The trip could have killed them. But people fleeing economic wreckage in the Middle East say they would do it 100 times more

By Tamara Qiblawi, CNN

Four-year-old Azhi is limping in a makeshift center for migrants on the Polish-Belarusian border. Grabbing his mother’s hand for support, he carefully slid his legs under piles of donated blankets.

Metal rods rise above the people to support a giant zinc roof. Azhi, who has leg braces, smiles and eyes wide. It’s hard to say that a few days ago the boy’s family faced the specter of death.

“We want to go to Germany so that Azhi can have the operation,” said her mother, Shoxan Hussein, 28. “The doctors said he had to do it before he was five.”

Azhi’s family were among hundreds of migrants who have tried to enter Poland from Belarus in recent weeks in the hope of seeking asylum in the European Union. After days spent in the frozen Belarusian forest where migrants say they were beaten and deprived of food by Belarusian forces, the family never made it across the border. Several people died on the trip while thousands were stranded in inhumane conditions. Azhi and her parents survived unharmed.

A few days later, they returned to their native Erbil, the commercial hub of Iraqi Kurdistan, on an Iraqi repatriation flight. They are already trying to forge a new path towards Europe.

“There is no future for my son in Iraq,” Azhi’s father Ali Rasool, 26, told CNN from his home in Erbil. “Trying to go to Europe is for Azhi. I need a future for my child.

Break a cycle of misery

Everywhere in the Middle East and North Africa, we talk about emigration. Although the guns have largely fallen silent in most of the region’s conflict zones, much of the misery has not ended. The violence that once engulfed four countries – Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq – has given way to an economic disaster that extends far beyond their borders. Many regional economies have been rocked by the combined effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, influxes of refugees and political instability.

Government corruption in the MENA region is widely seen as the main culprit, in addition to geopolitical turmoil. A recent survey found that a third of the region’s 200 million young Arabs are considering emigrating. In 2020, that figure was even higher, with almost half of all young Arabs.

The problem is most acute in post-conflict areas facing economic depression and where corruption has flourished. In Syria, the United Nations Development Program says poverty rates are now around 90%, up from around 50 to 60% in 2019, when violence was significantly more widespread. The number of people considered food insecure rose from 7.9 million in 2019 to over 12 million in 2020.

“We are talking about people who have an income, working poor, with one job, with two jobs in the family, who are unable to meet their basic food needs,” the UNDP resident representative in Syria told CNN, Ramla Khalidi. “What this means is that they skip meals, go into debt, eat less expensive and less nutritious meals.”

About 98% of people said food was their main expense. “Fresh fruits and vegetables are a luxury and they skip meat in their diet,” says Khalidi.

Syria’s “massive and severe poverty” has been exacerbated by the slump in finances in neighboring Lebanon that began in 2019. The Lebanese economy was previously seen as a lifeline for a financially and diplomatically isolated Damascus. A crushing sanctions regime on areas under the control of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who represents most of the country, was made worse by the Caesar law in 2020. This was intended to bring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back to negotiations led by the UN. table, but instead it has further devastated an already struggling economy, and the president’s reign continues unperturbed.

The Syrian regime is widely accused of repeatedly committing war crimes and crimes against humanity over the past 10 years of the country’s war, including attacks on the civilian population with chemical weapons and bombing. blind of populated areas under rebel control with conventional ammunition. Tens of thousands of political prisoners have died in Assad’s prisons after being subjected to extreme torture and ill-treatment.

In parts of Syria that escape Assad’s rule – namely the north-east of the Kurdish-controlled country and the north-west which is in the grip of fundamentalist Islamist rebels – the economy is also in tatters. .

“It’s the only thing people still share in Syria. Everyone suffers economically, no matter who controls the areas, ”says Haid Haid, associate consultant for Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.

It’s a situation that prompted a large part of the country’s skilled workforce to leave, worsening the economic situation, UN Khalidi said.

“Hospitals, schools, factories have lost a lot of their skilled workers because a lot of these individuals are trying to get by at the risk of risking their lives,” she said, while calling on donor countries to invest in “interventions. resilience ”aimed at improving urban and rural livelihoods.

“This is an unprecedented crisis in terms of complexity,” says Khalidi. “Year on year the amount of funding has increased and yet we are seeing an increase in humanitarian needs as well, so I think we need to change the model, reduce humanitarian dependency and focus more funding on early recovery efforts and of resilience. “

In neighboring Iraq, ravaged by multiple battles, including a devastating war with ISIS, the economy is doing better, but a sense of hopelessness prevails. A youth-led anti-corruption protest movement in October 2019 was fatally crushed and co-opted by key political players, and while independent politicians made unprecedented gains in this year’s parliamentary elections, nepotism and la corruption continue to reign supreme on the political and commercial scenes of the country. centers, analysts say.

“We can’t talk about Kurdistan or federal Iraq as a thing that works because it doesn’t,” said Hafsa Halawa, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, referring to to the semi-autonomous region of northern Iraqi Kurdistan. “The reality is that public services are intermittent, opportunities are zero, corruption, nepotism and violence are continuous and regular. “

“What’s wrong with someone 21, 22 who says, ‘I can’t stay here like my parents did? I have to break the cycle. Do I have to change things for my future family, for my future children? “

Halawa, who is Anglo-Iraqi-Egyptian, argues that one of the main drivers of the influx of refugees is the disappearance of legal mechanisms for the entry of skilled workers into Europe.

“The fascinating thing for me – if I speak of the UK immigration point system and (Home Secretary) Priti Patel that it introduced – is that my father, as a trained surgeon who served the NHS for 40 years, would not have qualified for a work visa when he arrived here, ”says Halawa.

“The mechanisms by which we – in the developed world – have enabled people to learn and keep them here for the benefit of society are no longer available,” said Halawa.

Haid from Chatham House, originally from Syria, considers himself one of the lucky ones. Almost five years ago he was granted refugee status in the UK. He says the images of Syrians dying in the English Channel gave him mixed feelings of sadness and personal relief. He also believes that the migration of Syrians will continue unabated.

“When things (in Syria) started to get worse despite the decline in violence, it was then that the people who lived there were struck by the reality that things will never get better,” explains Haid. “This is why even those who refused to leave the country during the war now think that there is no other solution than to flee, because there is no light at the end of the tunnel. That’s it.”

At the same time, Haid feels like he arrived in the UK just in time. “You feel lucky to have succeeded before your window of opportunity, which was closing quickly, was closed forever,” he says.

Back in Erbil, Shoxan Hussein and her husband Ali Rasool believe the legal passage to Europe is closed for good. Rasool, director of a real estate company, and Hussein, an engineer, applied for a visa at the French embassy earlier this year, but say they never received a response.

“Erbil is better for me and my wife than anywhere else in the world. We have a good car, good clothes, ”says Rasool. “But that’s it for Azhi… we’ve already done three surgeries here and got no results. The problem is, (the doctors) are taking money from us and they haven’t even made a 5% difference. “

“If you told me to risk my life 100 times before coming to Europe to improve my son’s life, then my wife and I would,” he says. “I would repeat this trip 100 times.”

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CNN’s Zahra Ullah and Matthew Chance contributed to this report from the Bruzgi-Kusnica border region in Belarus.