s terrorised women and children and male refugees/migrants/asylum seekers were trapped in a controlled zone along the Belarus-Poland border in recent days, living in sub-zero temperatures with few resources at their disposal, they were – and still are in many ways – being cynically treated as ‘pawns’ by various governments and supra-governmental entities to advance their own agendas.
Even as EU and Polish government representatives have accused the Belarus government of manufacturing a ‘migrant’ crisis along the Belarus-Poland border, it has been noted that “lawmakers in Warsaw recently legalised returning people to the country from which they tried to enter Poland without automatically giving them the right to apply for asylum. The Polish actions are considered illegal under international law, according to the UN refugee agency.”
Several reports have confirmed that many of the asylum seekers/refugees/migrants trapped in the zone along the Belarus-Poland border, as well as asylum seekers/refugees/migrants in Belarus trying to make it into Poland, were/are Kurds who had travelled from Iraqi Kurdistan. Just less than two weeks ago, Jotiar Adil, spokesperson for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), estimated that 8,000 of the 17,000 “migrants” along the Belarus-Poland border came from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).
The German Minister-President of Saxony also stated that most of the “migrants” were “from Iraq. A senior Iraqi official” further noted at the time “that 80% of them are from the Kurdistan Region” of Iraq (KRI).
Many desperate Kurds trapped along the Belarus-Poland border have been terrorised. “We are always facing the danger of death, very cold weather, hunger, thirst, beatings and mistreatment by both Poland and Belarusian police and soldiers,” noted Rebaz, 26, from Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Belarusian and Polish guards,” he asserted, “are beating migrants ruthlessly, and Polish guards have snatched all our money, they broke our mobile phones and humiliated us.”
Many Yazidis and “also people of other ethnicities and faiths from Iraqi Kurdistan” have gathered “at the border,” reported Adam Lucente.
As the international ‘crisis’ has developed, fuelled by geopolitical ‘East-West’ agendas, several western governments and supra-government organisations (such as the EU) have applied pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Iraqi governments to additionally act to ‘resolve’ the ‘migrant’ (as opposed to ‘asylum seeker/migrant/refugee’) ‘crisis’ by ‘encouraging’ many of the Iraqi ‘migrants’ to ‘voluntarily’ return.
In that highly politicised and pressurised context, a flight ‘returned’ 431 ‘migrants’ to Iraqi Kurdistan last Thursday. It was reported, however, that many asylum seekers/migrants/refugees gathered along the Belarus-Poland border were adamant that they had no desire to return to Iraqi Kurdistan given the unsafe, insecure and repressive conditions they had fled from. “No way I’m going back to Iraq,” Shvan, an Iraqi Kurd, informed Al-Jazeera. “And I don’t think anyone else here [around me] would want to go back to a life without any hope.”
Whilst KDP and KRG representatives and officials have suggested that many of the reasons provided by the ‘migrants/asylum seekers/refugees’ to explain why they have fled Iraqi Kurdistan and sought asylum are ‘baseless’ and ‘untrue,’ other reports concerning the economic, political, social and environmental situation in the region have contested the KRG’s/KDP’s positions.
In light of the above, as well as assessments made by Al-Monitor and Sky News, Medya News reached out to two critical observers of the region, Kamal Chomani and Dastan Jasim, and interviewed them via a podcast to shed light into the ‘realities of life’ and the nature of ‘security/insecurity,’ ‘stability/instability’ and the ‘safety/lack of safety’ facing the peoples living in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Kamal Chomani is a Kurdish political analyst and journalist and a Masters student at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy at the University of Erfurt. Dastan Jasim is a Research Fellow at the GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies and a member of the GIGA Doctoral Programme who is also a conflict researcher for the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research on Kurdish conflicts in Iraq and Syria. She is a doctoral student at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg and has also been a Visiting Scholar at the Centre for Gender and Development Studies (CGDS) at the American University of Iraq – Sulaimaniya, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The political and legal implications of misusing the terms ‘refugees,’ ‘migrants’ and ‘asylum seekers’
Before proceeding with any analysis, it is necessary to consider the differences in the meanings of the key terms ‘migrants’, ‘asylum seekers’ and ‘refugees,’ as identified by key organisations.
According to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, “in the headlines, the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ are frequently used interchangeably in media and public discourse. But is there a difference between the two, and does it matter? Yes, there is a difference, and it does matter. The two terms have distinct and different meanings, and confusing them leads to problems for both populations.
“Here’s why: Refugees are persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution. (…) Their situation is often so perilous and intolerable that they cross national borders to seek safety in nearby countries, and thus become internationally recognised as ‘refugees’ with access to assistance from States, UNHCR, and other organisations. They are so recognised precisely because it is too dangerous for them to return home, and they need sanctuary elsewhere. These are people for whom denial of asylum has potentially deadly consequences.
“Refugees are defined and protected in international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol as well as other legal texts, such as the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention, remain the cornerstone of modern refugee protection. (…) The 1951 Convention defines who is a refugee and outlines the basic rights which States should afford to refugees. One of the most fundamental principles laid down in international law is that refugees should not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom would be under threat.
“The protection of refugees has many aspects. These include safety from being returned to the dangers they have fled; access to asylum procedures that are fair and efficient; and measures to ensure that their basic human rights are respected to allow them to live in dignity and safety while helping them to find a longer-term solution. States bear the primary responsibility for this protection.”
“Migrants,” according to UNHCR, “choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons. Unlike refugees who cannot safely return home, migrants face no such impediment to return. If they choose to return home, they will continue to receive the protection of their government.
“For individual governments, this distinction is important. Countries deal with migrants under their own immigration laws and processes. Countries deal with refugees through norms of refugee protection and asylum that are defined in both national legislation and international law. Countries have specific responsibilities towards anyone seeking asylum” – an ‘asylum seeker’ – “on their territories or at their borders.”
