Exodus: Many Thousands of Kurds Are Fleeing Their Homeland for the Prospect of New Opportunities and the Dream of a Better Life in Western Europe. (Kurdistan)

By Kutschera, Chris | The Middle East, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Exodus: Many Thousands of Kurds Are Fleeing Their Homeland for the Prospect of New Opportunities and the Dream of a Better Life in Western Europe. (Kurdistan)


Kutschera, Chris, The Middle East


During the 1980s, the emigration of Kurds was limited to a small number of intellectuals and political activists, who settled in England, Sweden, and to a lesser degree France. In recent years that trickle has developed into a mass exodus with tens of thousands of Kurds now emigrating every year.

This phenomenon is all the more paradoxical since, for the first time in their tormented history, most Iraqi Kurds are safe from the oppression of Baghdad.

In the de facto autonomous Kurdish region that stretches from the Syrian border to the Iranian border and is home to 3.5 million people, the Kurds are free to run their own affairs. Indeed, the situation of the Kurds has improved to the extent that some European countries, including Sweden and Holland, have decided to refuse entry to future asylum seekers from Iraqi Kurdistan.

But the arrival, every week or so, of rusty, old freighters unloading their cargoes of Kurdish refugees on the shores of Italy and Greece, are testament to the fact that life is not normal in Iraqi Kurdistan. And my investigations show that although some young Kurds are motivated by improving their economic position, the majority want to emigrate for political reasons.

The fear that Saddam Hussein's armed forces, and especially his security services, could return to Kurdistan after an absence of 10 years is widespread. The Anfal campaign of 1988, which claimed 180,000 victims and the chemical bombing of Halabja, in March the same year, which killed more than 5,000 people, have not been forgotten. The Kurds are acutely aware that the weapons of Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani's peshmergas are no match for Saddam Hussein's tanks and helicopters. And if the Iraqi leader decides to invade Kurdistan again, they will have no choice but to flee for their lives to the borders of Turkey and Iran, as they did during the tragic exodus of 1991.

Conflicts between Kurdish factions also play an important role in stoking the fires of discontent. Relations between the two main Kurdish parties, Massoud Barzani's KDP and Jalal Talabani's PUK, have recently improved but Kurdistan is still de facto partitioned into two zones, three if one includes the area controlled by Islamists. "Due to the partition of Kurdistan, my life is in the hands of anybody and everybody", says a young Kurd from Halabja, who wants out. "One day there is a skirmish between the Islamists and PUK, another time, between PUK and KDP or even between PUK and PKK (Abdullah Ocalan's party, now called KADEK). It is easier for me to go to Iran or to Baghdad than to Erbil (a city controlled by the KDP), where I am constantly stopped at check-points by peshmergas who suspect I am a spy or intent on sabotage".

The Kurdish region has no international status--although it is protected by US and British planes based in Turkey. Therefore, officially, it is still part of Iraq. Its inhabitants cannot have a passport, unless they buy a fake one from a smuggler "We live in a big prison", says a Christian Kurd from Zakho, "It has been like this for 10 years, legally I can not leave here; I cannot travel, I have no identity".

For all these reasons, life in Iraqi Kurdistan is considered hopeless and young Kurds are desperate to flee. "If a European country declared its borders open to Kurds wishing to emigrate with their families, Kurdistan would be an empty country, less than 2% would stay", claims a young Iraqi Kurd.

Initially, a phenomenon dominated by men, emigration is becoming an increasingly popular choice of Kurdish women. While few have arrived in western Europe, where most of them dream of settling eventually, a number have crossed the first border point and reached Turkey. A "Kurdish Womens Defence Committee" linked to the "Workers Iraqi Communist Party" (WICP), a small Iraqi Kurdish party, has registered about 30 in Ankara alone. …

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