Peregraf– Ghamgin Mohammed
Tanya and her 7-year-old daughter had a suitcase packed with warm winter clothes, shoes, bags and energy food, waiting for a phone call to leave the Kurdistan Region once and for all.
The anticipated call is from Tanya's husband, who has endured three months of cold and suffering in Belarus to find them a safe smuggling route to Europe.
"I spent many years in misery, and paid rent. I’m leaving for my children's future, I don’t want her to live like us," Tanya Kamal, 38, told Peregraf, adding that she "will never" regret making that decision.
Tanya and her husband, like many others, say they are suffering from the Kurdistan Region's many crises caused by corruption, lack of basic services such as electricity, water and fuel, in addition to worrying about the future of their children and the country's economy.
Stories of most of whom have taken this road into an unknown fate to reach what the majority of these migrants call "paradise" as an indication to Europe, have similar stories.
Karim Sharif Qarachatani, a psychologist and university professor, told Peregraf said these crises are prompting people, especially young people, to leave.
"Young people who have studied for years and cannot get a good job, cannot build their future, and must rely on their parents, it disappoints them and pushes them to take the path of unknown fate," said Qarachatani.
Public sector employment has been suspended by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for several years as part of austerity measures introduced to cope with an economic crisis. In addition to that, there aren’t many job opportunities in the private sector either.
The KRG has denied that people leave because of corruption, unemployment, poverty and lack of freedom. Masrour Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan Region, said in a recent interview with Sky News that migrants have given smugglers thousands of dollars and they are being used to put pressure on the European Union, and that they are leaving for better opportunities in life.
Tanya, living in Sulaimaniyah with her daughter, spends most of her time on social media hoping for good news on the migration routes, especially after increased tension between Belarus and the European Union at the borders.
Her husband, Aran Ali, went to Belarus with an official visa and wants to find a safe and suitable route to Europe. He told Peregraf from Minsk, the capital city of Belarus, that he is continuously in contact with the smugglers and is waiting for a good opportunity to take his wife and child there and then move to Europe.
People who want to leave are issued a visa through traveling companies. They board a plane from either Erbil or Sulaimaniya’s international airports to Turkey, Dubai or Tehran, then to Minsk - a route known to people in the Kurdistan Region less than a year ago.
From then on, prices hiked following the start of the mass migration. Visa and a seven-day stay at a hotel reached $4,000 last month until citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran and Dubai were banned from traveling to the country to control the mass migration on the borders of Belarus with European countries, particularly Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, who have tightened up security on their borders.
Ali said the situation of the migrants on those borders is very bad, prompting some of them to return, but determined to get to Europe, he said "I want us out of this misery once and for all."
Migrants, after arriving in Minsk, travel to the borders of Poland, Latvia or Lithuania, from where they have to pass barbed wires without getting caught so they can travel to Germany.
Some don’t stay in Germany, they go to France then to the UK from there. Last month, a boat boarded with 33 migrants capsized in the English Channel between France and Britain. So far 27 bodies of the migrants have been found and two of them have been rescued - most of them Kurds.
Crossing Belarus’ borders into European countries was relatively easier when the route was first discovered, but has now become very difficult, sometimes impossible. On top of everything else, the cold has made the situation worse for those stuck at the borders; people have died of hunger and cold.
Hiwa* is a Kurdish smuggler in Belarus, he told Peregraf, "When you take the illegal route one should wait for all the hardships, exhaustion, and misery that comes with it. When the migrants reach the destination, they will face hunger, cold and if they are busted, beatings as well. Sometimes they won't pass with one or even many tries."
When fences are cut, the migrants have to leave the area in the shortest possible time. "There were migrants that couldn't walk anymore and no one went back to help them," according to Hiwa. He added that after the mass migration flow passing the border became very difficult, security has tightened up at the checkpoints, and questioning has tripled compared to the past.
Migrants have told stories of being beaten up by Polish and Belarusian border guards. Ari Jalal, head of The Summit (Lutka) foundation for refugees, told Peregraf that neither the KRG nor the Iraqi government can do anything for the migrants in Belarus but help return those who want to.
Those stuck at the borders are now allowed to voluntarily return to their countries from Minsk. Over 5,500 migrants have returned to Baghdad and Erbil, according to a statement by Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Kurdistan Region Parliament has talked about forming a committee to visit Poland and Belarus and investigate the migrants’ situation on the borders.
Rebwar Babkayi, the head of the parliament's Relations and Kurdish Diaspora Committee, told Peregraf that they had sent an official letter to the Polish government regarding the purpose of their visit, but they have not yet given permission. "It appears that the Polish government does not want us to visit regarding that case," he said.
More than 633,000 people have crossed into European countries through different routes in the past seven years. This year alone more than 40,000 have migrated, and about 4,000 have used the route through Belarus to reach European countries, according to statistics from Lutka.
"It’s the government’s responsibility to work on the issues that push young people and families to leave this country," said Qarachatani. "They should turn them into projects and plans, not unfulfilled promises."
*name has been changed on request