Bogus invitations, an oblivious government, and an ineffective law

From Baghdad to Europe via Russia: Iraqi Youth are Commodified by Smuggling Networks 

Hassan Nassiri

31 May 2023

The smuggler “Abu Hussam” gathered five Iraqi youths, including Zaid, through the social media platform, Telegram and arranged false documents to smuggle them to Europe. In an investigation the secrets of smuggling networks to Europe have been revealed by Jummar. The five young men dressed in formal suits, passed through Sharjah, then Moscow and Poland, all the way to Germany. This is the story of a journey of escape of a young man and four of his friends.

On his flight to Moscow, Zaid flew with false papers from Baghdad to Sharjah, from where he was “shipped” to Minsk, from where he was deported, along with others, to the Polish border. There, he faced cruel border guards and blood-freezing temperatures. He, then, fled by lorry across the German bridge and was taken by guards to an asylum camp in Dresden. 

This is the story of the journey of a young man and four of his friends, covered by Jummar, to reveal the secrets of smuggling networks to Europe. 

Five young men, including Zaid, decided to leave the country for Germany through illegal migration after the smuggler, “Abu Hussam” brought them together on the social media platform, “Telegram” on which migrant smuggling mafias are active. 

False papers for dollars! 

Before Ziad left Baghdad International Airport on 22 November 2022 to Sharjah on his way to the Russian capital, Moscow, using a false invitation for study and a valid ticket, the young man from Najaf collected 6,500 US dollars with his family’s help after they had failed to persuade him to abandon his plan to migrate. 

The five young men obtained bogus invitations for study, tickets to travel, advice from a travel agency, and university admissions in Baghdad, all for 2,300 US dollars. 

The agency advised them to “wear formal suits, remain completely calm while at the airport, not be fearful, delete anything related to their plan to migrate from their phone’s memory before arriving in Russia to make sure they pass security checks at Moscow airport”, reminding them that “Russian security looks at the person’s appearance before questioning him or asking about his destination or purpose of travel”. 

From Moscow to Minsk 

On 23 November 2022, the five young men landed in Moscow and were subjected to a three-hour interrogation session by Russian airport security. “We have now arrived, passed the checks, and are waiting for you at the airport entrance”, Zaid texted “Abu Hussam”, the smuggler who resides in Turkey. He told the young men to wait in a nearby restaurant or bar for about an hour until someone took them on the twelve-hour trip to the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Before arriving on the outskirts of Minsk, the Russian car driver told them to get out and continue the rest of the trip on foot. The young men spent five hours walking, in danger of encountering a police patrol car and suffering from the freezing temperatures. They were accompanied by the “Reeber” – a word derived from Kurdish, meaning “leader”. 

Smuggling is a networked process of an internationally expanding sphere of brokers, smugglers, “reebers”, and migrants wishing to cross borders, and in which visible and invisible people take part,  

In the smuggling networks lexicon, a “reeber” leads and guides groups of irregular migrants across borders and is responsible for “loading” or lodging points. “Loading” refers to the points where migrants gather to meet their “reeber” to go on to the next point. 

The “reeber” dropped Zaid and his group off in a top-floor apartment in a high-rise building inhabited by Belarusian families in northern Minsk. The apartment was overcrowded with Egyptian, Syrian, and Afghan migrants, paying fifteen dollars per person for board. The five men spent three days and nights in Minsk and were equipped with an iron ladder, cold-resistant gloves and boots, raincoats, and barbed wire cutters, which they bought from the “fish market”. 

On 26 November 2022, the Belarusian police raided the group in the apartment in response to a tip-off from the building’s residents. After hours of interrogation at the police station, the group was released after pledging to leave the country within three days; otherwise, they would be deported back to Iraq.  

The group of migrants broke their pledge and spent five more days, before making their way to Brest on the Polish border. “Seven kilometres before reaching the last fence on the Belarusian border, we were dropped off by the car and had to walk towards the iron fences”, Zaid says. 

In November 2022, the Ministry of Migration and Displacement stated it was convinced that “There is a plan to exploit Iraqi youth by the Belarusian authorities, which encourages young people to migrate to Europe illegally”. Ali Al-Bayati, a former member of the Human Rights Commission, told Jummar that “Interpol arrested a smuggling network in December 2022, which included more than sixty people involved in trafficking a thousand Iraqis from Belarus to Europe”. 

According to Al-Bayati, the network uses a route extending from Baghdad to Turkey, then to Russia and Belarus through Ukrainian truck drivers all the way to Poland, and then to Germany or Finland. This is carried out in exchange for money amounting to anything between three thousand to fifteen thousand euros. 

Reaching Germany through trenches 

The group dug a trench under the fences between the Belarusian-Polish border, in a dense forest area, freezing weather, and complete darkness, to hide from the border guards. But once they crossed the fence, they saw Polish police patrols. Contact with the smuggler was lost due to a poor internet signal, and so they remained there in silence until morning came. 

