This is a crisis built on aspiration, not desperation
Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan
Why have so many Iraqi Kurds made the journey to both the Poland-Belarus border and the English Channel? The situation of 2021 should not be confused with 2015. It is not mere desperation that motivates these journeys — aspiration, and the chance to embarrass a resented political order have played a part as well.
Long regarded, for good reason, as the success story of the region due to its stability, safety and genuine high level of religious tolerance, resentment is growing in Iraqi Kurdistan, particularly among the young. High unemployment and the perceived injustice of a political system dominated by the Barzani and Talabani families, cronyism in government hiring, unpaid wages, felt exclusion from the proceeds of oil revenues, and, most recently, the removal of government stipends for students has led to a wedge developing between the young and old. The latter, remembering the Iran-Iraq war and the persecution and gas attacks under Saddam, often do not perceive these issues with the same level of seriousness.
But for the young, memories of the Saddam Hussein era are distant, if not entirely non-existent. Earlier this month, a cafe owner was arrested after videos surfaced of the Ba’ath Party anthem being played from the sound system to a clientele of unfazed 20-somethings.
The exact circumstances of the incident are unclear, but the neighbours suggested it was a stunt. Even if had it been a mistake, or a joke, the nonchalant reception to the chirpy, rousing tones of ‘Saddam Zera’ is evident of a youth growing jaded with the orthodoxies of its elders.
The sight of Iraqi Kurds on the Polish border, having paid out thousands of Euros to traffickers for the gamble, has embarrassed both Barzani and Kurdistan’s reputation. The president has been forced to publicly defend the situation in Kurdistan and put on repatriation flights.
Yet Kurdistan remains a high-trust society. At the Erbil citadel bazaar, currency is exchanged in the open, with only a small plastic cover shielding tens of thousands of US Dollars and Euros from the wind. Shops and cafés rarely have proper tills; owners throw notes loosely into a wooden draw before leaving the shop open and unwatched for a chat and a chai next door.
During the recent protests, students took to blocking Erbil’s arterial ring roads. Though violence was reported in Sulaymaniyah (Kurdistan’s most liberal city; the site of an American University established in 2007) before the government agreed to reinstate the student living allowance, there was a lack of aggression in the atmosphere in Erbil. Much like the city’s ever-present Peshmerga, who politely usher you this way or that, smiling with a ‘welcome to Kurdistan’, the police, far from relishing the opportunity to swagger in riot gear, removed the students from the roads with resigned embarrassment.
Kurdistan’s problems are serious, but that a region with such a brutal recent history has begun to develop political and cultural fault lines reminiscent of those of more stable countries — particularly with the improved security situation following the territorial defeat of ISIS — is, perhaps, progress of sorts. What this means for western governments trying to secure their borders, however, is an entirely different question altogether.