Significantly, and equally of relevance to the subject matter of this article and podcast, UNHCR notes that “politics has a way of intervening in such debates. Conflating refugees and migrants can have serious consequences for the lives and safety of refugees. Blurring the two terms” – or commonly only referring to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants as ‘migrants,’ as has been the case on several occasions when politicians or certain media circles have deliberated upon the people gathered along the Belarus-Poland border – “takes attention away from the specific legal protections refugees require. It can undermine public support for refugees and the institution of asylum at a time when more refugees need such protection than ever before.”
The UNHCR clarifies that: “We need to treat all human beings with respect and dignity. We need to ensure that the human rights of migrants are respected. At the same time, we also need to provide an appropriate legal response for refugees, because of their particular predicament.
“So, back to Europe and the large numbers of people arriving in recent years. (…) Which are they? Refugees or migrants? In fact, they happen to be both. The majority of people arriving in Italy and Greece especially have been from countries mired in war or which otherwise are considered to be ‘refugee-producing’ and for whom international protection is needed. However, a smaller proportion is from elsewhere, and for many of these individuals, the term ‘migrant’ would be correct.
“So, at UNHCR we say ‘refugees and migrants’ when referring to movements of people by sea or in other circumstances where we think both groups may be present – boat movements in Southeast Asia are another example. We say ‘refugees’ when we mean people fleeing war or persecution across an international border. And we say ‘migrants’ when we mean people moving for reasons not included in the legal definition of a refugee. We hope that others will give thought to doing the same. Choices about words do matter.”
Habitat for Humanity, one of the world’s leading humanitarian housing charities, states that “refugees are people fleeing armed conflicts or persecution. (…) Their situation is so perilous that they cross national borders to seek safety in nearby countries and become recognised as refugees with access to assistance from states and aid organisations. An important piece of this is that refugees are protected by international law, specifically the 1951 Refugee Convention. (…)
“An asylum seeker is someone who claims to be a refugee but whose claim hasn’t been evaluated. This person would have applied for asylum on the grounds that returning to his or her country would lead to persecution on account of race, religion, nationality or political beliefs. (…)
“Migrants choose to move not because of a direct threat or persecution but mainly to improve their lives:
• Finding work
• Seeking better education
• Reuniting with family
“Unlike refugees who cannot safely return home, migrants can return home if they wish. This distinction is important for governments, since countries handle migrants under their own immigration laws and processes.”
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) uses the term ‘migrant’ “as a neutral term to describe a group of people who have in common a lack of citizenship attachment to their host country. (…)
“A refugee is strictly defined in international law as a person who is fleeing persecution or conflict in her or his country of origin. As noted above, there is no such precise and universal definition of a migrant. It is important to underline that refugees are entitled to the full protection of refugee law, including protection from expulsion or return to situations of persecution where their life and freedom are at risk.”
Concerning the rights of ‘migrants’, it also clarifies that, “under international human rights law, including the Convention against Torture, the principle of non-refoulement applies to all persons under the jurisdiction or effective control of a state, whatever their status. The scope of non-refoulement under international human rights law is broader than article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
“Under international human rights law, nonrefoulement entails an absolute prohibition on removing a person to a country where they are at risk of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment or other serious human rights violations such as enforced disappearance, risks to life in the absence of necessary medical care and violations of the rights of the child.
“States should guarantee that all migrants who require protection in this context are not left in a legal limbo, and should ensure that they are granted a legal status. Are migrants entitled to ‘protection?’ Yes. All migrants are entitled to the protection as well as respect and fulfilment of all human rights, regardless of status, with only narrowly defined and limited exceptions.
“As explained above, and although different from the protection that must be granted to refugees, other migrants may also be entitled to protection from return to their country of origin or removal from the host country based on human rights grounds. For example, states have put place in mechanisms to grant protection and legal status to: Migrant victims of crimes, to ensure their access to justice; migrant victims of torture in transit, to ensure their recovery and rehabilitation; migrants with serious health conditions that cannot be treated in the country of origin; migrant children whose return would be contrary to the best interests of the child” and “migrants whose right to family life depends on their remaining in the host country.”
KRG’s Ziad Rauf accuses Iraqi Kurdish ‘migrants’ of telling ‘falsehoods’ to European officials ‘that have harmed the reputation of the KRG’
When interviewed, many Kurdish asylum seekers/refugees/migrants from Iraqi Kurdistan stated that they were fleeing because of “a life without any hope” and “the impossibility of having a good life” there, “the lack of human rights, freedom and democracy, and the high rates of unemployment” in Iraqi Kurdistan. Some stated that they, as journalists, had fled from Iraqi Kurdistan because of the extreme nature of the targeting of people engaged in their profession by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Others reportedly stated that they were being forced to fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) by the authorities, something that they were reluctant to be part of – that is, in engaging in Kurd-on-Kurd violence.
In response to these reported statements by the Kurdish asylum seekers/refugees/migrants, however, the representative of the KRG in Poland, Ziyad Raoof, “accused Kurdish migrants on the Belarus-Poland border of telling ‘falsehoods’ to European officials that have harmed the reputation of the KRG.”
Raoof reportedly “told the Voice of America (VOA) that he ha[d] heard from the Polish authorities and European observers about what the migrants [we]re telling officials, to justify their emigration.” He characterized their stated reasons for fleeing Iraqi Kurdistan as “inaccurate and unfair.”
“He claimed that some of the migrants said that they are journalists who will be arrested and tortured if they stay in the Kurdistan Region and that others said that the KDP had forced them to fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). ‘They have fabricated many other stories that the mind does not accept,’ he added,” seemingly referring to claims that asylum seekers/refugees/migrants were fleeing Iraqi Kurdistan due to the severe repression and persecution they faced, and/or the extremely dire economic circumstances they were being forced to live in.