“In the morning, we decided to change the location of our crossing point to further away from the security patrol. We waited for dark to start cutting the barbed wire above the Polish fences”, Zaid remembers. 

Zaid burns his clothes in the forests of Poland to keep warm 

After eight hours of hiding and following GPS directions inside Polish territory, the group reached the agreed-upon “loading” point, from which the smuggler took them to the bridge linking the German city of Frankfurt to the Polish Slubice, and there they crossed on foot. 

After Zaid and his group arrived in Germany, they had to pay 2,500 US dollars each to the Iraqi smuggler “Abu Hussam” through a money transfer agency in Baghdad as part of the deal made before leaving Iraq. 

In Germany, the five young men were suddenly stopped and taken by a German police patrol. Their fingerprints were taken before being transferred to a camp for irregular migrants in Dresden, the capital of Saxony. 

Migration is better than staying in Iraq 

Al-Bayati does not consider unemployment, poverty, or an unknown future to be reasons for taking such risks. “Most young men dreaming of migrating fall victim to human smuggling networks and are vulnerable to exploitation and blackmailing. Their money is often stolen, and they are left at the border fighting for their lives”. 

Human smuggling and trafficking networks are thriving in most Iraqi cities because of timid punitive action by the government due to widespread corruption, weak state authority, and political turmoil affecting the economy. Moreover, armed factions benefit from travel and tourism agencies as a shadow economy. 

In 2012, Iraq enacted a single law to control human trafficking, with no clear reference to smuggling networks. The law imposes fines and prison sentences on convicted traffickers.  

In February 2022, authorities arrested a smuggler who was involved in smuggling Iraqi youths to Europe for fees reaching 9000 US dollars. 

Zaid and his group believe that “migration is better than staying in Iraq” as they await the court’s decision to either grant them asylum or deport them. 

Online smuggling shops 

The Russian platform “Telegram” is a haven and a popular interface for smuggling networks. Brokers and smugglers are active there, sometimes identifying with their real names, known nicknames, and exposed faces. They advertise illegal migration offers, prices, confidence-building experiences, safety measures, and routes taken by migrants. 

Jummar monitored seven smuggling networks that offer a costly migration route that extends from Iraq to Russia and then Germany by providing false invitations for study. This is considered better than the traditional cheap and risky route to Greece and the Balkans to Western Europe. 

Muhammad Al-Jabouri, an Iraqi smuggler residing in Turkey, runs a Telegram channel called “Muhammad Al-Jabouri Migration Group”, along with three others. The channel has 20,663 members, mainly Iraqis and Syrians. It took a week to decipher the network’s codes and secure a direct communication line with Al-Jabouri; the connection was made after several attempts. 

Al-Jabouri arranges weekly trips to Germany. 

A company in Basra provides false documents 

Al-Jabouri asked one of Jummar’s investigation team, who pretended to be a migration seeker, to contact the “International Future Company” group in Al-Baradi’yah district in Basra, near the Russian Consulate, in order to get a study invitation from a Russian university. This would cost 2,300 dollars, in addition to another 6,500 dollars, to guarantee a “safe journey” from Baghdad to Germany.  

The smuggler secures his payment through a deposit at a tourism company or an insurance or exchange agency as a third party. The money is then paid to Al-Jabouri when the migrant arrives in Germany.  

In late January 2023, the Ministry of Migration and Displacement launched an educational campaign against human trafficking and smuggling networks to “prevent influence on and the enfeebling of the country’s youth with migration”.  

Obtaining a university invitation does not require a specific academic grade. The company is responsible for getting the invitation and issuing the visa through the Russian Consulate in Basra. The official website of Higher Education in Russia indicates that “a study invitation is required in order to obtain a study visa”. 

Sample of a Russian study invitation that Jummar obtained from a smuggler 

“We have nothing to offer the youth that would prevent them from migrating and risking themselves through smuggling networks other than education and awareness”, said Ali Abbas, spokesman for the Ministry of Migration and Displacement. 

In recent years, the Iraqi government has launched a campaign to urge the diaspora to return, promising the returnees job opportunities and financial incentives. However, government promises vanished with the country’s successive crises. 

The “Painter” of study invitations 

Al-Rassam [Arabic for painter], an Iraqi smuggler in Moscow, is active on Facebook. He provides study invitations and a smuggling route to Germany for young Iraqi migrants in exchange for an unnegotiable 2,300 dollars fee. After carefully verifying the identities of those contacting him, he refers them to Muhammad in Baghdad via his telephone number to complete the invitation requirements. 

Jummar spoke with Al-Rassam on the phone. He did not express his fear or hesitation about dealing with strangers, as all he wanted was money.  

The involvement of Russian families 

The “Abu Jabal for Migration” network, another Iraqi smuggler in Turkey, includes people from Babil, Karbala, Basra, Dhi Qar, and Najaf. His ruse is sending invitations to Iraqi migrants from Russian families through travel and tourism agencies, then providing commercial visas that give a comfortable trip to Russia, but a dangerous crossing to Europe. 

