The Kurds: Genuine refugees or economic migrants

The refugee issue has been for a while at the top of the agenda for most EU countries. The recent developments and measures taken by the various European countries were been placed to tighten asylum laws and prevent asylum seekers from entering Europe. The pretext has been that the asylum seekers are economic migrants and hence, they do not fulfil the criteria given by the Geneva Convention of 1951. The Kurds are one of the main groups that were caught by these measures.
Over the past few years, Kurds, especially the Iraqi ones who sought asylum in Europe, have been facing difficulties in accepting their asylum applications. The excuse for this is that the allies protect Iraqi Kurdistan and it is now a safe (country) and the Kurds do not have any reasons to leave. In this lecture, I will try to explain the difficulties that the Iraqi Kurds are facing in their homeland which is divided into two areas, one under Kurdish rule and the other under the control of Iraqi government.
Like all other members of the human race, the Kurds in Iraq want to live in stability with certainty and faith in the future. The Kurds in the region are facing enormous difficulties and fears. They live in a continuous state of anxiety because of the uncertainty of their situation. These fears and anxieties are the real reasons for this influx of Kurds into Europe. I will attempt to highlight these difficulties and give an accurate picture of the reality of the situation.
I will start with the Iraqi Kurds, who can be divided into two categories, those who live in the liberated areas of Kurdistan under the control of the KDP and the PUK, and those who live under the control of Saddam’s government in the areas of Kirkuk, Kanaqin, Zamar, Makhmour and some other regions.
Iraqi Kurdistan, apart from the aforementioned areas that are under the control of the Iraqi government, has been liberated from the Iraqi’s government’s control since the end of the Gulf war in 1991, when the Safe haven was established in most of the area and the Kurds were happy to get rid of the Ba’the regime. At the time, expectations were that Kurds who fled Iraqi repression and sought refuge in Europe and other countries would go back to their homes in Kurdistan. In fact, the exact opposite took place. Those who never thought that they would leave their homeland, had to sell all their property and possessions and face may dangers to make their way to safer countries seeking a secure, stable and peaceful life for themselves and their families. The main reason for the influx is that the future is bleak for the Iraqi Kurds who do not know what is the future hiding for them.
The ones who live in the liberated areas are being supplied with food and other humanitarian aid, as a result of the UN Security Council Resolution 986, and are being protected by the USA, UK and Turkey. There are no guarantees that this feeding and protection will continue and even if it did, it will be on humanitarian, not political, grounds. This as a result created a great deal of insecurity and uncertainty in the future for the people in different aspects.
Politically
Saddam Hussein and his regime, who conducted the most brutal campaigns of genocide and ethnic cleansing against the Kurds, are still in power. The danger of him returning to the region with his oppression machine is still plausible and there is no guarantee that this will not take place.
Initially, the Iraqi people thought that he would be removed by the war or the popular uprising which followed in 1991; but they were let down by the west, especially USA, when the Allies stopped the war short of toppling him and allowed him to fly his armed military helicopters and planes, in breach of the cease fire accord, to quash the uprising. After that, the allies, led by the USA, enforced the no-fly zones in the Kurdish region and later in the south and promised to protect the people from his oppression, which is taking place on the ground, not in the sky. Besides this, these no-fly zones proved to be ineffective whenever he wanted to attack. His attack on the city of Arbil in 1996 is still fresh in our memory. The people of Iraq need no-drive zones and not no-fly zones.
Furthermore, this (Safe Haven) protection includes only two-thirds of Iraqi Kurdistan; one third of the Kurdish area is outside the no-fly zone and under the control of the Iraqi government. This area is undergoing a systematic campaign of arabization, which is part of the government’s policy to change the ethnic, cultural and demographic nature of these areas by expelling the Kurds and Turkomans from their homes to the Kurdish-controlled areas and their homes and property are given to Arab families and army personnel who are loyal to the government.
The expelled Kurds, who have lost everything, find it very difficult to settle in the Kurdish-controlled areas. This is because of the high unemployment, the poor public services and the dependency of the region on the UN’s humanitarian aid programme, which has no special plans to guarantee housing, food and other necessary means for them.
A sign of hope for the Iraqi people was the American and the British government’s strong stand on overthrowing the Iraqi regime and their promises for supporting the opposition to do so. But in reality, there were no practical measures to do son despite the strong declarations against Saddam.
In fact, a shadow of doubt is now cast over the seriousness of the American and British position on this issue and may Iraqis are starting to believe that USA and its allies want this regime to stay. In 1995, the US government sponsored a covert action for a plan to overthrow the Iraqi government. It was to be carried out by the Iraqi Naional Congress and the two main parties that are controlling Iraqi Kurdistan, the PUK and the KDP. 48 hours before the start of the plan, the Americans withdrew all their support and wanted the INC and the Kurds to face the consequences by themselves. That sudden withdrawal and the plan itself, which did not seem to be practical and applicable, threw more doubt on the American’s seriousness in ending this regime.
More recently, the issue of the UN arms inspection teams had dominated the news and was at the heart of the dispute between the UN and the Iraqi government and it seemed as if the problem for Iraq is whether it possess weapons of mass destruction or not! Although destroying these weapons is an important step, but the regime does not always need weapons of mass destruction to persecute his defenceless people. Furthermore, this persecution has been continuous with the knowledge of the international community and it did not take any significant steps to stop it.
