ARBIL, IRAQ (AFP) - Hundreds of Iraqis returned home on Thursday (Nov 18) on an Iraqi Airways flight from Belarus, where thousands of migrants have camped on the Polish border for weeks hoping to enter the EU.
It was the first repatriation flight of migrants - many of them fleeing war and poverty-wracked Middle Eastern countries - since the Poland-Belarus border crisis began.
A total of 431 people were aboard the Boeing 747, said a spokesman for the government of the autonomous region of Kurdistan where many of the repatriated Iraqis came from.
Iraq's government has said the repatriation was voluntary.
The flight was to continue later in the evening to Baghdad but most of the passengers disembarked at Arbil.
Some hid their faces, so as not to be identified on local TV images as they stepped down from the plane.
The smile of one woman, however, was clear as she entered the terminal carrying an infant.
Many of the children and adults wore thick winter coats and hoods, images from a regional Kurdish TV station showed.
Some carried their belongings in backpacks or plastic bags.
Inside the terminal, blue-suited workers administered Covid tests to the arrivals.
The returnees appeared to have mixed feelings.
"I spent more than $4,000 to get to Belarus," a resident of the Kurdish capital said on arrival, asking not to be named.
"The situation was very bad, we had to eat grass and leaves from the trees, and it was cold," he told AFP.
A resident of the northern region of Sinjar said: "The situation over there was difficult, but here it's worse. It's the hard conditions (in Iraq) that pushed us to emigrate."
The situation on the border created a stand-off between the European Union and US on one side and Belarus and its ally Russia on the other, with the migrants stuck in the middle and living in freezing temperatures.
At least 11 have lost their lives at the border.
Western countries accuse Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's government of engineering the crisis by encouraging migrants - many of them Iraqi Kurds - to come to Belarus and then taking them to the border.
The EU alleges this is revenge for sanctions imposed last year after a heavy crackdown on the opposition.
Lukashenko's spokeswoman Natalya Eismont said on Thursday that there were about 7,000 migrants in the country, with about 2,000 in dire conditions on the border.