The KRG elsewhere also responded to the reports of its “constituents” fleeing to Belarus in the following manner: ‘This global crisis should not be used as a political tool against the KRG,’ spokesperson Jotiar Adil said in a statement. (…) Adil attributed the emigration to security issues in the surrounding area” – not to any ‘security issues’ or concerns in Iraqi Kurdistan itself – “and the global economic downturn.”
Prime Minister Masrour Barzani also sought to clarify, after the 431 returnees arrived in Erbil, that the crisis “was not a migrant” – and certainly not a ‘refugee’ – “issue.” In other words, he implied it did not arise as a result of people’s fear of persecution and extreme repression in Iraqi Kurdistan, or fear of insecurity and lack of safety, but because of, more simply, “a criminal human trafficking issue, with the migrants [being] exploited by criminal networks and caught in a dispute between Belarus and the European Union.”
Barzani and Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki agreed to a joint statement that sought to assert that “migrants” from Iraqi Kurdistan had “been deceived by organised traffickers” and were the “victims” of not repression or persecution in Iraqi Kurdistan but “of organised crime,” namely via the traffickers.
Barzani also reportedly welcomed “the establishment of a joint technical team to determine additional measures to disrupt th[ose] networks.”
“I’m deeply concerned by the plight of our citizens, as well as the many others on the EU borders. Their wellbeing is our shared responsibility,” he added. “They’ve been deceived by traffickers; exploited by networks abroad” – as opposed to networks within Iraqi Kurdistan or KRG/KDP political structures, policies and practices over the past few years, it would seem. “I’m working with our partners to ensure their safety and security,” Masrour Barzani, the KRG Prime Minister, tweeted on 14 November.
When he attended the Middle East Peace and Security (MEPS) Forum at the American University of Kurdistan (AUK) in Duhok, where Iraqi and Kurdish leaders (including the Iraqi president) reportedly gathered to hear him make his keynote speech, “he said that the Kurdistan Region will always be willing to take the first step towards achieving peace and will continue to be a factor for stability.”
Prime Minister Barzani’s stance was bolstered by the statements of leading German politicians who sought to ‘lecture’ the ‘migrants’ gathered in sub-zero temperatures along the Belarus-Poland border in the following way that suggested that ‘they’ had no legal right to even begin to seek or contemplate ‘refugee status’ and ‘asylum’ in Europe because they were “illegally” trying to enter the EU, having travelled from a distinctly “stable” as opposed to unsafe or insecure region where they might have faced persecution and oppression of various kinds: “The leading minister of the German state of Saxony” stated “that residents of the Kurdistan Region [of Iraq] have the chance to build their future at home rather than taking the dangerous route of migration to Europe via the Belarus-Poland border.”
Michael Kretschmer, Minister-President of Saxony, stated “that the continuous migration” of these “people to the borders of Poland and Belarus, and ‘the fake promises’ that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s government has given them, ‘will cause a humanitarian catastrophe.’ (…)
“Kretschmer stressed that Germany will not grant immigration permits to people who are trying to ‘illegally’ enter the country, particularly those from the Kurdistan Region [of Iraq] because it is a ‘stable’ location.
“A very few number of Iraqis are granted immigration because the country, especially the Kurdistan Region, is stable,’ said the official whose Saxony state, in eastern Germany, borders with Poland. ‘They have the chance to build the future of their countries like the Kurdistan Region. Now, they have a chance in the Kurdistan Region to build better futures for themselves. Do not let them [i.e., the traffickers and Belarus politicians] put your lives at risk through this criminal and perilous path which does not end,’ he addressed the Kurdish migrants.”
He reportedly also stated that there was a practical “European solution” to this “migration issue. ‘The European Union should hold intensive talks with the countries where these people come from, such as Iraq, to prevent this and protect the fate of these people’” – the assumption here being that the ‘fates’ of “these people” would be ‘protected’ by ensuring that all escape routes out of the region would be closed to them, to stop them being ‘exploited’ by the traffickers.
“We can impose sanctions on the flights of those companies that are involved in these illegal travels,” he noted, thereby making sure that none of these ‘migrants’ could ‘illegally’ make their way to the borders of the democratic and freedom-loving, human rights championing EU.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer added that no ‘deal’ would be made in any circumstances with Belarus regarding those stranded along the Belarus-Poland border: “If we took in refugees, if we bowed to the pressure and said ‘we are taking refugees into European countries,’ then this would mean implementing the very basis of [a] perfidious strategy.”
“There is one final perversion in” what is happening with this border crisis, notes Binoy Kampmark: “In essentially condemning human trafficking, the EU and its counterparts are condemning the right to asylum” – enshrined in the UN Refugee Convention – “which such trafficking aids. With that sentiment, Ursula von der Leyen,” the European Commission president, “would regard Oskar Schindler and his more recent equivalent, Iraq’s Ali Al Jenabi, as traffickers worthy of punishment.”
Iraqi Kurdistan – ‘relatively stable and safe’ (Al-Monitor) and ‘one of the more stable corners of a troubled country?’ (Sky News)
It should also be noted that even as many international news reports detailed the terribly desperate conditions the ‘Iraqi Kurdish migrants/refugees/asylum seekers’ were/are living under along the border, several at the same time, mirroring the perspectives of Michael Kretschmer, Minister-President of Saxony, clearly suggested and stated that whilst ‘they’ may have experienced various hardships at home, “the autonomous part of northern Iraq is relatively stable and safe” (Al-Monitor).
Reuters has referred to the “relatively stable autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.” For Sky News’ Moscow correspondent, “What is surprising about this particular wave of migrants is that almost all of them come from Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the more stable corners of a troubled country in a war-torn region of the world.”
But is Iraqi Kurdistan ‘relatively stable and safe’ in any way politically, economically and in ‘security’ and ‘safety’ related contexts for large sections of its population?