University service agencies involved in smuggling 

The activity of individuals, university service agencies, and travel and tourism companies in Baghdad under different headings related to smuggling networks led us to verify their authentication from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. 

“The Ministry has legal and procedural contexts for conducting agreements and receiving invitations, grants, scholarships, and fellowships”, answered the ministry’s spokesman, Haidar Al-Aboudi. He assigns the responsibility to “the attachés and the scholarships department as the only official institutions that deal with foreign universities”. 

In December 2022, the German Federal Police recorded an increase in irregular migrants from the previous year, amounting to 60,000 migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. 

“The Ministry of Higher Education deals only with its attachés and is not affiliated with university service agencies”, Al-Aboudi commented. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Interior told Jummar that it had closed only two university service agencies in Baghdad in the past five years. 

Creating migration and displacement 

Iraq is considered a country of origin for migrants in the International Organisation for Migration literature. Over the past four decades, large waves of displaced migrants, and asylum seekers left Iraq to other countries in the region or to Europe or the Americas.  

In the nineties, mainly between 1990-1995, more than 36,000 Iraqi migrants fled to the Maghreb region of Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, and Morocco. During the era of the Second Gulf War, the economic blockade, and the American occupation of Iraq (1990-2013), around three million Iraqi refugees fled to other Middle Eastern countries like Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Yemen. Accurate numbers may be much more, as Iraqis comprised about 23 per cent of refugees in the Arab region as a whole. 

Displaced Iraqis reached more than seven million in different parts of the world from 1990 to 2013. Meanwhile, their contribution to the Gross National Product (GNP) through financial transactions was minimal, as it reached its peak in 2014 at around only 316 million dollars. Still, the Ministry of Migration and Displacement confirmed to Jummar that authorities do not have records of the number of Iraqis who migrate through smuggling gangs. 

“Nonetheless, the Ministry returned 4,500 Iraqis stranded on the Belarusian, Polish, Lithuanian, and Latvian borders between 2020 and 2023 through an emergency air bridge made for this purpose”, said Ali Abbas, spokesman for the Ministry of Migration and Displacement. 

In the autumn of 2015, there was a mass migration of Iraqis. This was down to  the Islamic State (ISIS) occupying about a third of Iraqi territory in June 2014, along with  widespread corruption, the emergence of armed factions in parallel to official government forces, and the suffocating economic crisis amid rising poverty and unemployment rates. Tens of thousands of Iraqis left through Basra, Najaf, Baghdad, and Erbil airports to Turkey and from there to Greece to reach any European haven. 

A Kurdish non-governmental organisation focusing on migration said that 650,000 Iraqis had migrated between 2015 and 2021. Iraqis ranked third in the list of migrants that passed the central Mediterranean route towards Italy between 2016 and 2018, according to the International Organisation of Migration. 

The state ignores the migration of its citizens 

The Ministry of Interior acknowledges the difficulty of controlling migration. “Migrants leave Iraqi airports legally, but their journey begins when they arrive in countries where smugglers are active. Thus, the process happens outside the scope of Iraqi law”, said Khalid Al-Mhanna, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. 

According to Al-Mhanna, the Ministry of Interior monitors travel and tourism agencies and companies that advertise job offers abroad to the unemployed or facilitate their travel for study. “Whoever is involved in smuggling Iraqis will be prosecuted. We have an integrated anti-trafficking law”, says Al-Mhanna. 

However, the United Nations criticises the law for not prohibiting all forms of human trafficking, including the facilitation of child prostitution, and the neglect of classifying and criminalising trafficking that does not involve financial exchanges, according to its assessment. 

While Iraqi security agencies have raised awareness of the threats smuggling networks pose to migrants’ lives through extortion, theft, sexual exploitation, and organ trafficking, a governmental centre encourages young Iraqis to migrate. “If you want to migrate, we can help you make informed choices”, the Migrant Resource Centre of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs invites those wishing to migrate to “orientation sessions on the benefits of regular migration and exposing the risks and consequences of irregular migration”. However, the centre also offers a package of “expert advice” for those who choose to migrate in any way that suits them. 

In 2012, the European Union signed a partnership and cooperation agreement with Iraq to prevent irregular migration, facilitate the return of irregular migrants, effectively control and manage borders, and establish effective counter-trafficking mechanisms against smuggling networks to protect victims. The centre was part of the agreement. 

In the same year, Iraq formed an anti-trafficking central committee in the Ministry of Interior to coordinate plans against the phenomenon with different authorities to assist victims and protect witnesses. But thirteen years after its formation, a high-ranking officer in the committee, who preferred to remain anonymous, confirmed to Jummar that “the committee does not have any intelligence or security information regarding the work of university service agencies that send Iraqi youth to Russia”.  

Moreover, the Ministry of Migration and Displacement denied having any knowledge to Jummar of agencies working to facilitate the illegal migration of Iraqi youth. 

