Why thousands of Iraqi Kurds risk their lives to reach Europe

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Iraqi Kurds complain of high unemployment, widespread corruption, poor services and protection networks to make up for their growing despair.

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Asos Hasan is among thousands of people in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq who have risked their lives trying to reach Europe this year.


Desperate to escape economic hardship and political repression, the 28-year-old university graduate from Koya, a town east of the capital Erbil, twice tried to cross the Aegean Sea but was deported by Turkish authorities.

Despite unsuccessful attempts, he plans to return to Turkey and will keep trying until he reaches his destination.

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“I will continue to do this, even if I am deported dozens of times,” Hassan said. “I would rather die than continue this miserable life,” he said, explaining that he has struggled to find employment for years and feels hopeless about the future.

Like Hassan, 21-year-old Kamran Aziz from Halabja tried to reach Europe via Belarus but was deported by local authorities when his visa expired last week.

Aziz paid Kurdish smugglers $6,000 to travel, but instead found himself detained and beaten by the Belarusian border police, before they took him home. Aziz told Al Jazeera that he would rather die trying again than stay in Kurdish territory.

Many of the nearly 30 people who lost their lives trying to cross the English Channel last week were from the Kurdish region.

Iraqi Kurds have also been killed on the border between Belarus and Poland as hundreds more are trapped in sub-zero temperatures while trying to cross into the European Union.

These tragic events have sparked a growing wave of exodus from the Kurdish region and have left many wondering why people would take such a dangerous journey to leave the region rich in oil resources and long a haven of stability and development for the rest. to be honored as a model. of the country.

People attend a mourning ceremony for Iraqi Kurdish Maryam Noori Hama Amin who drowned in the English Channel [File: Safin Hamed/AFP]

corruption, oppression, poverty

Like most Kurdish immigrants, the two youths complained about high unemployment, unpaid wages, widespread corruption, poor public services and protection networks linked to the two main families and their political parties, who have shared power in the region for decades.

“It’s impossible to get a job unless you have ties with the ruling elite,” Hassan said. “And if you try to call for your civil rights or take part in peaceful demonstrations, you just get gunned down.”

The Kurdish region, which is dominated by the Barzani and Talabani families and their Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union Kurdistan (PUK), has seen an increase in the number of protests over the past few years.

Thousands of Sulaymaniyah’s students took to the streets for several days last month to demand the restoration of monthly stipends that were cut seven years ago. The protests turned violent when riot police confronted the students and used live rounds to disperse the crowd.

Small protests spread to other cities in the Kurdish region, including Erbil, Halabja, Kalar and Koya, and solidarity demonstrations took place in Baghdad.

Earlier this year, the United Nations condemned “arbitrary arrests”, unfair trials and “intimidation of journalists, activists and protesters” in the region.

Riot police try to disperse university students’ protest near Sulaimaniyah [File: Shwan Mohammed/AFP]

rising wave of migration

At least 40,000 Iraqis left the country since early 2021, 70 percent of whom came from the Kurdish region, according to Ari Jalal, head of the Sulaymaniyah-based Summit Foundation for Refugee and Displaced Affairs.

Jalal said exodus from Iraq has been increasing since the 1990s, but slowed after the US-led invasion in 2003, before rising again in 2014 with the rise of ISIL.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has blamed the influx of internally displaced people from across Iraq for the growing number of people moving out of Kurdish territory, when ISIL took over the country’s north in 2014. , and Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) amid decades-long tensions.

The PKK, listed as a terrorist group by most of the international community, is using Iraq’s northern mountains as a springboard for an insurgency against Turkey. The Turkish military regularly conducts cross-border operations and airstrikes against the PKK in northern Iraq.

In a statement last week, Dinder Zebri, the KRG coordinator for international advocacy, said the entry of some 700,000 internally displaced people from other parts of Iraq into the region has been a source of despair for Iraqi Kurds, prompting many “to flee”. The trend has developed in the country”.

They linked hundreds of villages along the border areas where PKK fighters are fighting with Turkey, which are becoming uninhabited, adding to the increase in migration.

“Those who are migrating are telling false stories about the living conditions in the Kurdistan region and are being exploited … to tarnish the reputation of the region,” he told Al Jazeera. He said that smugglers in search of material gains are also responsible for this.

Erbil has worked closely with Baghdad to bring back hundreds of Kurdish refugees stranded in Europe. It refuses to force its citizens to return.

Protesters gesture during a demonstration at Azadi Park in the center of Sulaimaniyah in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region [File: Shwan Mohammed/AFP]

‘Source of embarrassment’

But analysts said the real reasons behind the Kurdish migration were unrelated to the government’s analysis.

“The main problems are corruption, suppression of freedoms and civil liberties, and lack of employment,” said independent Kurdish analyst Mahmoud Kurdi.

He denied internally displaced people (IDPs) or tensions between Turkey and the PKK, which “affect small villages where only a few hundred people live”, were to blame.

“People are getting tired of poverty and unemployment. Even redevelopment has been limited to major cities such as Erbil and Sulaimaniyah, but looking closer to the city of Sadar, most of the area remains poor,” he said, referring to one of Baghdad’s most deprived areas.

Karim Nouri, Deputy Minister for Migration and Displacement in Iraq’s central government, agreed. “The wave of exodus from the Kurdish region is because young people are finding it difficult to live independently and decently.”

The semi-autonomous region, known for its attractive tower blocks and open green spaces, has been regularly criticized for restricting freedom of expression and, most recently, the ongoing refugee crisis at the Belarus-Poland border. has shed more light on the increasing corruption, poverty. and financial mismanagement.

According to Sulaymaniyah-based analyst Lon Othman, the migrant crisis has been “a source of enormous embarrassment for KRG”.

“Whether it is the issue of migration or the recent protests, all these incidents are linked to a widespread sense of despair among the Kurdish people,” Othman said.

“They reflect the rejection of the Kurdish people and their government and how this is a violation of their sense of dignity and basic civil rights,” he said.

Dana Tayyab Menami contributed to this report by Sulaimaniyah


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