France 24 recently reported that “Iraq’s Kurdistan region presents itself as a haven of relative stability.” Again, one has to ask the question: Is it really “a haven of relative stability,” in light of the fact that Abdel Majid Shoukri, the head of the office of the Ministry of Migration and the Displaced in Iraqi Kurdistan estimated even three years ago that conditions there were so desperate that “thousands of Iraqi Kurds” were leaving “each year using human smuggling channels through Turkey to Europe, and hundreds” were not just risking their lives but actually dying “along the way, killed by the sea, harsh weather, or by the smugglers themselves.”
France 24 had also noted that the Kurdistan region “is regularly criticised for restricting freedom of expression. The region has been ruled for decades by two parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Last May, the UN denounced ‘arbitrary arrests,’ unfair trials and ‘intimidation of journalists, activists and protesters’ in Iraqi Kurdistan.”
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has also stated that, “in northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, there seems to be virtually no limits to the persecution of journalists who criticise its ruling families. They are jailed on charges of spying or endangering state security on the basis of confessions extracted under torture or by means of threats. Some journalists in the region have died in unclear circumstances, and the suspicion that the authorities were responsible is reinforced by the lack of any serious investigation into their deaths.”
Ferda Çetin: ‘The truth has a determination to come to light’
In opposition to the perspectives presented by KRG officials, Ferda Çetin has reported with concern that “the administration of Hewlêr [Erbil] feels not the slightest modicum of responsibility or shame for the Kurdish migration to the Belarusian-Polish border. They are as carefree and relaxed as if they did not govern South Kurdistan. They think they can gloss over the issue with flimsy excuses and tragicomic explanations. Like their partner Erdoğan, they search for an external actor to blame. And this actor is generally the PKK. (…)
“Jutyar Adil, the spokesperson for the KRG, completes the lie: ‘A large majority of these citizens are migrating because of the clashes between the PKK and Turkey. Some of them are also those wishing to migrate because of unemployment in Halabja and Sulaymaniya.’ Do you see the creativity in the manipulation? Apparently some of them are migrating because of the PKK, and the rest because of unemployment in Halabja and Sulaymaniyah (areas under Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK – historically in opposition to the KDP] control).’ (…)
“As if the areas under the control of the KDP,” she points out, “were safe and prosperous, everyone had employment and opportunities, everyone was peaceful and comfortable and there were no migrants from those areas.”
In this KRG and particularly KDP reported context, it would appear that there really was no reported economic or social crisis that could be attributed to the actions of the KDP directly, no reported wider KRG institutionalised corruption, no crisis of chronic insecurity in the region, no suggestion of “political rule in Iraqi Kurdistan stand[ing] above the rule of law,” no reported war crimes and crimes against humanity taking place in the region, no reported freedom of expression or freedom of association or freedom of the press concerns, no reported crisis where public employees like teachers had not been paid adequately or regularly due to the irresponsibility of the regional government’s economic policies for years, no crisis where Kurdish refugees from Iran were being persecuted and killed by Iranian state agents and being inadequately housed and protected by the KRG and UNHCR authorities located there, no reported crisis where extensive land areas were being subjected to repressive control that ignored local self-governance and Yazidi requests and/or which were being subjected to induced water shortages by dam building and water flow policies by the Iranian and Turkish states, or where the local residents of Warte and Shawre were subjected to “severe risks and disruptions” as a result of KRG Peshmerga military bases or extensive deforestation, ecocide and reported chemical warfare by Turkish armed forces engaging in major cross border operations (which were being enabled and allowed by the KDP and KRG) where “many of Turkey’s aerial and artillery strikes have directly targeted civilians (…) living in the border regions [where] (…) these bombardments have devastated the region where hundreds of families live [and where] (…)Turkey’s bombings not only threaten the livelihood of families, but also their lives,” as well as civilian areas and infrastructures such as hospitals in Sinjar (Shengal) and refugee camps such as Maxmur.
“And then, there is the truth,” noted Çetin. “And the truth has a determination to come to light.”
Kamal Chomani: The KRG officials have presented ‘all these just baseless lies’
For Kamal Chomani: “If we focus on the situation on the [Belarus-Poland] border and the refugees there, trying to take refuge in one of the European countries, and also the accusations [made] by the KRG officials, be it at home or in Europe, including the KRG representative in Poland, there are all these just baseless lies” presented by them and also they are “insulting the refugees and the people who are fleeing the injustice and oppressive reign of the KRG, led by specifically the Barzani family and also the Talabani families.
“The situation in Kurdistan economically and politically is really, really in a very bad and difficult situation which had led the people to flee the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). Unfortunately, in the past 100 years, the Kurdish people had been fleeing their homeland due to oppressive rule of non-Kurdish oppressors, by the central governments in Ankara, in Tehran, in Baghdad, and also in Damascus.
“However, in the past 30 years, the people in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq” have been “fleeing the Kurdistan region due to Kurdish repressive rule” by “a small political elite, including the top political leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) as well as the two main families, the Barzani family and the Talabani family. They are not representing the Kurdish population in the Kurdistan region and just to prove that, in the recent election in the Kurdistan region, less than 40% participated in the elections.
“So, since 1991, people” have been “fleeing the Kurdistan region due to the repressive reign of the Kurdish rulers back home, and for the past 30 years, this situation, this migration, taking refuge in other countries, has been continuing without any real policies by the KRG to address the problems back home so that those problems will not force people to leave the Kurdistan region any more.”
Dastan Jasim: ‘Life in the Kurdistan region is a gamble’
For Dastan Jasim: “I think the situation of Southern Kurds, Iraqi Kurds, is very telling as to how reasons to look for refuge are going to look like in the future. Because in the Kurdistan region, you have a number of different aspects and different problems that are coming together that make people flee the region.
“It’s not like there is just one thing, there is one war: I think there is an archetypal image of ‘refugees’ that is being presented as to what a ‘good refugee’ has to be – for example, someone who just literally fled a drone attack, someone who just fled from some bomb attack. But that’s not how taking refuge, looking for refuge, is going to look like in the future.”