The risk of international sanctions 

An officer from the anti-trafficking committee told Jummar about efforts undertaken between the committee and the Councils of Ministries and Representatives to amend the anti-trafficking law to include legal articles that criminalise whoever is involved in smuggling migrants, urging them to migrate, or sheltering them. “The law needs regulations to implement it and also reinforce the committee’s offices with specialised officers, as these are complex crimes”, he said. 

Muhammad Shia Al-Sudani is facing massive international pressure to control illegal migration. “Iraq’s position is embarrassing within the international community, especially the U.S. State Department, which monitors Iraq’s seriousness in implementing the anti-trafficking law (…) Failure to control the crime may lead to international sanctions against the country”. 

In 2022, the Trafficking in Persons Report of the U.S. State Department stressed that Iraq does not fully meet the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking and remains on Tier 2 of the watch list. 

Iraq does not have an integrated legal package to criminalise human smuggling despite signing two international protocols; one to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children, and the other to combat smuggling migrants by land, sea, and air. Both protocols are complementary to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, established in 2000. 

Big Brother migration control 

National procedures do not ostensibly restrict citizens’ movement. The Permanent Constitution of 2005 stipulates in Article 44: “First, each Iraqi has freedom of movement, travel, and residence inside and outside Iraq”. However, security concerns, racist policies of the Iraqi Kurdistan authorities, and sectarian practices of the security forces and armed groups supporting the political regime have significantly limited the freedom of movement of Iraqi citizens within their territory. 

“We do not know what is going on inside the head of each citizen who comes to the airport or border crossings to get their passport stamped and leave the country (…) migration cannot be controlled unless we investigate everyone intending to travel in advance”, an officer in the intelligence unit of Baghdad International Airport told Jummar

Al-Bayati, a former member of the Human Rights Commission, expresses his surprise and astonishment at the departure of hundreds of Iraqis allegedly for tourism or study through Iraqi airports “without auditing or prior investigation of the travellers”. 

Kurdistan smuggling networks 

Federal government officials have implied that authorities of the Kurdistan Region are involved in the process of facilitating the border crossing of migrants. Ali Abbas, spokesman for the Ministry of Migration and Displacement, and Al-Bayati, agree that human trafficking mafias use Kurdistan territory to smuggle the youth to Europe. 

We tracked and contacted two smuggling networks operating on the Iraqi-Iranian and Iraqi-Turkish borders. The first was Khalil’s network, a Syrian Kurd residing in the Kurdistan Region. His network offers a crossing over the border for 1,400 US dollars through rough terrain in Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Dohuk governorates to reach Iran and from there to Turkey.  

The second is Abu Abdou’s network, who is a Syrian residing in Turkey. He leads a similar network with three routes; the first costs 1,700 US dollars for migrants that come through Khalil’s route. The second, a direct, safe, and more expensive package, costs 4,500 US dollars and goes through the Zakho border crossing with Turkey. The third costs 3000 US dollars and also goes through Zakho to Turkey but on foot taking an hour and a half. 

“Many networks operate in Kurdistan to smuggle young men to Turkey and then to European countries”, said Al-Bayati, a former member of the Human Rights Commission. “European officials confirmed to us in numerous meetings that Kurdish officials are involved in helping these networks and mafias”, he added. 

Kurdish security authorities refused to admit the accusations and that such networks even exist in the region. Colonel Karwan Khoshnaw, a spokesman for the Border Guard of the First Area, insisted in an interview with Jummar that “the region’s borders are completely safe and secure and cannot be easily breached”.  

Kurdish human rights organisations indicate an increase in young Kurdish migrants smuggled through networks such as Khalil’s and Abu Abdou’s monthly. In August 2022, the “Lutka” Foundation, which defends the rights of refugees and the displaced in Iraqi Kurdistan, stressed that “migration increased by between thirty-five to forty per cent, a rate the country has not witnessed since 2020 despite the risks associated with illegal migration and the daily sinking of boats”. 

Incidents indicate the opacity of the Kurdish security authorities’ claims, who deny the connection between irregular migration and the northern Iraqi region. In March 2020, the Sulymaniyah Asayish [Kurdish for security] Directorate announced the arrest of twenty-nine people in Sharbazher on charges of smuggling people into or out of the region in exchange for money, bringing the number of arrests to forty-four smugglers, all from Kurdistan, and twenty-seven confiscated vehicles. 

Months later, the region’s Ministry of Interior arrested a smuggling network that issued false passports and visas and was pursuing other networks that smuggled migrants using false passports to Lithuania, Belarus, and Poland for 15,000 US dollars. Twenty-seven migrants, including sixteen Iraqi Kurds, drowned in the English Channel between France and Britain in 2020. 

In November 2022, the British National Crime Agency (NCA) announced its cooperation with Belgian police to search for an Iraqi smuggler called Al-Aqrab [Arabic for scorpio]. His name is Barzan Kamal Majeed, and he was the mastermind of a broad network that attempted to smuggle 100 migrants using small boats and trucks to the United Kingdom between July 2018 and November 2019. In October 2022, a Belgian court sentenced Al-Aqrab, in absentia, to ten years imprisonment plus a fine of 968,000 euros. Al-Aqrab moved to the United Kingdom in 2013 and was deported in 2015 to the northern region of Iraq. 

