Only eight years ago it was Hazar\'s dream to be able to immigrate to Europe. To him, the West was a secure and imaginable heaven. Using people smugglers, and travelling a dangerous route, the young Iraqi Kurdish man managed to make his way to France. Which is why it seems all the more strange that after eight years in “heaven”, Hazar is now returning to a place he once thought was hell.
Hazar is not alone. While the world was celebrating World Refugee Day on June 20 recently, the refugee situation for Iraqi Kurdish people was changing. In the past many Iraqi Kurdish dreamt, like Hazar did, of escaping their homeland. But now there seem to be just as many who dream of coming back.
During the 1990s, many Iraqi Kurdish left the region, often using illegal methods, to get to Europe where they could seek asylum or register as refugees. The Iraqi Kurdish people were persecuted by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein for years. Then during the mid-90s while Iraqi Kurdistan itself saw violent conflict between its own people, the numbers fleeing rose even further. It was only in 2003, after the US-led invasion of Iraq that saw Saddam Hussein removed from power, that Iraqi Kurdish seem to have started to think about returning home.
This decade, official information from the Iraqi Kurdish authorities suggests that now the number of those leaving Iraqi Kurdistan is less than the number returning. The pattern of counter-migration – and the return home to Iraqi Kurdistan – can be directly attributed to economic improvements in the semi-autonomous region, they say. Employment opportunities have grown in the region and this has led to a drop in numbers leaving.
“Around 23,000 Iraqi refugees’ names have been recorded since 2003,” says Shukur Yassin, who heads the Office of Migration and Displacement in the Ministry of Interior in Iraqi Kurdistan. “But most of those who have returned have been from Iraqi Kurdistan. This is partially because of the deteriorating economic situation in Europe. However here, the security situation has improved as has the economy and this has led to this counter-migration.
Although it was unclear exactly how many Iraqi Kurdish refugees were living outside Iraq, there was no doubt that more were returning home. In 2011, Yassin said the number of returnees amounted to 2,969 but in 2012, that almost doubled to reach 6,298. During the first three months of 2013, numbers were already up to 1,234.
Returnees need some time to settle back in and to find jobs, Yassin notes. But some are in a better position than before they left because of experience, professional and otherwise, gained while out of Iraq. Several European Union countries have also helped financially and otherwise when Iraqi Kurdish asylum seekers in their countries choose to return home voluntarily. The former refugees got between US$3,900 and US$6,500 when they returned home and they would also be given help in finding a job in Iraq.
Of course, not all the Iraqi Kurdish refugees returned willingly. About 7,000 were forced to return, says Amanj Abdallah, an official from the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan. “Between 2005 and 2013 they came from places like the UK, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands.”
Going by his figures, Abdallah thought that about 30,000 Iraqi Kurdish had returned to the country over the past decade. He didn’t doubt this would continue. “Although the migration of Iraqi Kurdish youth has not stopped, the percentage that is leaving is dropping,” he said.
But the counter-migratory trend is not everything, warns journalist Goran Sabbah, who specializes in writing about migration. It also depends on who is coming back and who is still leaving. “The immigrants leaving Iraqi Kurdistan now are the elites and those who completed higher education,” Sabbah says. “They’re the people who speak several languages. And this brain drain is going to hurt the country eventually,” Sabbah warns. “The absence of social justice, growing corruption and the absence of the rule of law – all of these factors are causing Iraqi Kurdistan’s brain drain.”
Meanwhile Hazar is just happy to be back home. He says his dreams of a European heaven didn’t exactly come true. “And I’ve realized that changing where you live is not an easy thing to do,” he tells NIQASH. “We didn’t care about being cold or hungry because we thought that once we got to Europe, everything would be fine. But it’s not like that. And I have come back here because life here is better than life there.”