Problematising current mass migration in the Iraqi Kurdistan region

2 years agoANALYSIS

By Dr. Ali Zalme

The younger generation's migration (age 18 to 28) from Iraqi Kurdistan to Europe and North America has become a significant issue that cannot be overlooked any longer. It is clear that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its relevant agencies are only focusing on the immigration of those who have left their homes due to war and political instability from Iraq and neighbouring countries. These include Syrian and Kurdish Iranian refugees, as well as those Arab families from central and southern Iraq, who have resided in displacement camps or are distributed across cities and towns within the Region. Unfortunately, this is also the main focus of research studies in this field.
The research that has been carried out on the displacement issue in the KRG controlled areas is precisely restricted to incoming migration. This is because the funding to conduct these studies mainly comes from UNHCR, charity organizations, and foreign universities. Ultimately, their objective is to provide humanitarian aid to those who most need it (i.e., incoming migration to the KRG), or at least to follow formula policies that help western powers better deal with the phenomena.  In contrast, there is a lack of government policy towards the mass migration particularly of young people out of the Region. Furthermore, the lack of official statistics from the government regarding how many people have migrated, who have made the journey safely to Europe, and those who have unfortunately lost their lives, has made the issue even more complicated.
The time has come to pay attention to the outgoing migration of youth from the Kurdistan Region. I ask that the issue be taken seriously. Non-official figures from local media estimate that 27,000 people, mostly young, crossed into Europe in 2020. This should cause concern for a relatively small population like Iraqi Kurdistan as this has been continued for many years and is increasing. The migration of great numbers of young people based on a personal whim and mostly to western European countries has significant consequences for both countries of origins and country of settlement. The situation in Iraqi Kurdistan is disappointing - it appears that corruption, youth unemployment, inequality and political instability are the main reasons behind youth migration in the region.
Firstly, it is an issue of economic sustainability and employability, as the majority of those leaving the country are between 18 and 30 years old. This age range is considered the age of productivity and creativity in any given society and important for dynamic and future prosperity. Leaving this matter to personal choice owing to the government's lack of policy to tackle mass and random migration undoubtedly questions the KRG's fate. Secondly, it is a demographic problem as young males are traveling abroad permanently in significant numbers while young females remain in the country.  This has consequences such as imbalanced population and family unsustainabilities. Thirdly, it is a problem from an education point of view, as the state provides free education for 16 years to citizens, hoping that they will graduate and contribute to society. Instead,these youths are leaving the country to voluntarily contribute to a different society. Undoubtedly this is the most serious government failure and disorientation. Fourthly, a younger generation's disengagement from political activity and decision-making in the society makes the gap deeper between the political elite, who have dominated for decades in the region, and ordinary citizens. As a result, any political will to change and reform becomes unrealistic and difficult to achieve. Thus, this can be seen as a generational discontinuity under the KRG’s semi-autonomous administration and an issue of belonging by the younger generation. This can be said for the population under the control of the federal Iraqi government as well. From unofficial contacts and discussions with numbers of young people who live in Iraqi Kurdistan via various social media platforms, I am convinced that unfortunately the only dream for them is to reach Europe. “I don’t feel I belong here,” a young man told me without any hesitation, a feeling echoing among the youth everywhere in the Kurdistan Region.
Finally, it is a human problem because the whole journey is fraught with both physical and mental challenges that a young illegal traveller will face. The route has been described by eyewitnesses as a “huge risk” and a “matter of life and death.” According to local media, 32 refugees from the Kurdistan Region drowned in the Mediterranean last year. A recent tightening of border controls by European countries has pushed many vulnerable refugees into the hands of smugglers and traffickers and they will face different types of abuse and exploitation.  Even then, the exploitation will continue when they reach one of the European countries that  is supposed to be safe. For example, in a country like the United Kingdom, where claiming asylum is becoming even more difficult due to policy changes after Brexit and in particular during the pandemic, asylum seekers must wait longer until their case to determine by the Home Office, during which they are often poorly supported and without sufficient financial means. This renders them more vulnerable to further exploitation.

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