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On his flight to Moscow, Zaid flew with false papers from Baghdad to Sharjah, from where he was “shipped” to Minsk, from where he was deported, along with others, to the Polish border. There, he faced cruel border guards and blood-freezing temperatures. He, then, fled by lorry across the German bridge and was taken by guards to an asylum camp in Dresden. 

This is the story of the journey of a young man and four of his friends, covered by Jummar, to reveal the secrets of smuggling networks to Europe. 

Five young men, including Zaid, decided to leave the country for Germany through illegal migration after the smuggler, “Abu Hussam” brought them together on the social media platform, “Telegram” on which migrant smuggling mafias are active. 

False papers for dollars! 

Before Ziad left Baghdad International Airport on 22 November 2022 to Sharjah on his way to the Russian capital, Moscow, using a false invitation for study and a valid ticket, the young man from Najaf collected 6,500 US dollars with his family’s help after they had failed to persuade him to abandon his plan to migrate. 

The five young men obtained bogus invitations for study, tickets to travel, advice from a travel agency, and university admissions in Baghdad, all for 2,300 US dollars. 

The agency advised them to “wear formal suits, remain completely calm while at the airport, not be fearful, delete anything related to their plan to migrate from their phone’s memory before arriving in Russia to make sure they pass security checks at Moscow airport”, reminding them that “Russian security looks at the person’s appearance before questioning him or asking about his destination or purpose of travel”. 

From Moscow to Minsk 

On 23 November 2022, the five young men landed in Moscow and were subjected to a three-hour interrogation session by Russian airport security. “We have now arrived, passed the checks, and are waiting for you at the airport entrance”, Zaid texted “Abu Hussam”, the smuggler who resides in Turkey. He told the young men to wait in a nearby restaurant or bar for about an hour until someone took them on the twelve-hour trip to the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Before arriving on the outskirts of Minsk, the Russian car driver told them to get out and continue the rest of the trip on foot. The young men spent five hours walking, in danger of encountering a police patrol car and suffering from the freezing temperatures. They were accompanied by the “Reeber” – a word derived from Kurdish, meaning “leader”. 

Smuggling is a networked process of an internationally expanding sphere of brokers, smugglers, “reebers”, and migrants wishing to cross borders, and in which visible and invisible people take part,  

In the smuggling networks lexicon, a “reeber” leads and guides groups of irregular migrants across borders and is responsible for “loading” or lodging points. “Loading” refers to the points where migrants gather to meet their “reeber” to go on to the next point. 

The “reeber” dropped Zaid and his group off in a top-floor apartment in a high-rise building inhabited by Belarusian families in northern Minsk. The apartment was overcrowded with Egyptian, Syrian, and Afghan migrants, paying fifteen dollars per person for board. The five men spent three days and nights in Minsk and were equipped with an iron ladder, cold-resistant gloves and boots, raincoats, and barbed wire cutters, which they bought from the “fish market”. 

On 26 November 2022, the Belarusian police raided the group in the apartment in response to a tip-off from the building’s residents. After hours of interrogation at the police station, the group was released after pledging to leave the country within three days; otherwise, they would be deported back to Iraq.  

The group of migrants broke their pledge and spent five more days, before making their way to Brest on the Polish border. “Seven kilometres before reaching the last fence on the Belarusian border, we were dropped off by the car and had to walk towards the iron fences”, Zaid says. 

In November 2022, the Ministry of Migration and Displacement stated it was convinced that “There is a plan to exploit Iraqi youth by the Belarusian authorities, which encourages young people to migrate to Europe illegally”. Ali Al-Bayati, a former member of the Human Rights Commission, told Jummar that “Interpol arrested a smuggling network in December 2022, which included more than sixty people involved in trafficking a thousand Iraqis from Belarus to Europe”. 

According to Al-Bayati, the network uses a route extending from Baghdad to Turkey, then to Russia and Belarus through Ukrainian truck drivers all the way to Poland, and then to Germany or Finland. This is carried out in exchange for money amounting to anything between three thousand to fifteen thousand euros. 

Reaching Germany through trenches 

The group dug a trench under the fences between the Belarusian-Polish border, in a dense forest area, freezing weather, and complete darkness, to hide from the border guards. But once they crossed the fence, they saw Polish police patrols. Contact with the smuggler was lost due to a poor internet signal, and so they remained there in silence until morning came. 

“In the morning, we decided to change the location of our crossing point to further away from the security patrol. We waited for dark to start cutting the barbed wire above the Polish fences”, Zaid remembers. 

Zaid burns his clothes in the forests of Poland to keep warm 

After eight hours of hiding and following GPS directions inside Polish territory, the group reached the agreed-upon “loading” point, from which the smuggler took them to the bridge linking the German city of Frankfurt to the Polish Slubice, and there they crossed on foot. 