In the Kurdistan region, she observed, “we also have a variety of reasons that come together. As Kamal already mentioned, we have a party duopoly that has not created any sustainability, any jobs, any progress or any real institution building in the last 30 years.
“Although people have been very patient – I have to really cite my mother here, for example, who often says, in the 90s, when the Kurdistan region was established as an autonomy and there was a very strong sanctions programme on the Kurdistan region, teachers and public servants would work for free because they believed in the cause: they believed in what is possible, they were believing in an outlook of a post-Saddam Kurdistan where all of their work would pay [off]. People were willing to do so much and to put so much on the line for this autonomy. The more hurtful it is then,” she noted, “that it has developed to become what it is.
“Also, what comes into play is that we have huge, huge, huge problems because of climate change and global capitalism in the region, obviously. The Kurdistan region has been designed after the Iraq war to simply be a ‘cheap’ market where you can get the surplus produce of Turkey and Iran to be sold, and for these countries to have a good trade route. Nothing more than that.
“There have been no attempts to really push for production. To really make the Kurdistan region an economically autonomous region [and] not only autonomous in the sense of oil.”
Jasim noted that “it was obvious that if the oil crisis was going to” happen, if there was going to be a “crash, if you” were to “have something like the refugee crisis after 2014, and all of these things – that public service salaries” could not be paid, “and that this kind of corrupt system” was “going to eventually crash. The system has been corrupt before but the situation was simply that, economically, they could afford to be corrupt. Because they could buy enough people for them to support them.”
But with the economic crisis, circumstances have changed and there have been additional factors that need to be taken into consideration to realise why there is so much dissatisfaction in Iraqi Kurdistan, so much, indeed, that it induces so many people to feel that they have to leave: “Climate change is also very important because we have a huge, huge drought in all of Iraq. We have to say it. It is a big, big problem in all of Syria and Iraq.
“We have a great lack of water. We also have the Turkish drone war. Especially in the northern corner of the Kurdistan region. We have massive deforestation that is happening there, allegedly because” the Turkish armed forces, in their cross-border military operations, “want to make the area ‘clear,’ they want to make the space ‘clear’ to fight the PKK and these are all the areas where, especially the rural population in Kurdistan region, which already has a hard time selling their crops, selling their produce because it’s much more expensive than Turkish and Iranian produce – they are also forced to flee the region because of both the drone war and because of the destruction of nature.
“Also, we have a huge amount of dam projects, of both Turkey and Iran that are also keeping the water flow away from the Kurdistan region.”
For Jasim, then, “it’s a combination of factors” that has led to so much dissatisfaction amongst the population in Iraqi Kurdistan, “from global capitalism, exploitation, corruption, climate change and the mass of also disregard for young people” that is evident and that has to be taken into account.
“We also shouldn’t forget that we have a huge youth ‘bulge’ in the Kurdistan region and in Iraq in general and no one has really calculated for that. No one has really thought about how these people are going to get a job. Is there going to be an economy [that can facilitate that?]. We have had teacher’s strikes for the last three years.
“The public salaries could not be paid for the last three years properly and a lot of teachers are striking and for the last three years, the average school year has been several months shorter than the normal school year. So, now, imagine how this is for elementary school kids in the Kurdistan region. Learning, reading and writing – essential things at this time and that is cut by several months” a year by the present situation.
“So that means that we’re not only having a problem of economic issues but we also have a huge educational problem. And for most Kurdish people, the question is really about ‘what place are my children going to live in?’ And what people really need to understand” is “that there are a lot of voices out there: You have already cited the representations from KRG but also what several other representations are saying. The issue is not that it’s impossible to live in the Kurdistan region: that is not the issue. The issue is that life in the Kurdistan region is a gamble. You have to gamble for your future.”
In the current environment in Iraqi Kurdistan, “you have no security in health, no security in education, and anyone who might be listening, who has kids of their own, knows that this kind of security is the first and foremost thing that you think about when you are raising your children. That’s exactly what these refugees [in Belarus and along the Belarus-Poland border] have been thinking about.
“And people are saying: ‘How does this money come? How do they have this money and I don’t know what. It’s easy to save money. These are people [and extended families] that have saved money for years and years and years for this. This is an investment that they are taking, a very heavy investment they are taking to try and make a better life, to try to make a future, in a system where people can hardly live anymore” in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“And people really have to understand that this is the type of collection of reasons to flee the region that we’re looking at. And that it’s not only one big thing.
“We have to be really honest” with ourselves, she noted: “We can discuss about whether it’s safe to do that, we can discuss about smugglers, we should talk about smugglers. It’s obvious that there is a huge smuggling system in the Kurdistan region.
“There is a huge border smuggling system when it comes to refugees: these systems are very criminal, these systems are often working with the political elites: we have to talk about these things. But there would be no request” or demand “for smugglers” – something the KDP and KRG are unwilling to publicly or policy-wise, honestly acknowledge – “if there was not this political and economic situation” – and crisis – “in the Kurdistan region.”
Kamal Chomani: ‘None of the citizens are secure in the Kurdistan region’
Kamal Comani addressed the ‘security/insecurity’ and ‘safety/lack of safety’ issue in the following way during my podcast interview with him. It is a central concern in the international ‘asylum’/‘persecution’/‘refugee’/‘asylum’ debate and is also ‘key’ towards understanding ‘how’ and ‘why’ so many people from Iraqi Kurdistan have risked and are risking their lives to travel to Belarus to try to cross over into Poland.
For Chomani: “Concerning the security situation in Kurdistan, first of all, we should question ‘who’ has the right to use violence or, let’s say, ‘who’ has ‘control’ over the security services and the army in the Kurdistan region.
“So, [regarding] the security situation in Kurdistan: In theory, we have security forces, we have police, we have the peshmerga forces. However, neither the security forces nor the police, nor the peshmerga, nor the Asayish or security forces are taking commands from the government.
