The new wave of Kurdish migration

Aras Ahmed Mhamad speaks to Kurds about their views on the current migration of Kurdistan’s youth to diaspora, learning about both underlying reasons and expected consequences.

Some 5,000 people, mostly young, left the Kurdistan region of Iraq during the first seven months of 2015, heading primarily for Europe. Around 50 are still missing. This exodus is generating much discussion within social networking sites and on Kurdish TV.

In the 1970s and 80s Kurds left the region as well, generally as a result of the oppression and lack of freedom under Saddam Hussein. The Anfal Campaign, the chemical bombardment of Halabja, with destruction of millions of acres of land, villages and thousands of homes forced many to flee the land they loved.

Hundreds of thousands began a new life in the diaspora. And now it’s happening again. But how do the people see this current wave of migration and potential ways forward? I spoke to Kurdish teachers, academics and authors to learn more.

Qadr Saed Baqy, who left Kurdistan in the 1990s and is currently working in a dental lab in the UK, says that youth in Kurdistan want to live like young people in Europe and that Europe is a safer and more generous place.

“Things are different here; I have the same rights and services as the Prime Minister’s son. Never ending electricity throughout the year, an education that does not depend on your family’s income but rather how talented you are as an individual. Not to be missed is a failing health care system (in Kurdistan), where the size of your pocket is proportional to the treatment you will receive. Is there anything in Kurdistan that one can miss while in Europe?”

In the 1990s, due to the civil war between the two dominant ruling parties within the region – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – the infrastructure of the Kurdistan region virtually collapsed. The region was divided into the notorious green and yellow zones. There were two governments, two prime ministers, two Ministries of Interior, two Ministries of Peshmerga, two Ministries of Education and so on and so forth. In short, the region was on the brink of economic and political collapse.

Kamar Chomani, a Kurdish journalist and political analyst, points out that after the 1990s, Kurds, in particular youth, migrated not just because the Kurdistan region had collapsed economically and politically, but rather because they thought that they could not achieve their dreams within the KRG.

“Many Kurds left Kurdistan at that time because what they had dreamed totally reversed. Kurdistan region was under two sanctions, first the international sanction on Iraq, and Iraq’s sanctions within Iraq on the region. Let alone that the civil war had divided everything, and for those who were neither Green nor Yellow, Kurdistan was a terrible place because they had no rights to live in any area. However, in early 2014, again a new wave of youth migration has started, simply because the situation that you have mentioned as a reason for the 1990s migration is almost the same. Practically, Kurdistan region is two administrations, Peshmerga and Asayish are not united yet, police as well. Apart from ministers and a united government, everything in practice is two. Nothing has changed since the Washington Agreement between KDP and PUK in 1998. Still, Erbil and Duhok are under KDP administration whereas Sulaimaniya is under PUK. For example, you cannot find a single president of a university, or Director of Education, or a Health Director, or a police officer, or a local mayor and so on who is not a KDP in KDP zone.”

Chomani explains further, “Telecommunication, oil, cigarettes, alcohol, reconstruction and almost all other business sectors have been monopolized by KDP and PUK. The KRG has already collapsed economically and politically. This is all due to KDP and PUK policies. Because of all this, unemployment among the youth has reached above 50%, whereas the children of the KDP and PUK officials get what they want. KRG has no initiatives for the youth, for example, a few years ago, young people could get a small loan and start a small business, but now even the marriage loan has stopped.

“After all, the youth are hopeless of any changes. They can’t do reforms or changes, as they are never allowed to get any responsibilities, whereas the children of the corrupt leaders are at the top position in the system without having any qualifications.”

In 1998, the US mediated between the KDP and the PUK that led to a ceasefire agreement. The two parties agreed to share power and revenues. As 9/11 happened and the “war on terror” spread across the Middle East, the coalition forces led by the US put an end to three decades of rule by Saddam Hussein’s Baath party in 2003. The Kurdish forces helped the US in Operation Iraqi Freedom and came out as America’s close allies.

As a result, the Kurdistan region experienced dramatic change. Kurdish officials opened the region to oil exploration, which discovered large deposits. The world’s biggest companies rushed to Kurdistan, triggering an economic boom. Many countries opened new consulates in the region. In short, Kurdistan emerged as one of the great players in the Middle East in terms of natural resources and security.

This boost in economy and security encouraged many Kurds who had left the region to return to their homes and help the Kurdish authorities to build the nation.

Pishtiwan Faraj, assistant lecturer at the University of Sulaimaniya and a PhD student at Brunel University, thinks it is necessary to look into those who leave Kurdistan and determine why they do so.

