Baghdad, Iraq – More than 400 Iraqis stranded in Belarus are being repatriated on a charter flight from Minsk to Baghdad, with a stop in Erbil, officials have said.
Iraq’s first deportation flight on Thursday aims to return citizens who travelled to Belarus with the hope of entering Europe, amid reports of a looming humanitarian disaster with reports of violence on both sides of the Poland-Belarus border – where temperatures are near freezing, and a lack of humanitarian aid.
“Four hundred thirty Iraqi migrants have been documented to board the evacuation flight today to travel to Iraq,” said Ahmed al-Shhaf, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The consular teams in Belarus are continuing to register the names of 50 others.”
It was not clear how many passengers ultimately boarded the plane.
According to the Minsk National Airport website, a Boeing 770-440 model owned by Iraqi Airways will operate this flight, and the usual seating capacity for this model is 412.
Al-Sahhaf confirmed to Al Jazeera that there are no more planned deportation flights.
Thursday’s flight took off in the late afternoon from Minsk.
It first lands in Erbil in northern Iraq, where most Kurds are from. The rest of the passengers will disembark at the airport in the capital, Baghdad, in the early evening.
Videos posted online showed the boarding gate was relatively crowded, with some passengers in wheelchairs.
There is no official count of refugees and asylum seekers stuck at the border area, but reports have estimated that thousands, mostly from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, having travelled to Belarus in the recent months, are now stranded between Belarus and Poland, hoping to enter the European Union.
Iraq’s repatriation plan came after months of growing tension between Belarus and the EU, with critics accusing Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko of using vulnerable people as pawns in an act of revenge against Western sanctions against his administration.
Iraq, where many are travelling from, and others countries such as Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, have now restricted flights to Belarus.
Yet many are finding alternative routes to reach Minsk, partially due to Belarus’s continuing relaxed visa rules.
“I am so tired and I think I might go back,” one Iraqi asylum seeker wrote today in a Facebook group filled with people in Belarus trying to cross the border.
Users commenting on his post, however, tried to dissuade him from taking such a decision.
“If you go back to Iraq, you are going back to hell!” another wrote.
Many who planned to stay in Belarus felt bleak about their prospects in Iraq.
“I sold my house and asked my family for financial support so I could leave – there’s no point in me going back,” one Iraqi Kurd told Al Jazeera. “I’d rather die in the forest.”
Meanwhile, the toll of the crisis is increasing.
At least 11 people have died in recent months at the border, including at least two Iraqi Kurds whose bodies were recently returned home from Belarus.