After Zaid and his group arrived in Germany, they had to pay 2,500 US dollars each to the Iraqi smuggler “Abu Hussam” through a money transfer agency in Baghdad as part of the deal made before leaving Iraq. 

In Germany, the five young men were suddenly stopped and taken by a German police patrol. Their fingerprints were taken before being transferred to a camp for irregular migrants in Dresden, the capital of Saxony. 

Migration is better than staying in Iraq 

Al-Bayati does not consider unemployment, poverty, or an unknown future to be reasons for taking such risks. “Most young men dreaming of migrating fall victim to human smuggling networks and are vulnerable to exploitation and blackmailing. Their money is often stolen, and they are left at the border fighting for their lives”. 

Human smuggling and trafficking networks are thriving in most Iraqi cities because of timid punitive action by the government due to widespread corruption, weak state authority, and political turmoil affecting the economy. Moreover, armed factions benefit from travel and tourism agencies as a shadow economy. 

In 2012, Iraq enacted a single law to control human trafficking, with no clear reference to smuggling networks. The law imposes fines and prison sentences on convicted traffickers.  

In February 2022, authorities arrested a smuggler who was involved in smuggling Iraqi youths to Europe for fees reaching 9000 US dollars. 

Zaid and his group believe that “migration is better than staying in Iraq” as they await the court’s decision to either grant them asylum or deport them. 

Online smuggling shops 

The Russian platform “Telegram” is a haven and a popular interface for smuggling networks. Brokers and smugglers are active there, sometimes identifying with their real names, known nicknames, and exposed faces. They advertise illegal migration offers, prices, confidence-building experiences, safety measures, and routes taken by migrants. 

Jummar monitored seven smuggling networks that offer a costly migration route that extends from Iraq to Russia and then Germany by providing false invitations for study. This is considered better than the traditional cheap and risky route to Greece and the Balkans to Western Europe. 

Muhammad Al-Jabouri, an Iraqi smuggler residing in Turkey, runs a Telegram channel called “Muhammad Al-Jabouri Migration Group”, along with three others. The channel has 20,663 members, mainly Iraqis and Syrians. It took a week to decipher the network’s codes and secure a direct communication line with Al-Jabouri; the connection was made after several attempts. 

Al-Jabouri arranges weekly trips to Germany. 

A company in Basra provides false documents 

Al-Jabouri asked one of Jummar’s investigation team, who pretended to be a migration seeker, to contact the “International Future Company” group in Al-Baradi’yah district in Basra, near the Russian Consulate, in order to get a study invitation from a Russian university. This would cost 2,300 dollars, in addition to another 6,500 dollars, to guarantee a “safe journey” from Baghdad to Germany.  

The smuggler secures his payment through a deposit at a tourism company or an insurance or exchange agency as a third party. The money is then paid to Al-Jabouri when the migrant arrives in Germany.  

In late January 2023, the Ministry of Migration and Displacement launched an educational campaign against human trafficking and smuggling networks to “prevent influence on and the enfeebling of the country’s youth with migration”.  

Obtaining a university invitation does not require a specific academic grade. The company is responsible for getting the invitation and issuing the visa through the Russian Consulate in Basra. The official website of Higher Education in Russia indicates that “a study invitation is required in order to obtain a study visa”. 

Sample of a Russian study invitation that Jummar obtained from a smuggler 

“We have nothing to offer the youth that would prevent them from migrating and risking themselves through smuggling networks other than education and awareness”, said Ali Abbas, spokesman for the Ministry of Migration and Displacement. 

In recent years, the Iraqi government has launched a campaign to urge the diaspora to return, promising the returnees job opportunities and financial incentives. However, government promises vanished with the country’s successive crises. 

The “Painter” of study invitations 

Al-Rassam [Arabic for painter], an Iraqi smuggler in Moscow, is active on Facebook. He provides study invitations and a smuggling route to Germany for young Iraqi migrants in exchange for an unnegotiable 2,300 dollars fee. After carefully verifying the identities of those contacting him, he refers them to Muhammad in Baghdad via his telephone number to complete the invitation requirements. 

Jummar spoke with Al-Rassam on the phone. He did not express his fear or hesitation about dealing with strangers, as all he wanted was money.  

The involvement of Russian families 

The “Abu Jabal for Migration” network, another Iraqi smuggler in Turkey, includes people from Babil, Karbala, Basra, Dhi Qar, and Najaf. His ruse is sending invitations to Iraqi migrants from Russian families through travel and tourism agencies, then providing commercial visas that give a comfortable trip to Russia, but a dangerous crossing to Europe. 

University service agencies involved in smuggling 

The activity of individuals, university service agencies, and travel and tourism companies in Baghdad under different headings related to smuggling networks led us to verify their authentication from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. 