“If there is a pattern, it is both pushing and pulling factors that drive Kurdish people to leave Kurdistan and head to Europe. The marginalized young people with no employment, educational background and/or future prospects want to migrate, on top of that, the socioeconomic and political factors play a role in motivating them to do so. The war against ISIS, the legal dispute between Erbil and Baghdad over the selling of Kurdish oil, the economic sanction imposed by Baghdad on Kurdistan which does not send the Kurdish share of the national budget, the 2 million refugees that have drained Kurdistan, all play as pushing factors. In addition, the pulling factors in Europe include a healthier form of democracy, freedom, social and political justice, the rule of law that guarantees respect for human rights, and most importantly unlike the war-torn countries of the Middle East region, Europe is blessed with peace. However, this should not be misunderstood because in Europe there is also economic crisis in Greece and (trouble with) the state of the European Union.”

At the beginning of 2014, Baghdad cut the Kurdish share of the national budget unilaterally, a move that left the KRG in shock. After the collapse of the Iraqi army in June 2014, at the hands of the Islamic State militants in Mosul, fiscal and financial crises have hit the central government and the KRG even harder. The civic salaries of the KRG have been delayed for three months from the beginning of 2014 up until this very moment. Projects have stopped and companies have declared bankruptcy while residential and housing problems are still on the rise.

Dara Kareem Mahmood, assistant lecturer at the University of Sulaymaniyah, believes that substantial migration flows will continue in the future. Kurdish people’s income has decreased severely because of the previous budget shortages and cuts. Political issues between the KRG and the central government have also played a big role in disappointing youth in Kurdistan.

“Moreover, the ISIS evil has deepened these disputes and disappointments, and created a more fatal issue which makes it highly unlikely to be solved shortly. In addition, I can argue that the educational system – for all its defects – has never created careless individuals towards his/her Kurdistan, as we can see that hundreds of Peshmergas – mostly Kurdish youths – are fighting ISIS on behalf of the whole world, which must be highly appreciated by all Kurds, particularly concerned authorities in the region. Furthermore, Kurdish students abroad have created a quite promising image of Kurds around the world since most have been very successful doing their studies there. This tells us that Kurdistan’s youths are empowered and armed to face any obstacles and shine when provided with a proper environment.”

In the past 13 years or so, and despite the lack of trust between Erbil (Hawler) and Baghdad, the KRG officials have not been able to save and deposit money to be used in times of crisis: they were unsuccessful in their efforts to invest internally from the funds they received from Baghdad, which is estimated around 10% of the national budget (though they were supposed to be given 17%).

This is really a key factor behind the mass migration of the Kurdish youth to Europe. But what has made the migration even more accessible is the ease with which those seeking to leave can make contacts with smugglers through social networking sites.

According to Zana Mahmood Hassan, assistant lecturer at the University of Sulaimaniya, the new wave of migration to the developed countries, mostly Europe, has several reasons. 

“A first, and maybe the most important factor, is socio-economical. People in general, especially young people, are fed up with the social injustices which means some people do just a little and gain so much, while others fight tooth and nail to get their daily living cost. Unemployment is a motivation to think of leaving the country. There are thousands of graduates without a job! 

“The second factor is political. People here have seen very little, if any, change throughout the last two decades. Only a few groups of people have gripped power and are not ready to leave it to the new generation. Leaders have become dictators! Elections have very little effect on political changes in the system. This has psychological influences on the mentality of people.

“A final reason might be the quest for a better life far from wars and crises. This region has been known as the place of conflicts and wars. Every now and then you see a new terror group or a new style of war, from shooting each other to using water as a revenge tool. There are tens of crises each day. That’s why people want to leave”.

The lighting advance and capture of Mosul, Tikrit and recently Ramadi by the ISIS militants have put the future of the country in jeopardy. With mounting economic difficulties, people do not feel safe in their homes and the psychology of the population has been affected negatively despite the knowledge that the Kurdish Peshmergas are the strongest and most well-organized ground forces against ISIS.

Administrative corruption, residential difficulties and favoritism have uprooted the foundation of the system. However, economic and social reforms are meaningless if political reform cannot be considered seriously.

Dr. Rauf Kareem Mahmood, teacher of Linguistics at the University of Slemani and Dean of the College of Languages at the University of Human Development, thinks that this time, the case is different and much worse.

“People with very low income constitute the biggest part of the Kurdish population. They go to college and accomplish their undergraduate program, but mostly remain unemployed. ISIL’s continual attacks on the Kurdistan region mark an inevitable source of fear and depression for the young. Those factors have highly contributed to the construction of a (grim) view by the young concerning their future in Kurdistan. The thought of migration seems to be much serious and well-determined this time, since, unfortunately, most of those who have migrated do not only feel guilty for leaving their land, but also state that amid the ongoing corruption, depression, and regression Kurdistan is no longer their homeland.”

