US President Joe Biden is worried, and his worry is shared by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Not, I might add, because of the “attempted assassination” of Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi last week. Their feelings, along with those of all of the other US, European and Middle Eastern officials, were deeper than mere concern, condemnation, denunciation and allegations of terrorism. They went as far as the UN Security Council, which is known for its usual silence about Israel’s genocidal crimes against the Palestinian people, and its lack of meaningful condemnation of Israel’s illegal settlements. In fact, the Security Council’s silence has also been deafening regarding the sectarian forced expulsions in the Diyala Governorate of eastern Iraq in recent weeks by the Popular Mobilisation Forces, which are involved with the government’s official security forces.
None of that has upset Biden and Putin as much as the situation of children at the dangerous border between Belarus and Poland. This unfortunate situation has not just happened in the past week; it began last year, when the Belarus government allowed Iraqis to enter the country without a visa. This was a rare opportunity for Iraqis, who normally struggle to obtain any visas apart from a few countries which can be counted on one hand.
With extraordinary swiftness, companies have organised hundreds of “tourist trips” to Belarus, which provided Iraqis with a once in a lifetime chance to leave their country and migrate to Europe via Poland and its neighbours. As a result, after thousands had crossed into Poland successfully, the government in Warsaw closed its border with Belarus and decided to shoot anyone who tried to cross.
Large numbers of migrants, among them entire families, stayed at the border in the hope that they might be allowed to cross. They have now become pawns manipulated by Belarus and Poland as part of the agenda linked to their political differences. As they each rush to pass emergency laws, extend barbed wire fences and mobilise guards to limit the number of migrants, the Europeans accuse Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of granting visas to migrants and placing them at the border deliberately, in response to European sanctions imposed on his country for his suppression of an opposition movement after the 2020 presidential election.
The majority of migrants trapped in inhumane conditions at the Belarus-Poland border are Iraqis. Temperatures as low as zero degrees Celsius have prompted the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to make an appeal to the two countries and the world, stressing the need for refugees not to spend another night stuck in no man’s land. This happened on Wednesday last week, and the measures taken did not go beyond distributing wood for fires to keep warm and meals being thrown to the migrants. It was all very humiliating. Oh, and Al-Kadhimi’s government announced a donation of a few dollars to help.
About 4,000 people are still stuck there; they are cold, in despair and are waiting for the situation to improve. This, remember, is in a place far from the countries that treat their people so harshly that they would prefer death to living there and are thus prepared to risk all in these lengthy and dangerous journeys. And the phenomenon is spreading. Undocumented migrants leaving North Africa for Europe, for example, are not just from the poorer classes; they are now also middle class university graduates in search of viable job opportunities. Tunisia is an example of this.
So young people are still trying to migrate, despite all the dangers and grave difficulties. The number of young Iraqis who have left the country is staggering, at around 28,000 this year alone. Just over 800 of them have been arrested and returned to Iraq, and at least 33 have died en route, according to the Association of Refugees in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
The tragic plight of the migrants on the Belarus-Poland illustrates the fact that blaming international conflicts alone is not enough. The root of the tragedy extends to the migrants’ countries and governments, which are shirking their responsibility of care, no matter what their political orientation.
Human rights organisations in Iraq report that most of the Iraqi migrants are Kurds fleeing from the Kurdistan region in the north of the country. This raises many questions about the region’s self-promoted image as a prosperous democracy, untainted by the corruption of the rest of Iraq.
The autonomous region is shared politically and economically between two families: the Barzani family based in Erbil, and the Talabani family in Sulaymaniyah. They make all the decisions and control everything in the Kurdish area. The members of the families who hold positions of power cannot be bypassed in any matter whatsoever, especially oil contracts. They are, as a result, in the billionaire class, reaching such status in a record time at the expense of the unemployed who, in almost all cases, do not belong to one or other of the families and the parties they control.
It is the same situation for graduates across Iraq who are suffering because they do not belong to the corrupt ruling parties. If we add to this reality the terrible triad of sectarianism, forced displacement and terrorism, which is rampant in Iraq, we can begin to understand the state of mind of the young people and their families who try to escape in the search for a better future, despite the dangers this poses.
With each family that escapes, the false claims of local governments that they represent the people and protect their interests are exposed as the lies that they are. These are the claims made by governments that derive their “legitimacy” from foreign states that have enabled their imposition on the people and protect them from the wrath of their own citizens.
It is this anger which is the real reason why Presidents Biden and Putin worried. Concerns about the plight of the children at the Belarus-Poland border are political, and good for public relations purposes. Ultimately, US and Russian “interests” determine such “concern”.
The victims of this soft diplomatic spin drenched in fake humanitarianism are, as usual, the children and their families. All they ask for is the opportunity to escape from the daily reality of war, corruption, unemployment and the lack of the basic essentials that every human being should enjoy in their own country. That reality strips them of their dignity and condemns them to freeze in harsh conditions putting the lives and the lives of their children at risk. You have to be very desperate indeed to even contemplate that.
If Biden and Putin have genuine concerns about these children, then let them impose positive change on the governments which neglect their citizens and enrich themselves grotesquely in the process. That’s the sort of PR opportunity that would really make a difference. As it stands, the Iraqi Kurdish migrants stranded on the Belarus-Poland border have no friends.This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 15 November 2021 and has been translated and edited for MEMO
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