Emotional scenes unfold as dozens of Iraqi migrants return home from Europe

BAGHDAD -- Emotional scenes unfolded at the Baghdad International Airport on Thursday as dozens of Iraqis who had sought refuge in Europe returned home.

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More than a hundred Iraqis, mostly young men, landed in Baghdad on a flight from Finland. Some kneeled, kissing the ground. Many were holding the so-called "yellow passport," travel documents issued by Iraqi embassies in Europe and elsewhere to those wishing to return home.

"It's too difficult to live there," said one of the women, Um Ealia, who declined to be identified by her full name fearing for her own security. "I've come back home. I feel happy. I have good memories in Iraq."

She was just one of 103 people who returned to Iraq on Thursday, according to Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman, Ahmed Jamal.

Over the past 12 months thousands of Iraqis are estimated to have returned home from Europe, citing lack of economic opportunity due to language barriers, cold weather and cultural differences as the reasons for going back after often harrowing journeys by sea and land that can take weeks.

The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration says it helped nearly 3,500 Iraqis return from Europe in 2015 alone. But the OIM says that is just a fraction of the total estimated number as many individuals and families return by the own means.

In 2015, an estimated 70,000 Iraqis joined the tide of refugees and migrants making the thousands of miles long journey to Europe in an effort to escape war and poverty across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, according to figures from the IOM.

"We are very pleased with the arrival," said Jamal, the foreign ministry spokesman in Baghdad. "Those people represent the first batch of Iraqi migrants in Finland who voluntarily wish to come back home."

The flight was organized by the Helsinki Police Department, which has organized flights for returning migrants for more than a decade and said they are ready to continue similar chartered flights between the two countries to meet a growing number of returning Iraqis, according to Detective Superintendent Hannu Pietila.

More than 3,100 Iraqis in Finland have withdrawn their asylum applications since January 2015, but most paid their own way back or caught flights organized by the European Union from other countries, Immigration officials in Finland said Thursday.

Last year, nearly 32,500 asylum-seekers arrived in Finland, a near tenfold increase over 2014. Some 20,500 were from Iraq.

"Thank God we came back home from Finland," said Amir Abas as he was collecting his luggage at the airport in Baghdad. "It is too difficult to live (in Finland) because our traditions and culture are different," he said.

Associated Press Writer Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki, Finland, contributed to this report.


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