relying on relatives to live.

Barely surviving is what had pushed the couple to make the harrowing journey in the first place, said Shamam. Her husband was only receiving his salary every few months and Shamam, a graduate in English, was being paid $1-a-lesson to teach the language at a government institute.

“Sometimes Hiwa was paid, sometimes he wasn’t. Sometimes the government would say it was ‘saving’ his salary for him,” scoffed Shamam. “What they show us on TV [in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region] is so different from the reality. How can a country that is one of the largest oil exporters in the world be one of the poorest? Someone is stealing the money, they’re lying to us.”

Jobless, traumatised and thousands of dollars in debt, Shamam said she did not regret making the journey.

“No, I don’t [regret], we don't really have the option to live safely in Iraq. We will try to leave again but this time in another way, maybe someone can sponsor us or we can find a legal way to emigrate."

Given that several thousand people remain trapped along the border, in detention camps or fearfully in hiding, Shamam may find the difficulties of living in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region more palatable than trying to push through increasingly anti-immigrant policies in Western Europe.

Updated: December 22, 2021, 12:13 PM