As European dream fades, Iraqi Kurds return home
Newroz almost drowned in his quest for a better life in Europe, but when he reached the promised land, his dreams failed to materialize. After arriving in Germany in August, Newroz, who chose not to reveal his full name, was placed in a temporary refugee camp in Dortmund, where he must wait for his asylum application to be processed.
“I am going insane,” the 28-year-old Kurd told Al-Monitor via telephone from Germany. “The food is bad and I don’t know when I will get out of the camp.”
Newroz is one of hundreds of Kurds to have risked their lives and paid thousands of dollars to smugglers to get them from Iraq to Europe this year, only to find themselves no better off.
A growing number are now signing up to return to the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which helps migrants to return to their country of origin and provides some financial assistance through its Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration program.
Out of 1,372 who made the journey back to Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region, this year, 575 returned in September and October alone, according to data provided to Al-Monitor by Sandra Black, the IOM’s Iraq communications officer.
Having survived the journey on an overloaded boat that broke down in the Aegean Sea, leaving him and the other passengers stranded for 17 hours until they were rescued by the Greek coast guard, Newroz had expected to find work.
But like many young Kurds, once the adventure of getting to Europe was over, he faced the harsh reality of living as a migrant in an unwelcoming land. Kurds have migrated to Europe since 1975, fleeing conflict and hardship in Iraq, but the flow began to reverse after Saddam Hussein was toppled in the US-led invasion of 2003. The Kurdish region grew more prosperous just as the European economy began to suffer, and many Kurds began returning home. That trend came to an abrupt halt in 2014, when the Iraqi government cut funding to the region, sending its economy into decline. The global oil price drop — from over $100 per barrel to less than $50 — and war with the Islamic State brought Kurdistan to the verge of insolvency and sent thousands of Kurds on the journey to Europe.
Krekar Mohammed, a Kurdish journalist who left during the summer after he was allegedly threatened for his reporting in the Kurdistan Region, believes the conditions in the camp and the unrealistic expectations of the migrants are two main reasons why some have decided to return. ”For two months, I lived in one of the worst refugee camps [in Germany] … with 3,000 other migrants,” said Mohammed. “The food was bad and there was a long delay in processing the asylum applications … which made some migrants think about returning to their home countries.”
Back home, the problems that drove many young Kurds to leave are still there. Many of those who left in recent months cited widespread corruption, a culture of nepotism and internal political disputes that have exacerbated the economic crisis as reasons for leaving.
There is a “failure to address the problems of corruption and lack of transparency risks undermining prosperity and political stability in Iraqi Kurdistan,” warned a recent report prepared by Columbia University’s Peace-building and Rights program titled, “Task Force Report: State Building in Iraqi Kurdistan.” The authors of the report point to a “need to consolidate Iraqi Kurdistan’s democratic institutions and reduce the influence of families on political parties.”
Soran Amin is one of those migrants who arrived back in Kurdistan with several others last month. “I was hoping to make a better life for myself in Europe and make some money,” said Soran, who spent $4,500 to reach Germany and then spent several months traveling across the continent in hope of finding refuge, but to no avail.
The 29-year old told Al-Monitor he felt unwelcome in Europe, where the influx of migrants has been met with hostility by some. “There are many people who want to return to their home countries,” he said.
Others return to Kurdistan even before they embark on the journey from Turkey. Najdad Salam left Kirkuk in September and traveled to Turkey with his wife and two children. Salam said he is well off financially but he saw no future for his family in Iraq and Kurdistan. For two months, Salam stayed in Turkey, hoping to find a safe way to Europe, but his relatives who had already made it there spoke of terrible conditions in refugee camps. “I left Iraq because of the crisis there, but in Turkey I faced yet another crisis of how to reach Europe,” he said.
Finally, Salam decided to return after spending around $6,000 in Turkey. “Two of my relatives also returned, one from Germany and the other from Finland,” says Salam. “After hearing the stories of refugee camps in Europe I won’t go even if it cost as little as $2,000 to get there.”
The exodus to Europe is a manifestation of people’s frustration with the situation in Iraq and Kurdistan, but some of these migrants are making the journey home, where the conditions that forced them out have not changed. As the European Union and the countries along the migrant route try to stem the tide, those who have returned say fundamental reforms at home would be more effective than any barrier to leaving.