Were they driven by desperation to the freezing shores of Europe or did about a thousand Kurds make the dangerous journey instead?
As Iraqi Kurdistan grapples with what is driving a crisis that is thought to have resulted in scores drowning in the Channel on Wednesday, and thousands of others being forced to brave precarious migrant routes to Europe, even more are preparing to leave.
One recent graduate from a university in Sulaymaniyah said I ll do what I need to do. If I stay here, I'm going to drown in debt. The deaths at sea, a short distance from UK waters, which tens of thousands of Kurds have been trying to reach in recent decades, has met a mute response in Erbil, and the second city of Sulaymaniyah. Many of the drowning victims are thought to have come from the Ranya region north of the city, where families were anxiously waiting for news from their sons and daughters on Thursday.
The last time I talked to my brother was yesterday, in the morning, said Razen Salim, 26. He said that we will cross from France to the UK, but since then we have not heard anything about him or his group. We have seen some pictures online that suggest some made it to the other side, but we can't tell if they've made it to the other side. We hope they managed, and maybe now they have been caught by the UK police and that is why they are not online. Kurds from Ranya make up a disproportionate number of those who have travelled to Belarus in recent weeks, hoping to cross the Polish border that acts as a gateway to the European Union. That is the holy grail for us, said the recent graduate. If we get there we will be respected and can live our lives. We won't have respect or life if we stay. The prime minister of the Kurdish regional government, Masrour Barzani, who has tried to stem the exodus from Iraq's Kurdish north, said a search for opportunity had been the main driver, not economic desperation.
It looks like these people have been exploited by a number of people, let s say travel agents human traffickers, some political traders, and of course some people from Belarus as well, he said at the Middle East peace and security summit in the city of Duhok last week. They did not leave this area under any sort of pressure, and they were not legally pursued or imposed with any restrictions on their travel, so most of these people travelled freely on their own will through airlines and official channels.
Barzani said that many people want to go to Europe in search of a different opportunity. It is not a flight of desperation. I hope that the world knows that these people went there like every other immigrant wants to travel and go in search of different opportunities in different parts of the world. They can always return here if they want to return. In the past week, 400 Kurds have been returned from Belarus to Erbil thanks to flights organised by Iraqi Airways. More than 700 people have signed up to return, and Kurdish officials say they have arrested 10 travel agents who had facilitated their journeys. Airport security officials tried to block passengers from leaving for Minsk, scrutinising journeys and looking for known stopover points in Istanbul and Damascus in particular.
The opportunities officials speak about don't exist or are restricted to small sectors of a struggling economy, say those still determined to leave. The student said they want this to happen, but they also say it doesn't make it so. As long as things are as bad as they are, people are going to want to leave.