“The Peshmerga are divided between the KDP and the PUK. The Asayish forces, divided, again between the KDP and the PUK. The ‘anti-terror’ [forces], again, and including the police. Even the police are divided. Even the police in Erbil are different from the police in Süleymaniye.
“And when you are in a situation where the arms are in the hands of the militias and the political parties, in this situation, none of the citizens are secure in the Kurdistan region.
“The ones who are using violence, the ones who have the power to use the violence, or to ‘command,’ using arms or using security [forces] in the region, again, are the top politicians or the political families in the Kurdistan region, the Talabani and Barzani family again. In this situation, as I said, no one in Kurdistan is secure.
“And let’s give some examples. We have had protests, like many other countries in the region. But the protests have always been put down. [On] 17 February 2011, a major sort of ‘Kurdish Spring’ (…) started in Süleymaniye and then it was cracked down [upon]. It continued for about 63 days and then, eventually, 10 protesters were killed, 500 wounded, hundreds were arrested and tens were exiled.
“And then this situation continued. Let’s just give another example – in 2015, when the Speaker of Parliament from the opposition party wanted to legally discuss the Presidential Law. At that time, Mr Barzani was the president of Kurdistan and his term had already been extended for two years and the Speaker of Parliament wanted to discuss the Presidential Law and resolve the presidential crisis in the Kurdistan region.
“However, what happened, because of the security forces, the peshmerga and the police – everything belongs to the political party or the [two] political families – [was that] he was forced to leave Erbil,” where the parliament building is located, “and then afterwards, when he wanted to re-enter Erbil, he was denied [entry]. And for two years, even the Speaker of Parliament was not able to enter Erbil” to even enter the parliament he was the Speaker for.
“He was able to go to any countries around the world, any capitals around the world, and he had a lot of [meetings] in Europe, including in the UK parliament. However, he was not allowed to go to Erbil – So, if the building of the parliament is not secured for the Speaker of the Parliament” to even be allowed to enter it, “how can you talk about ‘security’ for other people?
“And recently, like the last two years, there were some protests in Duhok. And again, (…) in terms of public servants, who were not paid in full and on time, (…) people protested. There were two separate protests: First, one protest was against the Turkish military bases in the Kurdistan region. That the Turkish military bases are in the Kurdistan region is due to their connection and alliance with the KDP and the Barzani family.
“And those people in Shiladze that the Turkish strikes had killed the civilians in, they protested against the military base. So the KDP arrested them, kidnapped them and put them in jail.
“And those who were not kidnapped, who were not arrested, they were able to flee the Kurdistan region and now the Kurdistan Region head of the Foreign Department wants to accuse the PKK” of being “behind the ‘refugee influx’ on the border.
“And then, there were some protests – some journalists and activists actually joined them – where they also asked for their monthly salaries. And then, again, they were [targeted] and now they are in prison, 80 of them, journalists and activists, very close friends of mine, and some, already six journalists have already, I think, been sentenced.
“Some others are convicted and the trials are illegal. And the trials are also continuing. For what? On charges, so Mr Barzani, the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region, he’s fabricated some lies and some baseless charges for these people, for the protesters, for the activists and journalists. (…)
“As we see right now, people are fleeing from this [type of] authoritarianism of the KDP and PUK, especially the KDP. The security situation has always been like this. Imagine! It’s not only for the Kurdistan citizens, also for the Kurdish, I don’t want to call them ‘refugees,’ but let’s say [that], to better understand [the situation], the ‘Kurdish refugees’ that have take[n] refuge because of Iranian and Turkish oppression, they live in the Kurdistan region [of Iraq], so they are being assassinated. And they have been attacked.
“Iranian missiles have attacked the Kurdish refugees” in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Turkish air strikes have attacked, they have bombed Kurdish refugees in the Maxmur (Makhmour) area. And now Maxmur area, which is a UN recognised [refugee] camp, they’re not allowed to enter Erbil, even to go to the hospitals” for medical treatment, “because the KDP is just following what Turkey is telling them” to do.
“And the Kurdish refugees in Iran, the Kurdish Iranian refugees” in several areas, “the majority of them are in the PUK area: they are being assassinated. They are not able” to engage in “their activities. So the situation – the ‘security situation’ – is really, really dire, not only for all the Kurdish citizens but also for all the people. And look at the border areas.
“The border areas are being bombed and shell[ed] and the Turkish air strikes are continuing. They have already occupied swathes of the Kurdistan region, and who is behind that? Okay, Turkey is doing that, but neither the Iraqi government, neither the Iraqi parliament, nor the Kurdistan parliament, nor the Iraqi people, nor the Kurdish people are supporting those air strikes.
“However, the KDP is supporting them. And those who are opposing Turkey’s air strikes or the Iranian bombing are being oppressed and persecuted.
“So, all these situations together are creating this ‘refugee influx’ in the Kurdistan region” of Iraq “and many people are leaving this Kurdistan region.
“Just imagine the border areas: they always” had to “rely on themselves, including economically as well. But now,” with all these political, violent military targeting actions, economic and ecocidal and environmental disruptions affecting them, “they are coming to the cities and towns and then [finding] no jobs, no economic opportunities. So what should they do? Some of them, if they are able, will leave Kurdistan.
“And the problem is – including those reasons Dastan talked about – the problem is there are no KRG policies” which “address the situation to these problems and these crises. That’s the main issue because everything is connected to politics in Kurdistan, including the economics [of it all].”
Chomani: ‘The two political parties, the two families, are using the public good as their private good’
Dastan, Chomani observed, talked in the podcast “about this international globalisation. In the meantime, the [linked] privatisation in Kurdistan is continuing to an extent where, right now, it is hard to differentiate between the public good and the private good.
