Once it was only the ordinary people of Iraqi Kurdistan who were trying to flee the country because of ongoing political and economic problems. But now individuals, who lived more privileged lives, are also trying to migrate or looking into seeking asylum.
Most senior officials in Iraqi Kurdistan have more than one nationality and it is standard practice to leave the region more than once a year to work from overseas, take a holiday or look after their business interests elsewhere. But more recently officials who have only one passport, an Iraqi one, have been trying to join them.
Many families are waiting for the lifting of the air embargo in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah airports. Once international flights resume again the migration will also begin again.
Some time ago, a local newspaper, Jiyan, published a list of senior officials who had allegedly been trying to gain residency rights elsewhere, implying that they had been paying for this privilege. It seems clear that some of the names on the list were there for political reasons. Various other Kurdish media outlets republished this list but NIQASH has not been able to verify this information.
However it is true that at least two MPs and their relatives have been trying to immigrate to Canada. Goran Azad Mohammed, an MP for one the region’s biggest parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, left the country around a year ago on a medical trip to the US. After an absence of several months, he finally submitted his resignation to parliament recently and his family has since requested asylum in Canada.
Dler Mawati, a senior member of the PUK, told NIQASH that Mohammed had a sick child and that is why he has resigned and also why he left the country.
The other senior politician who left the region was Sirwan Zahawi, an advisor to the Kurdish prime minister, who had been tasked with rooting out corruption in the regional health sector. Zahawi posted a message on Facebook saying that his life and his family’s had been threatened as a result of his work, and they left for north America several months ago. Now rumours have spread that he too is seeking asylum in Canada.
NIQASH contacted Zahawi via Facebook: The politician confirmed he had left Iraqi Kurdistan, but he did not say anything more about his reasons or his plans.
There have been a number of Iraqi Kurdish journalists who have also seen Canada as a preferred destination. Within local media circles, around 20 have left. Rumour has it they enter the US on press visas and then make their way into Canada to seek asylum there. Upon receiving a message from NIQASH, one of these journalists conceded that he too had requested asylum in Canada but that he was unable to give his name or any further details.
It is difficult to know how many officials left Iraqi Kurdistan or sought asylum elsewhere, says Ari Jalal, the head of the Kurdistan branch of the Iraqi Migrants Federation. But they do get a lot of enquiries from the families of these people.
“A lot of the sons and daughters of the officials have come to us asking for advice on how to seek asylum so they ensure they get this right,” Jalal told NIQASH.
While the migration of politicians is unlikely to upset any of the locals too much, a further category of immigrants could cause the region more problems.
Since 2014, around 1,759 medical staff – including doctors, dentists and pharmacists – have not been practicing because of extended leave, immigration or retirement, Khaled Qadir, the spokesperson for Iraqi Kurdistan's health ministry, told NIQASH. Many of them have left the country altogether.
These health professionals are leaving due to the difficult economic situation in Iraqi Kurdistan and the political instability, Qadir said. “Their migration has a big impact on the ministry’s resources,” he confirms.
And this groundswell of immigration is unlikely to stop anytime soon, says Jalal.
“We have information that many families are waiting for the lifting of the air embargo in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah airports. Once international flights resume again the migration will also begin again,” he says.