Kurdistan: Exile or Displacement

In recent years, thousands of Syrian Kurds have managed to reach Europe, fleeing like other Syrians from the war at home that started with popular protests in mid-March 2011. Some Kurdish activists refer ironically to “European Kurdistan,” the Kurdish community made up of those exiled to those countries. A closer look at Kurdish emigration sheds light on how personal, political and regional relationships can affect patterns of exile and asylum.

While similar factors are pushing both Kurds and wider Syrian society to emigrate, there are fundamental differences between the two groups. To start, Kurds left Syria before the war at a far higher rate than in other parts of Syrian society. Large numbers of Kurds left for Europe decades ago in response to the ruling Ba’ath party’s policies against them such as the Arab Belt Project, launched in 1962, which aimed to empty the northeastern part of Syria (the ‘Jazira’) of Kurds, bringing in Arabs to take their place. That project began by stripping 150,000 Kurdish Syrians of their citizenship.

The reasons for Kurdish emigration from Syria did not originate with the current political and military situation in the country. Around half a million Kurds were stripped of Syrian citizenship, becoming quasi-refugees in their own land. Many migrated to Europe decades ago, while the majority of those left in Syria were stateless, waiting for their chance to leave. Many lived in other parts of Syria such as Aleppo and Damascus, working in various commercial and manufacturing jobs and forming a large part of the labor force. Many made the move to those areas in order to improve their economic wellbeing, obtain official papers enabling them to travel, work, and study in government universities.

A long campaign of arbitrary arrest against Kurdish activists and journalists also pushed many Kurdish academics to emigrate, while the Kurdish language and press were banned. This continued until March 12, 2004, when a Kurdish intifada erupted in Qamishli, leading to dozens of Kurdish academics fleeing the country. Kurds who were stripped of Syrian citizenship had a difficult time in other parts of the country. They were allowed to study in universities, but they were banned from practicing their trades with qualifications from Syrian universities, a barrier that placed them in the position of unskilled laborers even though they were educated.

The outbreak of popular protests in Syria increased the pressures on Kurds to emigrate. On top of the existing factors mentioned above, they faced the destruction of infrastructure, the lack of electricity, water and phone services. At the start of the war, when Kurdish forces took control of northern parts of the country, they clashed with Islamist factions including the Nusra Front. The Islamic State group laid siege to Ayn al-Arab (Kobani) in mid-September 2014, abducting Kurdish adults and even children, on the grounds that they belonged to Kurdish factions. As a result of the growing lack of security, 400,000 Kurds fled to Turkey. Severe economic hardships was also a factor driving many Kurdish families to leave Syria.

Residents of Kobani are one of the largest groups of Syrian Kurds who have sought refuge in Europe. Men between 18 and 30 years old form the majority of Kurdish migrants in Europe and countries neighboring Syria; they are escaping obligatory military service imposed by the Syrian regime on men over 18. Many from the Kurdish regions in the northeast were unable to flee to other parts of Syria for that reason. As they crossed checkpoints, they found their papers were questioned. Some had only paper documents rather than ID cards or other proofs of their identity, and were even deprived of family registration cards. Thousands of stateless Kurds still work in regime-held parts of Syria because they are unable to travel. Those who travel do so via illicit routes, either through Lebanon or Turkey, or via the easiest route for Kurds, from Qamishli into Iraqi Kurdistan. However, the last route, though easier in terms of required paperwork, requires more money and is out of reach for many.

The Kurdish “People’s Protection Units” also impose obligatory service for six months on both women and men, under rules of “the duty of self-defense” as announced by the Civic Autonomous Administration, the de facto authority in the region. The CAA has been dominated by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) since it was created in late 2013, although other Kurdish groups, Arab, Christian, and Ashouri parties and Arab tribes in the Jazira region are also represented within it. Conscription pushed many young Kurds to leave the region. Many had already left due to the lack of jobs and fear of being arrested during their studies at government universities. Syrian regime forces and radical Islamist factions had made it hard for Kurds to travel to other Syrian cities, on the grounds that they belonged to Kurdish parties. Militias detained hundreds of Kurds on their way from the Jazira to Damascus and Aleppo. The regime arrested many others for taking part in anti-government activities.

Thousands of Syrian Kurds entered Iraqi Kurdistan via the Simalka crossing before the rise of the Islamic State. Syrian Kurds in Iraq were given a few privileges to make it easier for them to reside in the region, but they did receive subsidies from the KRG government to help them move from city to city, as well as aid from organizations linked to the regional government, such as the Barzani charity. They also found jobs in manufacturing and trade, more than they would find in Turkey. In contrast, in Turkey Kurdish refugees need to learn a new language in order to integrate into the labor market. Their trips by sea from Turkey to Europe are no different from those of other Syrian refugees, notwithstanding the tensions between the Kurdish parties and the Turkish authorities.

Despite the closing of the legal routes to the sea through Kurdish cities into Turkey, many Kurdish families are trying to travel to Europe under family reunification programs and via international organizations that help them attain nationality, through the UN, and other human rights organizations in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. The threats facing the Kurdish regions both in Syria and nearby areas, such as sporadic explosions and suicide attacks in Kurdish cities, as well as the tensions between Syrian Kurdish factions, have hindered the search for relative stability in those regions. The two main Syrian Kurdish parties, the PYD and the Kurdish National Council (KNC), have not been able to reach a shared vision on administering Syria’s Kurdish cities, something that would reduce the outflow of Kurds from Syria.

As with most Syrians, thousands of Kurds have lost their lives trying to reach Europe. Many have drowned, like Alan Kurdi, the child whose drowning turned into a legend among migrants and helped create a wave of international empathy, especially in Germany, for Syrian refugees. Kurdi became famous when a photographer took pictures of him drowned and washed up on a beach, near Izmir, Turkey. Izmir is a major point of departure for Kurds and other Syrians fleeing the war in their country. Despite all the reasons Syrians have to flee, Kurdish cities are among the safest and most stable in the country. They are a safer refuge for Syrians from other parts of the country, especially those who were not able to leave the country, but they are cities that have seen some of the biggest waves of emigration.

Jiwan Soz is a Kurdish Syrian journalist who writes for several Arab newspapers and agencies, including al-Quds al-Arabi and al-Jazeera. 

Image: Photo: Kurdish refugees flee to Turkey, September 24, 2014. Photo by European Commission DG ECHO via Flickr.