In early April many Iranians took to the streets of Tehran to celebrate the announcement of a “framework agreement” on Iran's nuclear programme. But they were not the only Iranians to greet a possible thaw in international relations between Iran and Western powers so enthusiastically. Iranians living in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan were also cheering. Because for these Iranians – usually migrant workers, mostly of Kurdish ethnicity - this might be the chance to return home they've been waiting for.
“The ordinary people here treat us well,” Habib Abdullah Torordi, who works as a baker in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, notes. “But the security forces do not. Mainly because there is no clear law that recognizes our presence here. The [framework] agreement will mean less pressure on Iran and it will lead to an improvement in the economic situation,” he says hopefully. “And when the conditions improve, we will return to our homes and our children. We don't want to continue living this way,” says the baker, who sends his wages back to his wife and son who live in the Iranian city of Marivan, home to a mostly Kurdish Iranian population and near to the Iraqi border.
Despite a shared Kurdish background, life for Iranian nationals working in the city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, is not always easy. Things have changed a lot since they got here. Their reasons for coming to the semi-autonomous, northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own borders, legislature and military, and basically works like a state within a state inside Iraq, were clear. The Iranian economy was under pressure from international sanctions while, just over the border, in Iraqi Kurdistan, business was booming; at one stage, at least before Iraq's current security crisis, Iraqi Kurdistan was often optimistically described as “the new Dubai”.
Additionally the city of Sulaymaniyah, the second biggest in Iraqi Kurdistan, is close to the Iranian border and traditionally has good cultural and political relationships with its Persian neighbours. Many Iranians who came to work here, leaving their families behind, were not necessarily political activists, opposed to the regime in Tehran or seeking asylum – their primary aim is to earn money.
The influx of migrant workers into Iraqi Kurdistan over the past five to seven years has been well documented – labourers from Asia and Africa fed the region's building boom and a newly affluent class' need for cleaners, maids and cafe workers. Iranians of Kurdish ethnicity often had an advantage over many of the latter because they shared at least some of the culture and language.
“But it would still be better for us to work in our own country,” explains Bakhtiar Saidi, an Iranian working as a tattooist in the Iraqi city of Ranya in the mountainous area near the Iranian border. He says that most of the Iranians he knows would go back home if the economy improved. “Many of my relatives and friends work in the Kurdistan region but their lives are not easy and they don't always feel comfortable because of local security that is directed against Iranians here. They are pinning their hopes on the agreement between Iran and the P5 plus one,” he noted.
Nobody seems to know exactly how many Iranian Kurds are in Iraqi Kurdistan. The local Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in Iraqi Kurdistan has counted over 15,000 foreign workers entering the region since 2009 but they don't know exactly how many of these are Iranian. One reputable local journalist told a 2011 fact-finding mission by the Danish Immigration Service he thought there might be as many as 30,000 Iranian migrant workers in Iraqi Kurdistan, although some of these individuals may well have been brought into the area by Iranian companies and investors.
Part of the reason for the lack of realistic figures is because many of the Iranians looking for employment apparently arrive as tourists on 15-day visas, then stay on without obtaining work or residence permits.
Iranians who want to work in Iraqi Kurdistan have to pass through various, time consuming bureaucratic hoops to get work or residency permits. Part of this process involves foreigners registering with the local security forces known as the Asayesh, the Iraqi Kurdish intelligence service.
The Iranian Kurds in Iraq say that they have to wait a long time to get any permits, if indeed they get one at all. They may have to return to application offices several times and often permits are only temporary, lasting just one to six months before a return visit is required. Even if they get one, they say they will often still be summoned for questioning with the Asayesh.
Given staunch Kurdish nationalism, which says that all those of Kurdish ethnicity, whether they're from Iran, Turkey, Syria or Iraq are welcome, it can be hard to understand why the Asayesh would harass Iranian Kurdish workers.
“One of the main reasons for this is a fear of terrorism,” suggests local journalist, Zanko Ahmad, who is based in Sulaymaniyah. “According to the Asayesh an Iranian was involved in bombings in Erbil in August last year.”
“The Asayesh don't always act logically,” says another local journalist based in Erbil. “They may just be worried about any strangers.”
Interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch with Iranians seeking some kind of asylum in Iraq – as opposed to migrant workers – suggest that the Asayesh also think Iranians in their region could be spies. Activists seeking refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan also say security forces have told them not to cause any trouble there, for fear of offending the Iranian regime.
It's not just security issues that make life increasingly uncomfortable for Iranians in Iraqi Kurdistan. The downturn in the region's economic fortunes is also having an impact on the migrant workers. Political disputes between Iraqi Kurdistan and the federal government in Baghdad has seen the Kurdish economy starved of cash, with Baghdad unwilling, and now apparently unable, to send the independent region their share of the federal budget. Coupled with the current security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, this has seen a major downturn in the Kurdish boom towns over the past year.
Which is why some locals are saying that migrant workers are just another burden.
“The presence of foreign workers leads to higher unemployment in the region,” argues Omar Mohammed, head of the Garmian branch of a local trade union, the Kurdistan Worker's Syndicate; the Garmian area is also near the Iranian border. “Foreign workers will do all kinds of jobs for a pittance but locals won't accept such low wages.” Often, Mohammed admits, migrant workers will do the job just as well and take less money for it.
“Iranian workers have become a burden as they reduce job opportunities for the citizens of the region,” complains Abdul Majid, who heads the Sulaymaniyah province's Department of Labour, part of the regional Ministry of Labour. “We want to try and organize them so that their negative impact is reduced and we have some plans we will try and implement through the issue of residency.”
As yet there has been no formal decision to change anything and Majid wouldn't comment further on when, or if, his department would act upon any of the potential plans. Still, most of the Iranian migrant workers applying for a residency believe the plan is unofficial and already in action as they find it increasingly impossible to get a permit to stay legally.
“If I am not granted a residency permit for Sulaymaniyah, I can't see my family more than three times a year,” complains Mustafa Yazdan Bann, who has left his wife and two daughters in Kermanshah, Iran, in order to work in Iraqi Kurdistan. Bann is a fine arts graduate and a painter but he works on construction sites and part time in a hotel in Iraqi Kurdistan. “We are waiting to see what happens next,” he says. “And to see in which direction Iran will move. If the sanctions are lifted and the Iranian economy improves and things get more comfortable, I will return to Iran. I won't stay away from my family any longer than I have to.”