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Frustration builds as Iraq's airports remain closed amid rising virus cases

Many foreigners and Iraqis are unable to return home, including those who have lost jobs amid the pandemic.

When Iraqi aviation authorities first closed airports to commercial passenger flights March 17 in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, they only gave about a day’s notice. With flights already limited regionally, many got stuck. The first ban was set to end March 24. But it has been continuously extended since.

Basheer Talib is an engineer from Baghdad who was working in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, when the airports closed. He is stranded, unable to return to his family in Baghdad due to the closure and an interprovincial travel ban.

“I strongly miss my little sons,” Talib told Al-Monitor. “I haven’t seen them since the lockdown.”

Many foreigners and Iraqis are frustrated with the airport closure and unable to get home. They are away from loved ones and some are without work. Others have left the country through complex travel schemes.

The commercial flight ban is part of Iraq’s efforts to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus in the country. Other measures include business closures and stay-at-home orders. Erbil in particular has a high population of foreigners, and many, particularly those in the service and hospitality industries, have lost their sources of income during the lockdowns.

Cargo flights continue in and out of Iraq, as do diplomatic flights. There are also one-way Qatar Airways flights to Doha every few weeks that cost more than $1,000. This price is much higher than usual and does not include the cost of onward travel via the limited flight routes available. There are also World Food Program flights for staff of international nongovernmental organizations.  But those without the means or connections are stuck.

Discontent is brewing over the situation. On June 8, Erbil International Airport posted a picture that asked people where they would like to fly once the ban is lifted. Many reacted angrily. “Just open the damn airport and let people go to their families,” wrote one user. “Never felt so hostaged,” wrote another.

In Erbil, the closure has affected the economy in several ways. On June 16, the Krua Thai restaurant announced it was permanently closing due to its inability to import authentic ingredients amid the airport closure.

Fritzie Sorinio, from the Philippines, was one of the employees. She said all but one of the staff have managed to find new jobs. However, many in her industry want to leave — especially those without work — but cannot afford the expensive repatriation flights.

“The biggest problem for those who wish to leave is the prohibitive cost of flights home,” Sorinio told Al-Monitor. "For those who remain, the economy doesn’t really support the hospitality industry at the moment, so work is hard to come by.”

Erbil has a large population of foreigners who work in restaurants, hotels, the airport and the like. Baghdad and Sulaimaniyah do as well.

Porntipa Sanohlum, from Thailand, works for an international NGO in Erbil. She said many in the Thai community are female masseuses at hotels, while others work in hotels, at the airport and for oil companies.

Some masseuses receive free accommodation and weekly allowances. However, the simultaneous flight ban and closure of close-contact activities such as massages have left them without the income they use for their savings and to send back home.

“It’s difficult to get income because the owner is also not earning any income at all,” Sanohlum told Al-Monitor.

Other people told similarly difficult stories, including locals. A banker in Erbil from the Kurdish city of Qaladze in neighboring Sulaimaniyah province cannot go home to check up on his elderly parents, as he was in the habit of doing. “They are old and need some care,” Hawkar Babakr told Al-Monitor.

The domestic travel restrictions has caused some Iraqis, including displaced people, to become stuck at checkpoints.

The news is not all bad. Sanohlum said the Thai Embassy in Amman, Jordan, gave Thai nationals the option to repatriate this month. (Thailand does not have an embassy in Iraq.) The journey, though long and daunting, ended with Thai citizens arriving in Bangkok on Thursday after first traveling to Tehran, Iran.

“They took a bus to Iran, got a COVID test, and quarantined for seven days before the flight to Thailand,” said Sanohlum, who is staying in Iraq. “There was good cooperation from the Thai Embassy in Jordan.”

Low-income workers face similar struggles across the region. In Lebanon, some cleaners from Ethiopia were dumped by their former employers at their embassy with nothing but their belongings this month as the country plunged further into economic crisis.

At present, Iraq’s commercial flight ban is set to expire July 1. Like before, it could be extended. The COVID-19 situation in the country does not provide hope. Iraq registered 2,437 coronavirus cases Thursday, according to Health Ministry statistics. This is a daily record for the country. The number was 2,054 today, with 122 deaths.

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