“The Ministry has legal and procedural contexts for conducting agreements and receiving invitations, grants, scholarships, and fellowships”, answered the ministry’s spokesman, Haidar Al-Aboudi. He assigns the responsibility to “the attachés and the scholarships department as the only official institutions that deal with foreign universities”. 

In December 2022, the German Federal Police recorded an increase in irregular migrants from the previous year, amounting to 60,000 migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. 

“The Ministry of Higher Education deals only with its attachés and is not affiliated with university service agencies”, Al-Aboudi commented. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Interior told Jummar that it had closed only two university service agencies in Baghdad in the past five years. 

Creating migration and displacement 

Iraq is considered a country of origin for migrants in the International Organisation for Migration literature. Over the past four decades, large waves of displaced migrants, and asylum seekers left Iraq to other countries in the region or to Europe or the Americas.  

In the nineties, mainly between 1990-1995, more than 36,000 Iraqi migrants fled to the Maghreb region of Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, and Morocco. During the era of the Second Gulf War, the economic blockade, and the American occupation of Iraq (1990-2013), around three million Iraqi refugees fled to other Middle Eastern countries like Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Yemen. Accurate numbers may be much more, as Iraqis comprised about 23 per cent of refugees in the Arab region as a whole. 

Displaced Iraqis reached more than seven million in different parts of the world from 1990 to 2013. Meanwhile, their contribution to the Gross National Product (GNP) through financial transactions was minimal, as it reached its peak in 2014 at around only 316 million dollars. Still, the Ministry of Migration and Displacement confirmed to Jummar that authorities do not have records of the number of Iraqis who migrate through smuggling gangs. 

“Nonetheless, the Ministry returned 4,500 Iraqis stranded on the Belarusian, Polish, Lithuanian, and Latvian borders between 2020 and 2023 through an emergency air bridge made for this purpose”, said Ali Abbas, spokesman for the Ministry of Migration and Displacement. 

In the autumn of 2015, there was a mass migration of Iraqis. This was down to  the Islamic State (ISIS) occupying about a third of Iraqi territory in June 2014, along with  widespread corruption, the emergence of armed factions in parallel to official government forces, and the suffocating economic crisis amid rising poverty and unemployment rates. Tens of thousands of Iraqis left through Basra, Najaf, Baghdad, and Erbil airports to Turkey and from there to Greece to reach any European haven. 

A Kurdish non-governmental organisation focusing on migration said that 650,000 Iraqis had migrated between 2015 and 2021. Iraqis ranked third in the list of migrants that passed the central Mediterranean route towards Italy between 2016 and 2018, according to the International Organisation of Migration. 

The state ignores the migration of its citizens 

The Ministry of Interior acknowledges the difficulty of controlling migration. “Migrants leave Iraqi airports legally, but their journey begins when they arrive in countries where smugglers are active. Thus, the process happens outside the scope of Iraqi law”, said Khalid Al-Mhanna, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. 

According to Al-Mhanna, the Ministry of Interior monitors travel and tourism agencies and companies that advertise job offers abroad to the unemployed or facilitate their travel for study. “Whoever is involved in smuggling Iraqis will be prosecuted. We have an integrated anti-trafficking law”, says Al-Mhanna. 

However, the United Nations criticises the law for not prohibiting all forms of human trafficking, including the facilitation of child prostitution, and the neglect of classifying and criminalising trafficking that does not involve financial exchanges, according to its assessment. 

While Iraqi security agencies have raised awareness of the threats smuggling networks pose to migrants’ lives through extortion, theft, sexual exploitation, and organ trafficking, a governmental centre encourages young Iraqis to migrate. “If you want to migrate, we can help you make informed choices”, the Migrant Resource Centre of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs invites those wishing to migrate to “orientation sessions on the benefits of regular migration and exposing the risks and consequences of irregular migration”. However, the centre also offers a package of “expert advice” for those who choose to migrate in any way that suits them. 

In 2012, the European Union signed a partnership and cooperation agreement with Iraq to prevent irregular migration, facilitate the return of irregular migrants, effectively control and manage borders, and establish effective counter-trafficking mechanisms against smuggling networks to protect victims. The centre was part of the agreement. 

In the same year, Iraq formed an anti-trafficking central committee in the Ministry of Interior to coordinate plans against the phenomenon with different authorities to assist victims and protect witnesses. But thirteen years after its formation, a high-ranking officer in the committee, who preferred to remain anonymous, confirmed to Jummar that “the committee does not have any intelligence or security information regarding the work of university service agencies that send Iraqi youth to Russia”.  

Moreover, the Ministry of Migration and Displacement denied having any knowledge to Jummar of agencies working to facilitate the illegal migration of Iraqi youth. 

The risk of international sanctions 

An officer from the anti-trafficking committee told Jummar about efforts undertaken between the committee and the Councils of Ministries and Representatives to amend the anti-trafficking law to include legal articles that criminalise whoever is involved in smuggling migrants, urging them to migrate, or sheltering them. “The law needs regulations to implement it and also reinforce the committee’s offices with specialised officers, as these are complex crimes”, he said. 