“And the two political parties, the two families, are using the public good as their private good. And that’s why, just to give an example, there was one of the universities in Erbil, which is called Kurdistan university, which was a public university, but [it] just was privatised, and it belongs to the son of the president, who is now the Chancellor of the university. (…)
“And each politician has their own hospital. Look at the PUK who call themselves ‘democrats.’ (…) The head of the PUK Supreme Council – he was the deputy of Talabani as well – established a hospital in Erbil” for the “public good and now it’s a private hospital. And this [type of] privatisation has created a situation where there is a lot of inequality in the Kurdistan region and people feel that, with this inequality, [many] people cannot afford anything, cannot afford – as Dastan said – a house, an education, etc, etc.
“And people say that two generations – one generation, the generation of our parents, became the victims of Saddam Hussein, and our generation has become the victim of this current Kurdish government. [But] why should our children also become victims? If there is another opportunity, in terms of ‘security,’ and economically and politically, then let’s leave” to places like Belarus, many feel.
The lack of ‘security’ and ‘safety’ in Sinjar (Shengal) and other disputed areas
I asked Chomani and Jasim for their assessments regarding disputed areas like Sinjar (Shengal) – where Yazidis were subjected to genocidal targeting after KDP security forces had abandoned them in 2014 to the forces of ISIS and fled, leaving many Yazidis vulnerable to massacres, mass rape and slavery and where the recently signed ‘Sinjar Agreement’ was reportedly agreed upon by the KRG without any meaningful consultation or involvement with the current Sinjar autonomous governing council or the wider Yazidi population.
Jasim contended that “the problem in Shengal and all these other disputed areas, from the start of this new Iraqi republic, has been the non-implementation of Article 140, quite frankly, and especially in the Nineveh plains where you were supposed by the constitution to have a census, you were supposed to have an idea of who was living there, who is doing what, to have a referendum, on what part of Iraq they want to belong to, or do they want to be a region on their own – all these kinds of things were simply delayed from 2005 on. (…) That’s a basic constitutional fact.
“So all of this – this problem” has remained meaningfully unaddressed, “untouched – and then with the genocide coming,” it “has been the worst case scenario. What we cannot also deny is that there is a significant amount of Yazidi families and Yazidi tribes – you may call them ‘bribed’ or anything – but they are on the side of the KDP so we don’t even have one united front when it comes to that.
“Also, clearly, Yazidis are a victim of this power game. (…) This is a very nasty power game which is really at the expense of the Yazidis because they are in a post-genocide situation where they just want to be safe, and depending upon what area you’re in, I mean when you’re talking about these northern areas of Nineveh, that’s a politically very ambivalent area. There are some areas where you have very strong KDP control, there are some areas where you have Iraqi army control, and we shouldn’t forget we have some areas where you have strong Hashd al-Sha’bi (Popular Mobilization Units, the PMU) control, that’s not a partner you want to have any way.
“I don’t think [these] pro-Iranian militias are going to be the ones that are going to defend Iraqi minorities – we should remember that too, especially now that Iranian militias are actively attacking all kinds of areas in Baghdad. In all kinds of other cities, Iranian militias have been shooting on the youth of the Tishreen Revolution [where ‘600 protesters’ were ‘killed by pro-Iran militia groups and security forces’ according to Gareth Jonas and Tom Webster), all these kinds of things. That’s stuff we have to keep in mind.”
For Jasim, we need to appreciate that in this politicised context, “the issue in the end is that we have had and now still have a lack of institutionalisation for these areas. We have a lack of responsibility and it has always been like that with the ‘140’ areas, with these ‘disputed’ areas. When the political elites want to claim it, they claim it. When they want to get the people’s (…) votes, their support , they do some little thing, “but then they leave. (…) It’s ‘no mans land’” and “that’s the reason specifically why ISIS sleeper [cell] attacks are strongest in these areas.”
In these decidedly insecure and unsafe contexts, “these people are suffering from many, many, many levels of political and military problems but now we don’t only have the institutional problem, we have the ‘security problem.’
“So the problem really is not only the Erbil ‘Sinjar Agreement.’ (…) Erbil and Baghdad are just minor, minor players in this ‘game.’ The whole thing is about ‘Turkish influence’ and ‘Iranian influence.’ That’s the big thing about it and that is the greater picture that we have to look at and, unfortunately, really unfortunately, an ethnic and religious group that has been the biggest victim of ISIS is a victim of this power play, right now.”
For Jasim, it is equally important for us, “when we are analysing these things, to look at the pre-2014 time, which is the time in which Iraq and the Kurdistan Region had the possibility to really establish what it said in the constitution. They did not. They were busy privatising the whole country, as Kamal already said, letting in all kinds of shady businesses, just being engaged in that, and now – after ISIS – everyone is paying for this, specifically the Yazidi people are paying for this.
“So we cannot know” – in ‘safety’ or ‘security’ or ‘stability’ or ‘peace’ terms – “what this deal is, how this deal is playing out, without knowing what in the long term Iranian and Turkish power is going to look like. And that is depending upon how the negotiations in Vienna are going, that is depending on how the ‘US-Turkey relationship’ is going to look like, that is going to be depending upon what Turkey is going to be able to pull through with their two year ‘Iraq and Syria plan,’ where they agreed to extend the involvement of their military there.
“That is the whole” geopolitical, military and diplomatic “sphere where this whole [Sinjar] ‘agreement’ is really playing out and, unfortunately, neither the KRG nor Baghdad are strong enough to be strong ‘players.’ They are being used in this ‘game.’ (…)
“Clearly, a lot of politicians,” Jasim observes, “want to be used in that ‘game’; they want to have ‘support,’ they want to have ‘control.’ This is something as old as Iraqi Kurdish history – that specific political actors are using ‘foreign actors’ to ‘win’ in the domestic struggle.”
Jasim: The ‘irony’ of Iraqi Kurdish political elites complaining about the presence of the PKK
For Jasim, moreover, regarding the KDP’s argument that the ‘presence of the PKK’ justifies the nature of – and provokes – Turkey’s military intervention in the region, she states: “The irony is that, back in 2010, Nechirvan Barzani,” the President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), “was one of the key players when they came to the negotiations between the PKK and the Turkish state.
