No Country for Young Men

Since the beginning of ISIS attacks on Kurdistan Regional Government,
the KRG,  mass droves of young men and families have headed for the borders leaving Kurdistan behind. Some 5,000 people, mostly young, have left since the first few months of 2015. This mass exodus has gained a lot of attention both domestically and internationally. Although this isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this, it’s important to note there have been three waves of Kurdish immigration since the 80s and 90s to this day.

Civilians migrating from Sinjar after ISIS attack in Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by Delil Souleiman

Early waves of immigration came in the 70s and 80s. This mass wave of immigration to Europe and other parts of the world was a result of oppression under the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein and its lack of freedoms. Mass exodus became more prevalent during the Anfal campaign as thousands of villages and towns were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people were killed and injured, forcing tens of thousands to seek refuge abroad.  This wave of immigrants became the Kurdish diaspora that have established their roots abroad.

Kirkuk, Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by Karwan Bashan

The second wave of mass Kurdish immigration came in the 90s, as a lack of freedom, poverty and war were still rampant in the Kurdish areas. The Kurdistan region had collapsed economically and politically and had descended into civil war over control of the region between the two major political parties, the KDP and the PUK, the Kurds that left in the 90s felt as if their revolution had been  as the establishment of the KRG had offered little to no hopes of a brighter future. International sanctions on Iraq and Iraqi sanctions on Kurdish region left the region poverty stricken, bereft of infrastructure development; while economic collapse and civil war pushed tens of thousands to the borders seeking elsewhere for their futures.

Iraqi Kurds playing a traditional game. Photo by Karwan Bashan

Since the 2003 Iraq war, the Kurdish region has developed beyond recognition. With this new found freedom has come economic prosperity, job opportunities  and investments from companies from all over the world. Initially this created  better standards of living and a region which became the torch bearer of freedoms and prosperity for the Middle East.

As a result, the KRG experienced dramatic changes. Kurdish officials opened the region to oil exploration. The world’s biggest companies rushed to Kurdistan, triggering an economic boom. Many countries opened new consulates in the capital city Hawler. In short, Kurdistan emerged as one of the great players in the Middle East in terms of natural resources and security. This dramatic boost in the economy and in standards of living prompted many who lived abroad to return home in search of a part in this new nation-building period.

People hanging near the citadel in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by Karwan Bashan

However, once the surface was scratched it became apparent this economic revolution was mainly for the political elite – as industries such as telecommunications, oil and construction were monopolized.  Economic collapse came as Baghdad refused to provide the KRG’s budget and the war with ISIS raged on. Leaving many young without jobs or hope for the future, there are no reliable statistics for youth unemployment but some suggest it could be as high as 50%.

According to Ali Sindi, the KRG’s minister of planning in 2014 the unemployment rate in the KRG increased to 14% from the previous year’s 6%. Similarly we see disappointing numbers when looking at the number of women in employment. Women’s participation in the economy is at a lowly 14.8%, according to a recent Rudaw report.  Seemingly the KRG has little or no initiatives for the youth and no programs to prepare future generations of Kurdish entrepreneurs and leaders. The young people have lost hope in the political system and political leaders and this is the reason why so many young people are looking elsewhere for their future.

Kirkuk, Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by Karwan Bashan

It’s interesting as to why the Kurdish workforce, many of whom hold degrees and are educated, come to Europe and work in factories and kebab shops – primarily because they feel the KRG offers them no better alternative. A system of nepotism, which is rampant across all parts of Kurdish life, makes it a system of not what you know but rather who you know.

In order for the KRG officials to overcome and find solutions for this new trend, they need to integrate more youth and women into the social and political decision-making process and create job opportunities to halt the mass exodus of young and able workforce, which will benefit the Kurdish economy in the long run.

Central Park at Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by Azad Bozan

The toughest tasks facing the KRG post-ISIS are the creation of jobs for low skilled workers, as well as schemes for post-graduate students and investment into agriculture and construction. With a real opportunity for social development, coupled with the much anticipated and talked about referendum – now is the time to invest in the future of Kurdistan before everyone heads for the borders.

Ramadan 2016 in Kirkuk, Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by Azad Bozan