In another respect, the anti-Saddam camp of the international community, led by the USA and Britain, is currently reviewing its policy towards Iraq. In light of the latest indications and other remarks by western officials, it seems that the outcome of this review is going to be in favour of Saddam; especially after the escalation of the Israeli-Arab conflict and the dramatic decrease of Saddam’s isolation in the Arab world; the Palestinian uprising and the Israeli use of force against it. All these events benefited Saddam greatly and made him popular in the Arab and Islamic world.
The essence of the new policy seems to be revolving around two conditions, Iraq’s threat to its neighbours, especially the Arab ones and its possession of weapons of mass destruction. The safety and security of the Iraqi people does not seem to be on the agenda, and Saddam’s regime has a free hand to continue persecuting the people as it wants without being afraid of any international consequences or punishment.
In light of this American policy review, and lobbying support in order to be back to the scene, Saddam is playing his cards in a cunning way. He is building strong trade ties with some regional and international countries like Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, France and Russia. He is also trying to create a lobby of people in different countries including the USA and the UK to support his plans. These people seem to be either naïve, or wanting to help Saddam, regardless of his threats to the Iraqi people and the others, in return for benefits from Baghdad.
On the other hand, the Kurdish area, or the Safe Haven, itself is not very stable. People are caught between the fear of Saddam’s return and the unstable internal situation; especially the KDP-PUK conflict that divided the region into two areas and created a situation that allowed neighbouring countries to carry out military incursions into the region. The division has also created an atmosphere of violence that allowed violations of human rights to go unpunished or unaccounted for. It also placed clear limits on the freedom of expression. In addition to this, the Iraqi regime’s agents are still able to infiltrate into the areas and carry out acts of sabotage to destabilise the situation.
Economically
Since the Gulf War, Iraq, including the Safe Haven, has been under UN sanctions. The Kurdish region was also put under a blockade by Saddam’s regime. As a result, the Kurds were living under severe economic hardship, which would have been much worse had the oil-for-food prgramme not been implemented. After the implementation of UN Security Council’s Resolution 986, or what is known as the oil-for-food programme, and the allocation of 13 per cent of oil revenue to the Kurdish region, the situation of the people has improved. Food rations are given to them and also some service projects are being implemented. However, this programme does not provide an adequate solution for the problems. It is not making use of local resource that are available in the region in order to encourage people to be economically productive. As a result, record scores of unemployment are observed in the Kurdish region.
In addition, the UN’s work is dependent on Baghdad’s approval. In other words, the life of an Iraqi Kurd in the Kurdish-controlled region is dependent on two temporal things; the US and British protection and the oil-for-food programme, both of which could be revoked. In light of the British and American policy review on Iraq, and the continuous Arab, Islamic and international pressure to lift sanctions, the Kurds are not excluding the possibility of Saddam’s return and the cutting of those two lifelines despite the USA’s promises that they will continue.
Putting oneself in the position of an Iraqi Kurd, one can understand their anxiety and reasons for leaving their homeland and seeking a new life in the safety and security of a different country, where they could work, study and even help his needy family back home. Although we are talking about Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurds in Iran and Turkey are denied their basic rights too. Even in Syria Kurds have no constitutional rights. In all those countries Kurds are either not recognised at all like in Turkey, or discriminated against like in Iran, and in general they are treated as second-class citizens.
Some people might argue that the Kurds are economic migrants, I say to those: each Kurd raises an average of 10 to 12 thousand dollars to flee his country, this large sum of money is capable of providing a good lifestyle in Kurdistan, had there been security, stability and certainty of future. Furthermore, they would not be prepared to take all the risks while they go to Europe as we have seen when hundreds were drowned, suffocated in trucks or died in other ways.
Even the two ruling parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, KDP and PUK, are now reconsidering their positions on the refugee issue, after saying previously that refugees could go back to their areas, by asking the European countries to be flexible in dealing with those asylum seekers. This comes after the severe criticism they faced, even by their own members. It was often said that if their areas are secure and prosperous, why do not they first take back their own families and members of their parties. This change in the parties’ policy is evident from the conclusions reached by the various committees, formed on this issue in the two areas, in saying that there are political, economical and social problems behind this mass migration and they have to be solved. In addition to that, the division of the Kurdish area ruled by KDP and PUK must end and a united administration must be formed in a way that guarantees lasting peace and stability in Kurdistan.
The generous 1951 refugee convention, which was a mile stone in the international protection of refugees was drawn up by a Europe that was suffering from the aftermath of a brutal war and had witnessed the crime of a genocide against the Jews, and the other crimes committed against other people in the world. The two elements that, in my opinion, were the main incentive from drafting that convention are present today in the case of the Kurds who are escaping genocide and a ware in which all forms of weapons were used and many crimes were committed against them. In order to tackle the refugee issue, the European policy makers have to take one of two options, they can either tackle the problem form the root and solve the Kurdish issue in the Middle East in a way that guarantees the Kurds’ safety and security; or expect many more ships of refugees and they will have to treat them in a better way. I am certain that if they lived under the circumstances and felt the plight of the Kurds, they would be very lenient and understanding towards them.
An international, or at least a European, conference on the Kurds is needed to solve the problem. When refugee ships arrive, this demand is usually asked for by the countries concerned as was the case in Italy and France, but after a while when the ships stop coming, its no more talked about and this demand unfortunately fades away. In conclusion, I would say that if the Kurds were willing to give up their homeland sell all their property and take all the risks that face them on their way to Europe they must have a “well-founded fear of persecution”.
Dit is de speech die door dokter Mahmoud Osman eerder dit jaar werd gegeven ter gelegenheid van een conferentie over asielzoekers in London University. Dr. Mahmoud Osman kan gecontacteerd worden op het volgende e-mailadres: [email protected]

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