Mahmood explains, “What worsens the case is the political parties’ negative role. They have so far preferred silence on the issue, except for minor un-influential news reports on the migration process. The main danger behind the migration of the young lies in its role in changing the demography of Kurdistan, as approximately 2.75 million refugees and displacedpeople (mostly Arabs) come from Syria and the Sunni cities of Iraq. With the migration of the young, Arabs would replace them; hence, the demography of the Kurdistan region changes. Additionally, the European reaction over illegal migration is less encouraging for the Kurdish youth. One cannot expect a warm welcome by the people of Europe.”

“In order to end this negative process (if the government approaches the case seriously), research centers at universities and other academic foundations urgently need to conduct some studies to come out with the best and most effective procedure for confronting this dangerous phenomenon and suggest the most influential solutions,” Mahmood concludes.

The reason I think political reform is the bedrock of any kind of reform is because the country is run by a bunch of businessmen and not political leaders. They are there only to fill their pockets and their European bank accounts and after a few years of dogfight, they return to Europe with all their possessions and wealth.

Despite some similarities between past migrations of the Kurdish youth and the current wave, there are also very distinctive features this time. These days, the Kurdish population asks for adequate electricity, a moderate education system and health care services. They demand more construction on the roads and economic improvement, as well as the rule of law and transparent budgets. In short, that means bridging the huge gap between the masses and the upper class.

Shamal Abubakir, assistant lecturer at the University of Human Development, believes that the tendency of increasing migration can be clearly identified both on the ground and online.

“As youth make out a great proportion of the Kurdish population, with their diverse inclinations, abilities, levels of education, and so on, and as they seem to be the most active people on internet and social media, their direction and any shift in their group would be strongly apparent on media and even in society, as well. Lack of many essential survival and dignity needs would push them to harshly think about migration, like the lack of job opportunities, Kurdish border security especially because of ISIS and Iraqi militias, no hope or clear vision of better life conditions and better local political and administrative systems that would secure a sense of equity or better possible justice to all. Finally, the lack of cultural native stability brought by a large number of locally displaced Iraqi people living and haphazardly mixing into the city, without feasible regulations or acceptance.”

Abubakir adds, “above all, one would intuitively convict some powerful Kurds for keeping silent, as on one hand there is a kind of facilitation or negligence that make it easy logistically for youth to leave. On the other hand, those powerful bodies deepen hopelessness among the youth by implying that even the opposition figures and parties would not be appealed to help in solving (their problems), claiming that they are also part of the current system, which deeply hurts youth who have voted for opposition parties. Till the moment when the monitoring system and transparency dominate the public, political, and governmental domains, such a harsh tendency to migrate as soon as possible would be kicking in the bosom of (young) Kurds, unfortunately.”

With the formation of the eighth cabinet of the KRG and the participation of the then three opposition parties, namely, Gorran Movement, Kurdistan Islamic Union and Kurdistan Islamic Group, the youth had a slight hope for change. But a year has passed without any tangible change or development. In reality, the economic situation has deteriorated even more.

Although some senior Kurdish politicians usually accuse the Kurdish youth of being unpatriotic or that they lack a sense of nationalism, their broad based government has changed almost nothing on the ground.

According to Mohammed Shareefauthor of The United States, Iraq and the Kurds: Shock, Awe and Aftermath, this new wave of migration by Kurdish youth demonstrates a lack of confidence and huge disappointment with the current governing system in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

“Scarce job opportunities, poverty and lack of social justice have helped aggravate this sentiment. The KRG failed to instill in the youth of Kurdistan the necessary confidence needed. I would attribute this primarily to a very poor private sector that has not yet seen any considerable progress, (though it is) the only sector with the potential to accommodate all the skills, talents and energy of all or at least most of the youth. The disenchantment and disillusionment of the young citizens of Kurdistan with the KRG is also largely associated with unrealistic expectations. There seems to be a mistaken understanding in Kurdistan that the state is entirely responsible for the welfare of its citizens and laziness has unfortunately become a national right. We could also make the argument that this mindset has been nurtured and encouraged by the government and the major political parties where merit, hard work and innovation has very little value and where nepotism and cronyism has become the norm. If this phenomenon is to change, the KRG must embark on the building of effective and efficient institutions of government where sound economic policies are pursued and talented young individuals are groomed as the next generation of Kurdistan’s leaders.”

In order for the KRG officials to overcome and find solutions for this new trend, they need to integrate more youth into the social and political decision-making process and find job opportunities based on professionalism and not favoritism or political affiliation.

This piece was first published by Your Middle East