SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq – Surkaw Omar and Rebien Abdullah quit their jobs and spent their life savings to reach Europe, only to find crowded asylum camps, hunger and freezing weather. Now back home in northern Iraq, they describe their quest for a better life as a disaster.
They each spent some $8,000 on the trip, much of it on smugglers, only to get stuck in asylum-seekers' camps in Germany and Sweden for months on end, where they say they were given very little food or money.
"It was very bad," Omar, 25, said of the German camp. "Honestly, we were starving there. We ran away because of hunger. They gave us only cheese and tea, and our weekly allowance was 30 euros."
They decided to try their luck in Sweden instead, but that didn't work either.
"When we arrived there, it was winter. It was freezing. They put me in a room with three Syrians. I couldn't speak Arabic and they couldn't speak Kurdish. We were communicating like deaf people," Omar said. After trying Germany one more time, they gave up.
"We said to each other, let's go home. It's better than anywhere else," he said.
Many of the hundreds of thousands of refugees heading to Europe have no choice but to brave such hardships because they hail from places gripped by war, where their lives are in danger. But Omar and Abdullah come from Iraq's northern Kurdish region, which has been largely spared from fighting with ISIS.
They are among what experts say is a growing number of refugees who are returning home because of the difficulty of finding housing and employment in Europe.
Some 70,000 Iraqis joined the tide of refugees seeking a better life in Europe last year, according to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration. The Iraqi Refugees Federation, a local NGO, says the number may be twice as high, with some 40,000 coming from the Kurdish region.
But as winter set in last year, the number of people applying for repatriation with the IOM began to grow, from 100 people a month since the start of the year to 350 in September, 761 in October and 831 in January 2016.
"It is very hard to know what the total numbers are because many of them are returning independently and they blend in with other travelers," said Sandra Black, the Iraq communications officer for the IOM. "But the numbers are significantly increasing."
That may come as welcome news to European countries that have opened their doors to refugees fleeing conflict but say economic asylum-seekers should stay where they are. It's also an indication of the mounting difficulties refugees face in Germany and Sweden, which together took in more than a million refugees last year.
"They come back for lack of hope for getting residency in Europe, lack of job opportunities, slow family reunification, and for not finding the housing and living opportunities that they were hoping for," Black said.
"The increasing number of arrivals has created massive pressures on the immigration system in Europe. Applications take longer, and so some of them give up."
Maurizio Albahari, an anthropology professor at Notre Dame University who studies migration to Europe, said a number of European countries are "actively seeking to discourage asylum-seekers from staying, at least indirectly."
He said they do so by making family reunification a more lengthy and difficult process and by having long processing times for newly arrived asylum-seekers.
Of the 4,305 Iraqis who received IOM assistance to return in all of 2015 and January 2016, a third returned to the Kurdish region.
The largely autonomous region is safe, and itself has been a major destination for refugees. But the war, along with plunging oil prices, has taken a heavy toll on the local economy.
Omar had worked as a day laborer in restaurants and supermarkets, while Abdullah had driven a taxi, which he sold to help finance his trip. They say their decision to migrate was mainly driven by peer pressure.
"I saw that everybody was leaving and they were saying, `It's like this and that (in Europe).' But when I went there it wasn't like that at all," Omar said.
"Life in Europe is really hard," Abdullah said. "You have to wait. And we couldn't wait. We couldn't wait because we were so attached and loyal to our land, our families, to our mothers and relatives. And honestly, Europe and a residency card are not worth leaving your family and risking your life for."
Soran Omar, head of the human rights committee in the Kurdish regional parliament, said their experience is not uncommon.
"We told the deputy speaker of the German parliament, who was here recently, that even the people displaced from Fallujah and Ramadi were living in better conditions here in Kurdistan than the refugees in Germany now," he said.
But he said the greater exodus from the region shows no sign of slowing down.
"A lot of people may be coming back. But the opposite current is much, much bigger," he said. "People here have nothing to lose. We think this year will be the year of migration."