Why hundreds of Iraqi Kurds threat their lives to reach Europe

Asos Hassan is amongst hundreds of individuals from the semi-autonomous Kurdish area of northern Iraq who’ve risked their lives making an attempt to reach Europe this yr.

Desperate to flee financial hardship and political repression, the 28-year-old college graduate from Koya, a city positioned east of the capital Erbil, has twice tried to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece, however was deported by Turkish authorities.

Despite the failed makes an attempt, he plans to return to Turkey and maintain making an attempt till he reaches his vacation spot.

“I will keep at it even if I get deported dozens of times,” mentioned Hassan. “I’d rather die than continue living this miserable life,” he added, explaining he has struggled to search out employment for years and feels hopeless concerning the future.

Like Hassan, Kamaran Aziz, a 21-year-old from Halabja, tried to reach Europe by means of Belarus however was deported by native authorities when his visa expired final week.

Aziz paid Kurdish smugglers $6,000 to make the journey however as a substitute discovered himself detained and overwhelmed by Belarusian border police earlier than they compelled him home. Aziz instructed Al Jazeera he would quite die making an attempt once more than keep within the Kurdish area.

Many of the nearly 30 individuals who misplaced their lives making an attempt to cross the English Channel final week had been from the Kurdish area.

Iraqi Kurds have additionally died on the border between Belarus and Poland as a whole lot extra stay stranded in sub-zero temperatures whereas making an attempt to cross into the European Union.

These tragic occasions have highlighted the rising wave of migration out of the Kurdish area and left many questioning why individuals would undertake such perilous journeys to depart an space wealthy in oil assets and lengthy hailed as a haven of stability and a mannequin of improvement for the remainder of the nation.

Men attend a condolence ceremony for Iraqi Kurdish Maryam Nuri Hama Amin who drowned within the English Channel [File: Safin Hamed/AFP]

Corruption, repression, poverty

Like most Kurdish emigrants, the 2 younger males complained about excessive unemployment, unpaid salaries, widespread corruption, poor public providers, and patronage networks linked to 2 principal households and their political events which have shared energy of the area for many years.

“It’s impossible to find a job unless you’ve connections with the ruling elite,” mentioned Hassan. “And if you try to call for your civil rights or participate in peaceful demonstrations, you just get fired at with live bullets.”

The Kurdish area, which is dominated by the Barzani and Talabani households and their Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union Kurdistan (PUK), has seen an growing variety of protests over the previous few years.

Thousands of scholars from Sulaimaniyah took to the streets for a number of days final month demanding the reinstatement of a month-to-month stipend that was lower seven years in the past. The protests turned violent after riot police confronted the scholars and used reside rounds to disperse the crowds.

Smaller protests unfold to different cities within the Kurdish area, together with Erbil, Halabja, Kalar and Koya, and solidarity demonstrations passed off in Baghdad.

Earlier this yr, the United Nations denounced “arbitrary arrests”, unfair trials and “intimidation of journalists, activists and protesters” within the area.

Riot police attempt to disperse a protest by college college students near Sulaimaniyah [File: Shwan Mohammed/AFP]

Growing wave of migration

According to Ari Jalal, head of the Sulaymaniyah-based Summit Foundation for Refugees and Displaced Affairs, at the very least 40,000 Iraqis left the nation for the reason that starting of 2021, 70 % of whom got here from the Kurdish area.

Jalal mentioned migration out of Iraq has been on the rise for the reason that 1990s, but it surely slowed following the US-led invasion in 2003, earlier than growing once more with the rise of ISIL (ISIS) in 2014.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has blamed the rising variety of individuals transferring out of the Kurdish area on the inflow of internally displaced individuals from throughout Iraq after ISIL took over giant swaths of the nation’s north in 2014, and on decades-long tensions between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The PKK, listed as a terrorist group by a lot of the worldwide group, has been utilizing Iraq’s northern mountains as a springboard for its rise up towards Turkey. The Turkish military repeatedly conducts cross-border operations and air assaults towards the PKK in northern Iraq.

In a press release final week, Dindar Zebari, KRG coordinator for worldwide advocacy, mentioned the entry of nearly 700,000 internally displaced individuals into the area from different components of Iraq has been a supply of frustration for Iraqi Kurds, making many “grow a tendency to flee the country”.

He added a whole lot of villages in bordering areas the place PKK fighters have clashed with Turkey turning into abandoned additionally added to the rise in migration.

“Those who are migrating are telling false stories about living conditions in the Kurdistan Region and are being exploited … to tarnish the region’s reputation,” he instructed Al Jazeera. He mentioned smugglers in search of materials achieve had been additionally in charge.

Erbil has labored intently with Baghdad to repatriate a whole lot of Kurdish refugees stranded in Europe. It denies forcing its residents to return.

Protesters gesture throughout an illustration on the Azadi Park within the centre of Sulaimaniyah in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish area [File: Shwan Mohammed/AFP]

‘Source of embarrassment’

But analysts mentioned the true causes behind Kurdish migration had been unrelated to the federal government’s evaluation.

“The main problem is the corruption, repression of freedoms and civil liberties, and lack of employment,” mentioned impartial Kurdish analyst Mahmoud Kurdi.

He denied the inflow of internally displaced individuals (IDP) or tensions between Turkey and the PKK, which “affect small villages where only a few hundred people live” had been in charge.

“People are growing tired with poverty and unemployment. Even redevelopment has been limited to major cities like Erbil and Sulaimaniyah, but most areas remain poor, looking closer to Sadr City,” he added, referring to one of the disadvantaged areas in Baghdad.

Karim Nouri, deputy minister of migration and displacement in Iraq’s central authorities, agreed. “The wave of migration out of the Kurdish region is because young people are finding it difficult to live freely and decently.”

The semi-autonomous area, identified for its flashy tower blocks and open inexperienced areas, has repeatedly been criticised for limiting freedom of expression and, not too long ago, the persevering with refugee disaster alongside the Belarus-Poland border has shed additional mild on rising corruption, poverty, and monetary mismanagement.

According to Sulaymaniyah-based analyst Lawan Othman, the migrant disaster has been a “source of huge embarrassment for the KRG”.

“Whether it’s the migration issue or recent protests, all these events are linked to a wider sense of frustration among Kurdish people,” mentioned Othman.

“They reflect Kurdish people’s disapproval and rejection of their government and how it’s breached their sense of dignity and basic civil rights,” he added.

Dana Taib Menmy contributed to this report from Sulaimaniyah