By Sarkawt Shamsuldeen
WASHINGTON,— War and persecution are cited as the main reasons behind the flow of refugees, especially from countries such as Iraq and Syria. However, factors motivating young Kurdish people and families to risk their lives to reach European countries are not wars or persecutions by terrorist organizations. According to analysts, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) is facing many challenges. But the threat of the Islamic State, or IS, is a minor one, at least for young people leaving the region for Europe.
Before the current crisis, Western media coverage of Kurdistan focused on economic prosperity and stable security.
– Iraq’s Kurdish Region Sees Economic Boom (VOA, 2012)
– Kurdistan: In the ‘other Dubai’, an economic boom (The Star, 2012)
– Iraqi Kurdistan’s economic revival (BBC, 2013)
– Kurdistan: the other Iraq (The Washington Post, 2011)
Apparently, the Kurdish honeymoon ended,
The Western media were obsessed with fancy titles when referring to Iraqi Kurdistan, but these words are irrelevant these days. According to Kurdistan Parliament’s financial committee, the KRG’s debt ceiling reached $17 billion in 2014 and the region’s annual budget drastically decreased to $3 billion from $12 billion in 2013.
The threat of IS is still imminent to the region, but IS is not on the offensive along Kurdish borders. The Peshmerga have been successful in regaining control of most of the disputed and Kurdish-populated territories, except for Sinjar district. The region is now enjoying international support to enhance its military capacity. Unlike the Iraqi Army, Peshmerga have the trust of the Kurdish people as well as the West. However, reports show that thousands of Iraqi Kurds left to Europe in less than six months.
The Kurdish media have been reporting on the new flow of young Kurds who left the region over the past six months. I have personally received dozens of messages, phone calls, and emails from my fellow Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan. These are mostly people I don’t know, but they know me or at least know where I live due to my job as NRT’s Washington Bureau Chief. They all seek my advice on how to get to the United States or how to get a U.S. visa. They also ask if there is any chance to get to Canada as rumors have convinced them that the Canadian Government welcomes refugees “easily.”
On September 2, I was on NRT’s Panorama show with two other colleagues, Barzan Hassan from Belgium and Sarhang Hars from London. Barzan was covering the plight of refugees in Belgium. He was surrounded by refugees who arrived in the country over several days. They were all from Iraqi Kurdistan. Barzan turned the mic to a few of them to express their views on why they chose to leave their country.
They appeared to be very tired and spoke with anger. “It was very easy to arrive here. It took me only 35 days, and it is very safe,” said one of the refugees talking to the NRT correspondent in Belgium. “I encourage everyone to leave Kurdistan because there is no life there, no basic services, no hope for a better life,” he added.
There was another individual who who was chanting for Europe in front of the camera. “Long live Europe, long live Europe!” he said. Barzan also talked about the severe situation in the camps, and that most of the refugees are not in good condition, but they still prefer to stay there and seek asylum.
After the show,
I spoke to Barzan about the reality on the ground. He told me that the people who left Kurdistan were very angry and ready to face death rather than stay in the region. He told me that none of these individuals mentioned IS as the main reason for leaving the country. “They all talk about the failure of the political system (e.g., the crisis of the Kurdistan Presidency), lack of basic services, unemployment, and a lack of anti-corruption efforts,” Barzan said. The difference in this new generation of Kurdistan’s immigrants to the West is that the majority of these people are educated and newly graduated youth. “They are not people who can’t work, but they all have either a degree and/or high skills and can compete in the new market. Some of them were former government employees,” Barzan concluded.
According to the informal statistics, 40% of Kurdish students who study in the United States have sought asylum or found other ways to stay in the country. I spoke to few of them via phone, Facebook and other means. These are students who are sponsored either by the government or their families to study in the U.S. They want to stay because they believe there is no “life” in that part of the world. “What am I going to do there? Government employees are not getting paid for three months; there is zero chance that I will get hired, let alone convenient pay,” 28-year-old Ashton (Name changed for security) said. Ashton is studying computer science in the U.S. He was frustrated about the threat of IS as well. “IS is just a few miles away from Erbil. I am from the town of Makhmour, and it is under IS rocket-fire everyday,” he added. “Am I going to go back to Makhmour to be killed or slaughtered by IS at any time? Of course no,” he concluded.
By Sarkawt Shamsuldeen