“He presented himself as someone who was willing to put both sides on the table, support them to work with the KDP delegation, to work with all of these people to bring about the 2013 ‘peace agreement.’ And the ‘peace agreement’ said, and I’ve already argued this, the ‘peace agreement’ said the PKK is supposed to go to the Kandil mountains, they’re supposed to leave Turkish areas, and now they are there, [in the Kandil mountains]. They did exactly what is said in that agreement.
“And now, the same Iraqi Kurdish political elites are saying, ‘What are they doing here? Why are they not fighting in Turkey?’ That is the typical sentence that they always [use]. Well, you brokered an agreement where this was part of the agreement. So, you know, there is a lot of misinformation, disinformation, going on around these kinds of things, around these kinds of agreements. But we have to put these things into perspective at the end of the day.”
Chomani: ‘The Shengal Agreement is an illegitimate agreement’
Chomani also emphasized that the illegitimacy of the Sinjar/Shengal Agreement is such that, rather than “saving the Yazidis from another genocide, another tragedy,” it seems that it may “just lead them to another tragedy.” Such a situation, of course, serves to explain why many Yazidis have fled to the Belarus-Poland border, seeking asylum and safe refuge rather than the alleged ‘safety’ or alleged ‘stability’ that the KDP promoted Sinjar/Shengal Agreement offers (which continues to be vociferously opposed by several Yazidis).
As Hisên Hesen, co-chair of the Afrin Yazidis Association has elsewhere noted, the current stance taken by the KDP alongside the Turkish government, provides no sense of security to the Yazidis living in Sinjar/Shengal. “They do not respect the will of the Yazidis” he says: “Neither Turkey nor the KDP accept the will of the Yazidis to establish their own lives and administrations [there], and defend themselves. They’re trying to break that will. International powers have already quietly endorsed these attacks [taking place there]. This is a disgrace to humanity.
“An oppressed people is living under threat of murder and being driven from their land. In response, we, the Yazidis of Afrin, call on the Yazidis all over Kurdistan and around the world. Let us stand up for Sinjar and our people.”
For Chomani: “When we talk about the Shengal Agreement, it’s something, and when you talk about the Yazidi situation and what sort of agreement the Yazidis and Shengal areas should have, it’s is a different story. For me, the Shengal Agreement is an illegitimate agreement.
“As Dastan says, it’s an agreement that addresses the interests of the regional powers other than the peoples interests [and security] in the region. (…) Erbil is part of the ‘agreement’ but ‘Erbil as the KDP’ is part of the agreement, not as the Kurdistan region and the ones who have been consulted in the Kurdistan region are the KDP and the ones who are implementing [it]. They want the implementation of the agreement. (…) It has nothing to do with the PUK, nothing to do with the Change Movement and other opposition parties in the parliament, including the Kurdish people.
“And when it comes to the Yazidis, the Yazidis have not” – in ‘security’ or ‘safety’ terms, so immediately after suffering from the genocide conducted by ISIS against them in the region – “been consulted” over the terms of the Sinjar/Shengal Agreement.
“And the UN – they also presented the Agreement – has never been to Shengal to talk to people [about] what these people want and it is true, also, that the people who are supporting the KDP, who are the refugees and [who] are completely controlled by the KDP, they may have a different idea. They may also want the implementation of the Shengal Agreement.
“But you cannot ignore half of the people – who are ruling [Shengal now and currently protecting it with their own self-defence forces], the real de facto power in the region – and then just go and talk to the people like the leaders and the governments that left the people of Shengal [to] face the genocide.
“And that’s something for me: the Agreement itself is illegitimate, it’s something serving the interests of some internal parties and families, as well as the regional powers. And with the Yazidis, if we talk about what sort of policy or agreement it should serve, that is something different.
“And I think, no matter whether we have had Article 140 in the Iraqi Constitution that should be implemented to decide on the future of the disputed areas. [Yes], it’s something: its amazing, in theory. However, in practice, it should have been implemented back in 2007. And it was never implemented. And now,” after the genocide of the Yazidis by ISIS, and in the context of how it was enabled (via the abandonment of KDP forces in the region, leaving ISIS to genocidally target the Yazidis), “we have a new paradigm, we have a new situation, especially in the Shengal area, and in the Shengal area, a new paradigm should be there.
“And the Yazidis, they should decide for themselves, and they should decide for themselves in a situation when their areas are normalised – [when] there is normalcy, there is security – at that point, the Yazidis, by themselves, should decide for themselves. Neither the Kurdish government (KRG), nor the Iraqi Shia-Arab-Sunni government should decide on behalf of the Yazidis (…) [as] neither the Kurdish peshmerga nor the Iraqi Arab Sunni and Shia army in Mosul protected them. So it’s time for them to decide, for themselves.
“And in the Shengal Agreement, there were no Yazidis [providing meaningful representation]. There were some Yazidis, that were supported by the KDP. And for me,” in the wider context of the KDP’s failure to significantly or adequately defend the Yazidis when ISIS approached Sinjar/Shengal, “that is something that is completely [to be] rejected.
“For me, this agreement [has] created more” – rather than less – “problems. (…) And for the future, the Yazidis” – if they are to be adequately protected and if they are to feel safe from further persecution, and to feel that there isn’t a need to seek asylum somewhere else – “should be consulted” to facilitate “an agreement that should serve the interests of the Yazidis. (…) Instead of saving the Yazidis from another genocide, another tragedy,” if things continue along the ways charted and construed in the Sinjar/Shengal Agreement, for Chomani, “we will just lead them to another tragedy.”
Desmond Fernandes is a former Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at De Montfort University and is the author of several books and articles focusing on human/refugee rights, criminalisation, genocide and gender rights concerns.