The Kurdistan Story - Iraq

The notion of repatriation is based on returning from one existing state to another. When we visited Iraqi Kurdistan and Kurdish regions of Turkey, we began to see the different ways that lacking a state shapes these policies. Ever since the US invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Kurdish regions of Northern Iraq have gained a level of autonomy that all but makes them a country unto themselves.

A compound near Dohuk in Northern Iraq that was seized from Saddam Hussein in 1996. It is currently guarded by Peshmerga fighters against creeping IS influence along the northern border with Turkey.

A compound near Dohuk in Northern Iraq that was seized from Saddam Hussein in 1996. It is currently guarded by Peshmerga fighters against creeping IS influence along the northern border with Turkey.

Though Kurdish regions are internationally considered safe, Mosul, Kirkuk and Baghdad (only a few hours’ drive away) are still being cleared of rubble and human remains, while security situation remains tense.

Though Kurdish regions are internationally considered safe, Mosul, Kirkuk and Baghdad (only a few hours’ drive away) are still being cleared of rubble and human remains, while security situation remains tense.

Up until Mosul fell to IS in 2004, Erbil (the capitol of Iraqi Kurdistan) had been hedged as the next Dubai, with lofty development projects and a rising middle class. As IS fighters grew ever nearer, the economy crashed and people began to plan their escape routes, many of them heading to Europe.

One such plan was formulated by Honer, whom we met and spent time with in Erbil, during parliamentary elections in October 2018. Based on the unfounded promises of smugglers and a desperate urge to see the outside world (Iraqi passport holders have very limited visa application options), he embarked on a gruelling journey that led him to Germany, where his asylum application was duly rejected.

Honer watches a local football game taking place outside one of the voting stations in Erbil, Iraq.

Honer watches a local football game taking place outside one of the voting stations in Erbil, Iraq.

The basis on which asylum is granted is actually quite narrow, persecution being the primary criteria. Famine, environmental disaster and economic collapse, for instance, don’t qualify you. Honer and many asylum seekers looking for opportunity abroad don’t tend to know these details, and end up in difficult situations abroad, having depleted all their assets to be stuck in country likely to deport or repatriate them, because cities like Erbil are considered safe to be sent back to.

Many European countries, Germany included, offer cash grants incentivising people to withdraw their asylum claims and go home. The offers range in price and are meant to cover the costs of transportation and restarting a life in their country of origin. Germany has also opened reintegration and job training centres in various cities to help further.

Since these programmes were initiated, more than 666,000 persons from all over the world have received financial or organizational assistance to return voluntarily to their country of origin or move to a third country willing to take them in. In 2016, 54,000 took up the offer, up from 35,000 in 2015 and 13,000 in 2014.

You find all information about these programmes at www.ReturningfromGermany.de 

Honer has settled back into life in Kurdistan. He’s married and has new born baby, and spends a notable amount of his time putting on talks about the misconceptions surrounding the opportunities in Europe.

Kurdistan_Honer_00015.jpg
Kurdistan_Honer_00016.jpg

Despite his own testimonies, every one of his friends is convinced that it can still be done, and would go through the same journey in a heartbeat if they had the money to pay the smugglers, who continue peddling stories of endless jobs, free housing and social benefits to all who enter.

Honer and his friends chat in the citadel overlooking Erbil.

Honer and his friends chat in the citadel overlooking Erbil.

Meanwhile in Soran, a small town just along the border with the Iranian Kurdish regions lives Kazo, who fled from Iran while out on bail after spending 6 months in prison for being caught with Kurdish paraphernalia. A trained broadband technician and father of three, he works at the local mobile phone shop. Returning to Iran is not an option for him.

Kazo plays with his son and daughter in their kitchen in Soran, Iraq.

Kazo plays with his son and daughter in their kitchen in Soran, Iraq.

Soran is also home to an IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp for Yazidis, who fled their home in Sinjar when IS ran through it in 2014. Sinjar is just another example of the complex social and ethnic framework of Iraq, once home to a reclusive community who speak their own language and practice their own religion.

181017_YazidiFamily_A_00003.JPG
181017_YazidiFamily_A_00001.JPG

While the Kurdish government is urging their return to Sinjar, many who go find a place that is still insecure, with kidnappings, violence, lack of drinking water, closed down schools and no economic prospects. Almost all who attempt this return end back in the cinderblock housing in Soran.

YazidiCamp_07.jpg
Anna Dobos