The ongoing crisis between the European Union (EU) and Belarus is often examined through the lens of EU member states’ relations with Minsk, or how Brussels should respond to Belarusian President Lukashenko’s so-called “hybrid attacks”, where migrants are used as political instruments. However, somewhat overlooked is one crucial actor, the third party whose citizens have been opportunistically used to create the crisis. Given that the majority of migrants crossing the border from Belarus to the EU are from Iraq, and that Iraq is still home to nearly 2 million internally displaced persons and 300,000 refugees, it is critical to consider Baghdad’s position in the conflict, as well as its political willingness to cooperate or resist future instrumentalization of its citizens.
In November, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) estimated that between 7,500 to 8,000 of the migrants stuck in the EU-Belarus border region are from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. This represents almost half of all people at the border. According to Iraqi sources, travel agencies in Erbil and Baghdad have been offering packages including visas and flight tickets to Minsk. The presumed purpose of these packages has been to aid people to enter the EU via Belarus. Throughout the summer, Iraqi Airways-operated flights from Baghdad to Minsk increased from four to five per week, and departures to Minsk were added from three other Iraqi cities. During this time, the number of people crossing the borders from Belarus to Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia increased too.
As the tensions grew at the border, Baghdad responded with three measures. The Iraqi government initially countered by gradually limiting the frequency of flights to Minsk until October 9, when the Iraq Civil Aviation Authority issued new guidelines completely suspending all Belarus-bound flights. Second, the two Belarusian consulates in Baghdad and Erbil were shut down to halt the processing of visas. Third, Iraqi authorities started to repatriate citizens trapped at the Poland-Belarus border. Since mid-November, the KRG and the Iraqi federal government have so far returned over 2000 people from Belarus and arrested ten migrant smugglers in Iraq.
A Cautious Stance
While Brussels has been straightforward about Minsk’s and the Kremlin’s involvement in manufacturing the border crisis, Baghdad has remained more cautious. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, has so far commented on the crisis but not on what role Belarus might play in it. When Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein was asked whether the EU members had responded too harshly at the borders, he replied that “They believe that Belarus is using this as a tool to impose pressure on the European Union”. This suggests that Iraq is aware of Minsk’s involvement but chooses to let the EU take responsibility for diplomatic critique.
An additional aspect to the border conflict was revealed when Meta Platforms reported on December 1 the detection of dozens of Facebook and Instagram accounts connected to the Belarusian KGB. The accounts targeted Kurdish-, Polish- and English-speaking audiences with the intention to stir up the crisis, suggesting a link between the Belarusian government and the migration patterns. Yet, Iraqi officials and state media had earlier emphasized the involvement of criminal smuggling networks in the conflict. This stance took a turn as the KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani tweeted in November that the smuggling networks are using “our citizens for a political dispute” and later in December that “the motivations for the migrant crisis on the EU borders are political”, implying a changing perception of the Belarusian border standoff. However, this might be the closest that Iraq will come towards direct accusations as it seemingly avoids taking sides. Considering Baghdad’s long-standing position on state sovereignty, it is perhaps not surprising that despite Poland’s violent pushbacks being controversial, Hussein maintains that the EU member simply just has “its own policy” on migration.
Ineffective Sticks and Unattractive Carrots
In previous years, return- and readmission cooperation has featured high on the agenda for EU-Iraq relations. However, according to the European Commission, Iraq has engaged in an “unsatisfactory level of cooperation” on forced returns. Iraq is fourth on the list of most non-returned irregular migrants in the EU from the 2014-2018 period and does not have a readmission agreement with the EU.
Before the repatriation flights had started, the Vice President of the European Commission assured that the EU would allocate funds for readmission and reintegration efforts if the Iraqi federal government and the KRG would cooperate with Belarus in organizing both voluntary and forced returns. To encourage cooperation with deportations from the EU, the Commission threatened earlier this year to restrict the issuance of visas to nationals of Iraq, Bangladesh, and the Gambia. Before taking these measures, however, the third parties in question were allowed an interim stage to show their improved cooperation. Baghdad’s efforts to restrict emigration to Minsk and to repatriate those who want to return have so far been viewed by Brussels as good cooperation. But Baghdad has maintained its stance regarding forced returns, only issuing documents to facilitate the return of citizens with criminal records.
This is not to say that Iraq does not perceive the instrumentalization of its citizens as a dangerous phenomenon. However, the EU lacks strong leverage over Iraq when it comes to deportations. This is partly due to the sheer number of Iraqis in Europe, which demonstrates that Baghdad’s cooperation with forced returns is more vital to the EU than it is to Iraq. While some countries of origin can be heavily reliant on remittances and are thus unlikely to support return-schemes, this does not necessarily apply to Iraq. Remittances and the EU’s proposed incentives of development aid and opportunities for trade are unlikely to attract one of the world’s most oil-rich countries. Returning migrants also put additional strain on the labor market, which Iraq appears hesitant to expand. Finally, a majority of returnees tend to regret coming back to Iraq. This raises the prospect of additional costs if the same people have to be returned repeatedly.
With a significant number of internally displaced persons and refugees, Iraq hosts a big population that it does not have full control over and that could potentially be instrumentalized for political purposes. Baghdad has also been described as the only regional capital capable of addressing its neighbors in a framework of friendship, suggesting that it may be able to contribute more to Europe’s and the neighboring region’s security than the EU currently can. Considering its position, Iraq holds the upper hand if one counts the immigration fears of ´Fortress Europe´ as leverage. With the threat of future attacks, it is critical for the EU to establish functional partnerships with third countries. Even so, it appears that the EU has yet to discover low-hanging fruit for EU-Iraq cooperation that could be approached in situations of crisis. Negative incentives, such as limiting visas for Iraqis, primarily risk a situation in which cooperation on voluntary returns is jeopardized. This would increase undocumented migration and weaken the rights of immigrants in Europe significantly.