More than 600 Iraqi migrants reportedly returned to their home country on Friday after a failed attempt to enter the European Union through Belarus.
Two flights first arrived in Erbil, the Kurdistan region’s capital, before traveling on to Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, according to The New York Times.
One 27-year-old migrant, Shaho Omar, told the Times that he and his companions decided to stop their effort to enter Germany after hearing that at least 31 migrants died this week attempting to cross the English Channel.
"What happened to them could have happened to us — that shocked us,” Omar told the Times. He noted that the harsh treatment by the Belarus border police and the option to take a free flight home were also enticing reasons to leave.
Iraq’s foreign ministry said Friday's two flights returned 608 people to the country. It has now repatriated a total of 1,038 voluntary returnees from Belarus and plans to charter two more flights which would bring the total number of those repatriated to about 2,000 people, the Times reported.
“If I find a better and safe route, I will definitely try again,” Omar added. “For now there are no routes — that’s why I came back.”
Last week, Belarus had cleared all the migrants who had set up a camp along its eastern border with Poland.
At that time, migrants from the camps were granted shelter from freezing temperatures in a government-run warehouse.
The West has previously accused Belarus' authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko of using the migrants as pawns to punish the against the EU for sanctions imposed following the disputed 2020 election. Belarus, however, has denied the accusations.
Meanwhile, Lukashenko has been critical of the European Union refusing to take in the migrants who were stranded on the border.
“We must demand that the Germans take them,” he said, alleging that the EU was not working with Belarus to resolve the issue.