A New Wave of Migrants Flees Iraq, Yearning for Europe

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An Iraqi migrant tried to sleep on Saturday while keeping his place in line with thousands waiting for travel documents to be issued in Preshevo, Serbia.
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BAGHDAD — Having sold his car for $4,600, and then some of his wife’s jewelry, and having loaded his smartphone with photographs of his five children, all that was left for Haider Abdella to do was say goodbye.

“From yesterday to today, we are crying,” he said.

His mother sat next to him on the couch, sobbing. “He’s never left me before, from when he was a child until now,” she said. “How can I bear him leaving?”

Mr. Abdella, 42, a police officer, had never left Iraq — never even seen the sea. But last week, he was on a plane to Istanbul, and from there traveled to the coastal resort city of Izmir, Turkey. A day later, he was on a smuggler’s boat to Greece, crying and praying over the phone with his family left behind in Baghdad. By the weekend, he told them, he was well on his way to Germany.

Graphic | Seeking a Fair Distribution of Refugees in Europe German and European Union leaders have called for European countries to share the burden of absorbing the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have poured into the continent this summer.

Emboldened by the recent wave of media coverage showing their countrymen and fellow Arabs fleeing the war in Syria and reaching Europe, many Iraqis see a new opportunity to get out.

Their reasons for leaving vary. Some, like Mr. Abdella, who said he was threatened by militias, fear for their lives. Others are displaced from areas controlled by Islamic State militants. Still others are lifelong residents of Baghdad escaping harsh economic circumstances in a country facing a financial crisis brought on by falling oil prices.

After years of violence and unmet promises for democracy by a corrupt political elite, Iraqis who had resisted leaving during previous crises are now embarking on the country’s next great wave of emigration, an exodus that leaders warn is further tearing at the country at a time when its unity, more than ever, is threatened by the militants of the Islamic State.

“I’ve spent all of my life in Iraq in sadness,” said Khalil Hussein, a Baghdad resident whose relatives have set off for Europe. He said he would join them soon, and to raise money has sold his wife’s sewing machine, kitchen utensils and an air cooler. “There is no hope,” he said. “I just want to get rid of Iraq.”

The migrant flight represents a small piece of the humanitarian disaster unfolding across Iraq, where nearly 3.1 million people are internally displaced. The International Organization for Migration has recorded about 6,000 Iraqis arriving this year on boats to either Greece or Italy, a fivefold increase over last year. But that is just a small fraction of the number of Iraqis actually taking the journey, because most avoid being registered officially when they arrive in Greece. And since mid-August, at least 250 Iraqis a day have been landing on Greek islands, Konstantinos Vardakis, the top European Union diplomat in Baghdad, said in an interview. To accommodate increased demand, Iraqi Airways recently added two new daily flights to Istanbul from Baghdad.

In recent weeks, the phenomenon has snowballed, as Iraqis track migrants on messaging apps like Viber and WhatsApp and hear back from friends who have reached places like Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has welcomed migrants and has become a hero to many Iraqis. The stories Iraqis hear from relatives in Europe are often euphoric, and full of possibility.

“When you go to Europe they treat you well, they give you a house, they pay you money, they take care of your health,” said Ali Hattam Jassim, 37, whose brother recently arrived in Belgium. “We have so many friends there and they tell us how great the life is.”

That the exodus includes so many young people has alarmed officials, who have issued statements urging them to stay by appealing to patriotism and duty at a time of war.

At a recent Friday sermon in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, a representative for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shiite cleric, said: “We call on our youth who are disappointed with the current situation to reconsider their options and to think about their country and their people and be more patient. They should look to the men of the armed forces and volunteers and the tribal fighters who are sacrificing their lives and fighting the terrorists on different fronts, and dying for the sake of defending the country and its beliefs.”

For almost four decades, Wadie al-Waily has owned a travel agency, the Iraq & Egypt Travel & Tourism Company, on Saddoun Street in central Baghdad. Mr. Waily, who these days is selling a lot of one-way tickets to Turkey, has seen up close the traumas of Iraq’s modern history through the travel patterns of its people.

In the 1970s, a period often held up here as a brief golden age, he said, “The young people were not thinking of leaving Iraq because when they graduated from school they immediately found a job, a house. They could have a future.”

The 1980s brought the long war with Iran, and many young men left to escape military service. In the 1990s, crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United States devastated society, pushing most Iraqis to dream of life elsewhere.

“In the 1990s life was destroyed,” he said. “Most of the people started thinking about leaving Iraq.”

The invasion by the United States in 2003 brought many exiles back. They came hoping to nurture a new Iraq, only to leave again when the country slipped into sectarian civil war. Now, many who chose to stay through all of it have finally made a decision to leave. And some who came back only in recent years — many were pushed back to Iraq from Syria, where they had sought refuge before that country was thrown into chaos — are also taking flight again.

Adnan al-Azzawi, 45, was in Damascus from 2004 to 2011, and then returned to Baghdad. He recently sent his family on the migrant journey, and they wound up in Belgium. He hopes to join them soon.

For now, he has been using the Viber app to communicate with his family in Belgium, where they are living in a migration camp.

With the journey behind them, his family is adjusting to life in exile, and the little differences between life there and life here. Meal timing has been one jarring change for his family in Belgium, Mr. Azzawi said.

There, breakfast is served at 7 a.m. “That is too early for us,” he said.

Dinner is at 6 p.m. “We like to eat at 10,” he said.

The food itself is sometimes strange. His family sends photographs of their meals. One showed what looked to be a pile of lasagna with a dollop of mayonnaise. “They didn’t eat it,” he said. “They don’t know what it is.”

He sends them back photographs of their favorite Iraqi dishes, “to make them jealous.”

On a recent afternoon, three friends who were all in their 20s were purchasing tickets to Turkey at a bus station in the upper-class neighborhood of Mansour.

One of them, Hattam Jabbar, 28, pulled from his shoulder bag an identification card issued in 2008 by the United States Army that said he was a fighter for the “Sons of Iraq,” the United States-backed program that brought Sunni fighters into the government fold to fight what was then Al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to the Islamic State.

“There is nothing to make me sad about leaving,” he said. “There is no humanity here.”

Mr. Hattam said he hoped his journey ends not in Europe but in the United States, where, he said, “even the dogs live well.”

He explained what he meant by telling a story an Iraqi friend living in the United States had recently told him. The friend, he said, had gone to the supermarket and left his dog in his car with the windows up on a hot day. A police officer, seeing this, scolded him, and told him he was putting the dog at risk.

“That means they even respect the dogs,” he said. “Even the dogs have rights in America.”

The migration story has become something of a national preoccupation here, overshadowing not just the war against the Islamic State, but also, for now, continuing street demonstrations demanding political overhauls and better services.

On Friday, Baghdad’s day of protest, demonstrators waved placards bearing the face of the German chancellor, thanking her for welcoming so many asylum seekers. “God Bless You,” one sign read, while another praised Ms. Merkel and called Arab rulers “filthy.”

Some of the protesters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square seemed to be there only to hedge their bets. While demonstrating to change their country, many would just prefer to leave.

At a recent protest, Tahir Abdulhamid, 45, stood surrounded by demonstrators chanting against corrupt politicians. “There’s no mercy in Iraq,” he said. “We feel like we are living in a jungle, where the strong eat the weak.”

He added: “If I had the ability to leave already, and enough money, I would have left.”

Falih Hassan contributed reporting