DOHUK, Iraq — Sarkawt Ismat was cold, hungry and terrified, trapped between Polish and Belarusian troops facing off on opposite sides of the European Union’s eastern border.
The 19-year-old Iraqi taxi driver is among thousands from the Middle East who have been trying to cross into the EU in recent months through a backdoor opened by non-EU member Belarus.
Ismat left his home in Dohuk, a town in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, two weeks ago, after selling his taxi. He paid $2,600 to a local travel agency for a bus to Turkey, a hotel stay in Istanbul, a plane ticket to Minsk, and three nights in a hotel in the Belarusian capital.
He hoped to enter Poland and eventually reach Germany to join his older brother, Sarwar, who had successfully completed the journey.
Somewhere near the Polish border, his dreams were crushed. He and others in his group were stopped by Belarusian troops who he said beat them and took their possessions, including his money and cellphone. For days, the group was trapped in a forest, not allowed to enter Poland or return to Minsk.
“I’m scared and want to come back but don’t have a penny,” he said in a phone interview, using a borrowed mobile. “It is an absolute humiliation here,” he said.
“When I traveled, they told me it is very easy. ‘It takes only three days to get to Europe.'”
That turned out to be wrong.
For many in the Middle East, beaten down by conflict and hopelessness, the lure of jobs and stability in Europe has always been powerful. Legal entry has been near-impossible, with the EU tightening its borders in recent years. Every year, tens of thousands try to get in, embarking on treacherous and, at times, deadly journeys by sea and land.
Others were deterred by such risks until an opportunity for seemingly easy entry to Europe appeared to open up earlier this year.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, angered after the EU imposed sanctions on his authoritarian regime following a harsh internal crackdown on dissent, announced he was retaliating by loosening border controls against Western-bound migrants. EU officials accused him of using the migrants as pawns, while Lukashenko denies that and says Europe is violating their rights by denying them safe passage.
Belarus began offering easy tourist visas to Iraqis, Syrians and others from the Middle East and Africa. This meant they could now reach the edge of Europe on comfortable flights, then try to sneak from Belarus into Poland, Lithuania or Latvia, all EU members.
Thousands have attempted the journey since summer. That has led in recent weeks to increasingly tense standoffs on the border Belarus and scenes of desperate migrants huddled in forests amid freezing temperatures. Poland sent riot police and troops to bolster its border guards. At least eight deaths have been reported.
A 44-year-old car mechanic from Syria says he doesn’t care about Lukashenko’s motives or the reports of suffering at the Belarus border.
He is determined to reach Belarus with his older sons, ages 16 and 17, and eventually get to Germany. There he hopes to find work and arrange for his wife and two younger children to join him.
“There is no future here for young people, whether in education, culture or social life,” he said, asking that his name not be used because he feared publicity could disrupt his plans.
Both Syria and Iraq have been devastated by years of conflict. Syria is a broken country after a decade of civil war that killed more than 400,000 people and displaced half its population. President Bashar Assad prevailed with the help of Russia and Iran, confining those trying to topple him to a small corner of Syria. But the country is in an economic free fall set off by Western sanctions and the cumulative costs of war.
The mechanic said there is absolutely no hope the situation will improve, and it’s better to take a risk now than to see his children condemned to despair in Syria. Things are so bad that his oldest son can’t even get a required textbook for 10th grade English, he said.
When he heard of what was happening in Belarus through social media, he went to a travel agency in Damascus that offered package deals for $4,000 per person. He applied for the visa and borrowed money to cover the cost for himself and his sons.
He’ll leave for Belarus once he gets the visa, he said.
At this stage, nothing will deter him. He said he’s prepared to try four or five times.
“There are people who make it the first time, others the second time and others the third time, but eventually they arrive,” he said. “I have to guarantee the future of my children.”
A Damascus travel agent said demand has driven up prices for packages to Belarus, from $2,600 for a flight and five nights in a Minsk hotel, to about $4,000.
Most Syrians make the trip on private Syrian carrier Cham Wings, said the agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of possible harm to his business.
The EU is looking at the role some airlines have played, reportedly considering sanctions against them.
Flight options are shrinking. Turkey said Friday it is halting airline tickets to Iraqis, Syrians and Yemenis wanting to travel to Belarus. Citing that decision, the Belarusian airline Belavia said it also would not ticket citizens of those countries on its Istanbul-Minsk flight.
Iraqi Airways, which suspended flights between Baghdad and Minsk on Aug. 5, has flown home about 1,000 stranded Iraqis from Belarus, and more rescue flights are planned, said spokesman Hussein Jalil.
Kameran Hassan, an Iraqi, said he and his family of four were forced onto a return flight. They made it into Poland but were caught. After three weeks in a holding center, they were put on a bus with other Iraqis. They were told they would be taken to another camp in Warsaw, but instead were driven to the airport.
“They started to put us by force on the plane,” said Hassan, speaking from Sulaymaniyah in Iraq’s Kurdish region.
One man fainted when he saw they were being deported “because he had sold everything” for the attempt, Hassan said. Polish escorts carried him on a stretcher onto the flight back to Iraq.
For Sarkawt Ismat’s mother, his predicament in Belarus seemed to confirm her fears. Adla Salim had pleaded with him not to go.
Her older son, 22-year-old Sarwar, had left for Belarus three months ago and reached Germany in early October, after spending 10 days hiding in a forest. He suffers from chronic heart problems, and is hospitalized in Germany, she said. The family only let him go because he was ill and they couldn’t do anything for him in Dohuk.
“We tried to convince Sarkawt not to go, but he was very insistent,” she said.
Sarkawt still owed $10,000 on the taxi that he sold to pay for the trip — money that his father, a peshmerga fighter, now has to pay back from his monthly income of about $1,000.
All that money now seems to have gone for nothing. Sarkawt was allowed Thursday to leave the forest for Minsk, in preparation for returning to Iraq.
His mother, a 45-year-old housewife, says all she wants is her boy home.
“He calls weeping, saying ‘I want to go back to Iraq. I want nothing. I just want to go back. I am hungry and cold’,” she said.