Iraqi Kurds: Yesterday’s victims show little compassion?

Syrian Kurds have historically stood in solidarity with the Kurdish movement in Iraq, but the feeling is not mutual.

Syrian Kurds continue to pay a heavy price for their support of the Iraqi Kurdish nationalist movement, writes Ahmed [AFP]

There is no doubt that Iraqi Kurds have faced gross injustices throughout the last century – from British colonial air raids to Saddam Hussein’s chemical attack on Halabja on March 16, 1988 as part of his “Anfal” campaign. Along with the rest of Iraq, they also suffered 12 years of crippling UN-backed sanctions. For this reason, one would imagine Iraqi Kurds would feel a sense of solidarity with their brethren in – and from – the Kurdish regions of Syria (otherwise known as Rojava).

But this is not the case. In addition to the high-handed position the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has taken towards the burgeoning Kurdish movement in Rojava, the tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds currently seeking refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan are subjected to racism and exploitation at every turn.

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During the time I spent in Syria in the early 2000s, I met a number of Syrian Kurds who told me that Kurds in Rojava commemorated the Halabja massacre every year with five minutes of silence – a tribute that has had no equivalent in Iraqi Kurdistan aside from ceremonies in the town of Halabja itself. Indeed, Kurds in Syria have a long tradition of solidarity with the Kurdish movement in Iraq, as well as in Turkey.

A history of solidarity

Following the establishment of Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in 1945 under the leadership of Mustafa Barzani, father of the party’s current leader, the affiliated Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (KDPS) was founded in 1957. In response to this renewed nationalist consciousness among Kurds in Syria and their support of the Iraqi Kurdish movement, successive Syrian governments initiated policies of Arabisation and oppression of Kurds.

Through a racially-motivated census in 1962, the government of President Nazim al-Qudsy and Prime Minister Bashir al-Azama deprived some 120,000 Syrian Kurds from citizenship. Such repressive policies against Kurds in Syria continued under the Syrian Baath regime. In 1963, Muhammad Talab Hilal, a Baathist official, authored “A Study About the National, Social, and Political Aspects of Al-Jazeera Province”, which included a 12-point plan amounting to the ethnic cleansing of Kurds in Syria and guided ensuing Baath policies.

Syrian Kurds were, therefore, left without the right to own property, or access healthcare and sometimes even education. They could not move freely in and outside of Syria. They were denied many other categorical and institutional rights such as marriage and birth registrations. 

Prior to the 2011 uprising, an estimated 300,000 Syrian Kurds were officially labeled “aliens” or “unregistered” and stripped from all citizenship rights. Although Bashar al-Assad had promised to address this issue since at least 2002 and more recently passed legislation securing citizenship for “alien” Kurds in 2011, tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds remain stateless.

In short, Syrian Kurds continue to pay a heavy price for their support of the Iraqi Kurdish nationalist movement.

Kurdish infighting

The political forces that make up the KRG in Northern Iraq have a history of collaborating with oppressors of Kurds (including the Syrian Baath Party) whenever it suits their interests. Perhaps most notably in the summer of 1996 when the KDP joined forces with Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, which resulted in the Iraqi army’s occupation of Erbil and the massacre of hundreds of Iraqi opposition members.

Iraqi Kurdistan has also seen a great deal of infighting between the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) especially during the civil war (1994-1997). Yet, despite the KRG’s own somewhat dubious past, not to mention recent human rights abuses, political persecution, and widespread corruption, the KDP – in the person of Massoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan – has insisted on maintaining an authoritative position in the Kurdish National Councilin Rojava.

Despite the KRG’s own somewhat dubious past, not to mention recent human rights abuses, political persecution, and widespread corruption, the KDP… has insisted on maintaining an authoritative position in the Kurdish National Council in Rojava.

If Kurdish politicians in Rojava, for whatever reasons including internal discord, do not follow Barzani’s instructions, there are consequences. Barzani has not limited his disapproval to mere refusals to acknowledge the three autonomous cantons in Rojava; he has also instituted  with Turkey a joint embargo on the region and closed the border with Syria on more than one occasion in the last year. The border closures mean that Syrians attempting to find refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan, at times including children who have been separated from their families, have no means of entering the region legally.

Domiz refugee camp

As of March 5, the UNHCR reports that 226,934 Syrian refugees were in Iraq, most of whom are Kurds currently in the Kurdish regions of Iraq. Nearly half of these refugees are concentrated in Duhok province.

Domiz camp, which is Iraq’s largest Syrian refugee camp and is near the city of Duhok, has a capacity of 27,000 refugees but was hosting 58,500 at the end of February according to a UNHCR update.

Such overcrowding has exacerbated sanitation issues as well as access to essential services in the camp and with the summer fast approaching, things will only get worse. Although the KRG was initially commended for its commitment to the Syrian refugee crisis, particularly in light of the absence of adequate international assistance, proper planning and follow-up measures have not been implemented for the unexpected influx of refugees.

Syrian refugees also encounter discrimination and exploitation from Iraqi Kurdish society. Stereotypes about Syrian refugees in Iraq abound and it seems they are only stoked by the local management of the camp.

In a local news report last November, the camp director lamented: “About 20,000 refugees are working in Duhok now. This has affected the economy in Duhok, and has led to an increase in unemployment […] prices, rents, crime, drugs and prostitution… They are a ticking bomb threatening the stability of Duhok.”

His comments reflect the overall climate, at least in Duhok, where nearly every person I have encountered over the last five months has made racist comments about Syrian refugees.

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Vulnerable women

Despite the hardships, women at Domiz Camp are engaged in all kinds of productive activities in the public sphere, ranging from education to cultural activities.

It is worth noting that outside the camp, women throughout Iraqi Kurdistan are silenced, socially marginalised, and psychologically broken. Although Iraqi Kurdish women are visible in public, their activities are restricted. 

In such an environment, foreign women who do not at least have the benefit of local connections are much more at risk. While locals in Duhok complain about the increased prevalence of prostitution in reference to Syrian refugees, they fail to take responsibility for the fact that the clientele of this growing sex trade are local men who exploit already vulnerable refugee women and girls. Similarly, the recent brutal rape of a 16-year-old Syrian Kurdish girl in Erbil by six Iraqi Kurdish men has received very little public attention from Iraqi Kurds, and there were even concerns the victim would be forced to reconcile with the rapists.

In remembering the deadly gas attack on Halabja or the Anfal campaigns, yesterday’s victims should be more inclined to stand in solidarity with those struggling for survival today.

And yet, among Iraqi Kurds, this feeling of collective victimhood appears to have given way to an enormous sense of entitlement, as they commit the same kind of discriminatory practices to which they were subjected not so long ago.

Saladdin Ahmed is a philosopher with research interests including philosophy of space, Frankfurt School, social movements, and minorities. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Ottawa.