Academic journal article Human Organization

Asylum Seekers / Patron Seekers: Interpreting Iraqi Kurdish Migration

Academic journal article Human Organization

Asylum Seekers / Patron Seekers: Interpreting Iraqi Kurdish Migration

Article excerpt

This article examines the phenomenon of Iraqi Kurdish out-migration to the West between 1991 and 2003. It argues that migrants looked to the West and Westerners as potential patrons and were incited to migrate by their conceptualizations of patronage and clientage roles. Iraqi Kurdish migrants to the West constituted one of the largest flows of asylum-seeking clandestine migrants in the world by the late 1990s. European governments first accepted their asylum claims as "legitimate," but later accused the migrants of being a "problem" and ceased granting asylum to most applicants. This article demonstrates how participants in the Iraqi Kurdish body politic posture themselves as clients and formulate the ideal roles of patrons in the migration process based on prior experience as clients of the state, tribal leaders, and other figures. Patronage and clientage roles provide both an interpretive frame and a motivator for the act of migrating.

Key words: migration, patronage, clientage, Kurds, Iraq

In late September 1998,1 was in an Iraqi Kurdish village interviewing people about their migration histories. I sat on floor cushions across from the interviewee, his wife, and their three adolescent children. As many as fifteen other people surrounded us, listening to the interview and providing good-humored commentary. We were in one of the houses belonging to lineagemates of the village agha (tribal chief/landlord), which, as the largest and most comfortable house, served as a gathering place for the whole village.

I asked the interviewee how he and his family had come to be fellahin (peasants) in this village. He recounted a series of migrations within a ninety-kilometer-wide area beginning four generations previous with his patrilineal ancestor, who fled a blood feud in one tribal territory and settled in another. Eventually, he told us, "My father migrated in 1957 alone, without his brothers, to this village." I probed as to his reasons for coming "alone" (later I learned that his wife had been with him) to a place where he had no lineagemates-an indicator of a compelling motive in very patrilineal and patrilocal Kurdish society. He seemed reluctant to divulge any details. Finally he told us that his father had come because of the agha, of whom he said, "I will take refuge under the lion's shadow; it's fine if he eats me." The onlookers-agha and fellahin lineage-members alike-nodded knowingly, and the interviewee offered no further explanation.

In Kurdish folk sensibilities, a lion represents power, strength, and leadership. A powerful agha is often described as "a lion." Since the agha granted his father refuge, the interviewee and his family had been fellahin, peasant clients of the agha's lineage. If the agha's lineage exploited him, I did not learn directly of it apart from the veiled reference to being eaten. That the agha extended mercy, protected and provided for him went without saying; his ongoing presence (albeit with a period away while the village was temporarily occupied by Arab settlers during the Iraqi government's forced "Arabization" campaign), as well as other aspects of their relationship, such as his good standing as a sharecropper on the agha's land and the inter-personal warmth that I observed between members of the two lineages, were testimony to that.

Historical and Theoretical Context

Between 1991 and 2003 a vigorous debate centered around one of the world's major migration flows, that of ethnic Kurds leaving Iraqi Kurdistan (the Kurdish-dominated part of Iraq) for the West.1 The debate, which took place mainly among European policy-makers but that made its way as well into Western popular consciousness, hinged on whether Kurdish migrants should be cast as ultimately persecuted and thus deserving of and legally entitled to asylum, or ultimately as "economic migrants" undeserving of and not legally entitled to asylum. It yielded shrill evaluations, for example, "Western European countries are struggling to preserve their plans for a passport-free zone in the continent in the face of a sudden surge in the number of Kurdish refugees seeking asylum in Italy" (Islam 1998). …

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