Why are Iraqi Kurds migrating?
The new wave of Iraqi Kurds migrating to Europe is the highest since the Kurdish civil war in the 1990s. However, the data on migration in 2021 are incomplete due to the irregular ways in which people are migrating, making the collection of credible numbers almost impossible. The only way to measure is the sheer volume that has been leaving each village and town weekly. I have been following this on Kurdish Facebook for much of 2021, and the numbers are greater than reported. Another gauge is the two incidents that gained much media attention: the migration crisis on the Belarus border with the EU, and the Channel tragedy (which saw the largest number of migrants drowned in a single incident on that body of water). In both cases, the largest number of migrants, by far, were Iraqi Kurds. However, there is no way to know the precise number because even when the Iraqi Kurds reach their destination and seek asylum, they usually claim to be either Iranian or Syrian.
The reasons for Iraqi Kurds migrating are multifaceted. Some are outside the KRG’s control, but most are internal and created by dysfunction within the KRG.
Five reasons Iraqi Kurds are migrating to Europe:
1. Trauma: this is not trauma resulting from a lack of security as the region is sadly accustomed to this. This is the trauma arising from a decade in which the people of the region have seen their fortunes turned upside down in under a decade. Only eight years ago, Iraqi Kurdistan was flourishing both economically and politically. From 2005 to 2013, nearly $100B poured to the region from the central Iraqi government – with a mere five million population – combined with billions of outside investments. The region was doing so well that there was a reverse migration of Kurdish diaspora to the region – the first in its history. Around this time, the new opposition movement Gorran (or Change) gained prominence, claiming nearly 25% of the seats in the regional parliament. The movement offered hope for a better future to the region’s disenfranchised and pushed the boundaries of freedoms and civil rights in the region.
Within just six years, the region’s fortunes slumped dramatically. By 2014 the KRG was unable to pay its civil servants. In the same year, the Iraqi government cut the region’s budget in response to the KRG selling its oil independent from Baghdad in a bid to gain ‘economic independence’. In the same year, the rise of the Islamic State group led most foreign investors to flee the KRG, and a wave of Internally Displaced People further weakened the region. In 2017, the Iraqi Kurdish leaders pushed forward with a referendum for Kurdistan’s independence, leading to a further backlash against the region. Nearly half of the territory the KRG considered its own was lost to the Iraqi government. Meanwhile, something more seismic was taking place: for the first time in the region’s 30-year-old history, the transition to the next generation of the ruling Barzani and Talabani families took place. A new generation, who have lived and studied in luxury abroad most of their adult lives and have no common touch with ordinary people, and lack the legitimacy earned by the struggle against the former Iraqi regime.
After years of overpromising, the leaders’ guarantees of prosperity through selling their own oil never materialised. The ruling families and their younger members have become extremely wealthy, however. Many Iraqi Kurds have come to believe the ‘economic independence’ was designed for the elite to plunder the region’s wealth. After the abrupt slump of fortunes in 2014, people were still hopeful that things would return to the ‘golden days’. In 2019, when the new KRG cabinet led by Masrour Barzani assumed power, the promises of reform burnished this hope for some. By 2020 many realised not only that things won’t go back to pre-2014 levels, but that the worst was yet to come.
2. ‘The new style of governance’: The current economic misery began when the new KRG cabinet assumed power in 2019. A new fiscal and economic policy was adopted by the KRG prime minister Masrour Barzani, officially deviating from that of his predecessor Nechirvan Barzani (who also happens to be his cousin). The new model is premised on high taxation, aggressive privatisation, authoritarian governance, and eliminating nearly all social welfare. Since 2019, while household income and industrial output have stagnated, the government has increased taxes and service bills by 400% to over 1000%. This has led to nearly 70% of the region’s factories closing within just two years. While on paper, the new model is supposed to encourage private-sector driven growth, in reality, most entrepreneurs and private enterprises are driven out of business by the creation of hurdles. The majority of businesses I have talked to believe the government wants to drive them out of business to help certain companies monopolise each sector. These potential monopolies are often owned by members of the two ruling families or people close to them. Despite the deepening economic woes, very few dare to speak up. A climate of fear has been created by the arrest of an unprecedented number of journalists and activists since 2020. The once-promising opposition movements such as Gorran have been co-opted and are now part of the government. The government has created a climate, especially in Erbil and Duhok, where the cost of speaking up is too high for many to risk.
3. The complete collapse of trust in the region’s institutions: As the economic and political crises have deepened in the region, a myriad of smaller-scale incidents in the last six years has led to a near-complete collapse of trust in the region’s institutions, from the judiciary to education to healthcare. In the case of the judiciary, the system has become so dysfunctional that not only the political issues – the imprisonment of journalists where the PM ruled a group guilty before their trial, which was followed by their conviction – but even ‘small’ cases such as those of women seeking divorce to leave abusive relationships. In many petitions, one party may know the judge through tribal or familial ties.
4. Closing of doors of change: In this new climate of fear where the rule of law has dramatically declined, people have lost hope of a better future. The status quo in Iraqi Kurdistan is no longer sustainable. As Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci observes in his Prison Notebooks, “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Given the geopolitical reality of Kurdistan that it was built out of a no-fly zone supported by international powers and the influence of regional powerhouses Turkey and Iran, any change would have to come through a regional and international consensus.
The mass migration of the Iraqi Kurds – the greatest since the Kurdish civil war in 1996 – is only expected to increase in the coming months and years. Iraqi Kurdish migration for a better future is consistent with the rational-choice theory. The new KRG cabinet has pushed the boundaries and awakened people to how much worse things can get. So while people strive for a better future, many have concluded this better future cannot be realised in Iraqi Kurdistan anymore – for them, migration is preferable to the worst outcome they could face if they choose to stay. After all the doors for peaceful change were closed, mass migration is the people’s ultimate expression of resentment with the region’s trajectory.
5. Smuggling culture, ease of getting smuggled: Finally, the culture of smuggling is deeply-rooted within the Kurdish society due to the region’s geography and the division of Kurds across four countries. The old-age crossing between the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria has never stopped. This arose as a way to defy the boundaries imposed between the Kurdish communities in these countries. There are an abundance of easily accessible smugglers in Kurdistan and everyone knows someone who knows a smuggler. The ease of contacting smugglers has made the dream of reaching Europe much easier and more accessible than outsiders would believe.