Muhammad Shia Al-Sudani is facing massive international pressure to control illegal migration. “Iraq’s position is embarrassing within the international community, especially the U.S. State Department, which monitors Iraq’s seriousness in implementing the anti-trafficking law (…) Failure to control the crime may lead to international sanctions against the country”. 

In 2022, the Trafficking in Persons Report of the U.S. State Department stressed that Iraq does not fully meet the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking and remains on Tier 2 of the watch list. 

Iraq does not have an integrated legal package to criminalise human smuggling despite signing two international protocols; one to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children, and the other to combat smuggling migrants by land, sea, and air. Both protocols are complementary to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, established in 2000. 

Big Brother migration control 

National procedures do not ostensibly restrict citizens’ movement. The Permanent Constitution of 2005 stipulates in Article 44: “First, each Iraqi has freedom of movement, travel, and residence inside and outside Iraq”. However, security concerns, racist policies of the Iraqi Kurdistan authorities, and sectarian practices of the security forces and armed groups supporting the political regime have significantly limited the freedom of movement of Iraqi citizens within their territory. 

“We do not know what is going on inside the head of each citizen who comes to the airport or border crossings to get their passport stamped and leave the country (…) migration cannot be controlled unless we investigate everyone intending to travel in advance”, an officer in the intelligence unit of Baghdad International Airport told Jummar

Al-Bayati, a former member of the Human Rights Commission, expresses his surprise and astonishment at the departure of hundreds of Iraqis allegedly for tourism or study through Iraqi airports “without auditing or prior investigation of the travellers”. 

Kurdistan smuggling networks 

Federal government officials have implied that authorities of the Kurdistan Region are involved in the process of facilitating the border crossing of migrants. Ali Abbas, spokesman for the Ministry of Migration and Displacement, and Al-Bayati, agree that human trafficking mafias use Kurdistan territory to smuggle the youth to Europe. 

We tracked and contacted two smuggling networks operating on the Iraqi-Iranian and Iraqi-Turkish borders. The first was Khalil’s network, a Syrian Kurd residing in the Kurdistan Region. His network offers a crossing over the border for 1,400 US dollars through rough terrain in Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Dohuk governorates to reach Iran and from there to Turkey.  

The second is Abu Abdou’s network, who is a Syrian residing in Turkey. He leads a similar network with three routes; the first costs 1,700 US dollars for migrants that come through Khalil’s route. The second, a direct, safe, and more expensive package, costs 4,500 US dollars and goes through the Zakho border crossing with Turkey. The third costs 3000 US dollars and also goes through Zakho to Turkey but on foot taking an hour and a half. 

“Many networks operate in Kurdistan to smuggle young men to Turkey and then to European countries”, said Al-Bayati, a former member of the Human Rights Commission. “European officials confirmed to us in numerous meetings that Kurdish officials are involved in helping these networks and mafias”, he added. 

Kurdish security authorities refused to admit the accusations and that such networks even exist in the region. Colonel Karwan Khoshnaw, a spokesman for the Border Guard of the First Area, insisted in an interview with Jummar that “the region’s borders are completely safe and secure and cannot be easily breached”.  

Kurdish human rights organisations indicate an increase in young Kurdish migrants smuggled through networks such as Khalil’s and Abu Abdou’s monthly. In August 2022, the “Lutka” Foundation, which defends the rights of refugees and the displaced in Iraqi Kurdistan, stressed that “migration increased by between thirty-five to forty per cent, a rate the country has not witnessed since 2020 despite the risks associated with illegal migration and the daily sinking of boats”. 

Incidents indicate the opacity of the Kurdish security authorities’ claims, who deny the connection between irregular migration and the northern Iraqi region. In March 2020, the Sulymaniyah Asayish [Kurdish for security] Directorate announced the arrest of twenty-nine people in Sharbazher on charges of smuggling people into or out of the region in exchange for money, bringing the number of arrests to forty-four smugglers, all from Kurdistan, and twenty-seven confiscated vehicles. 

Months later, the region’s Ministry of Interior arrested a smuggling network that issued false passports and visas and was pursuing other networks that smuggled migrants using false passports to Lithuania, Belarus, and Poland for 15,000 US dollars. Twenty-seven migrants, including sixteen Iraqi Kurds, drowned in the English Channel between France and Britain in 2020. 

In November 2022, the British National Crime Agency (NCA) announced its cooperation with Belgian police to search for an Iraqi smuggler called Al-Aqrab [Arabic for scorpio]. His name is Barzan Kamal Majeed, and he was the mastermind of a broad network that attempted to smuggle 100 migrants using small boats and trucks to the United Kingdom between July 2018 and November 2019. In October 2022, a Belgian court sentenced Al-Aqrab, in absentia, to ten years imprisonment plus a fine of 968,000 euros. Al-Aqrab moved to the United Kingdom in 2013 and was deported in 2015 to the northern region of Iraq.