Lack of jobs and crisis push young Iraqi Kurds to migrate

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RANYA, Iraq (AP) – The specter of unemployment haunts both students and faculty at universities in northern Iraq. Many speak of an increasing number of empty seats in classrooms in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region – seats once occupied by students who left for Europe.

Those who remain, like 21-year-old law student Zhewar Karzan, are considering leaving.

He sees no future at home, in the town of Ranya, nestled between picturesque mountains, rivers and Lake Dukan, the largest lake in the Iraqi Kurdish region. A college degree doesn’t guarantee a job and his parents struggle to pay the bills, he said.

In the spring, Karzan plans to try his luck and leave with other hopeful migrants. Her brother Jiyar, who in 2016 paid a smuggler to take her to Italy from Turkey, eventually reached Britain and now supports the whole family at home while working in a pizza place.

“I will join him,” Karzan said.

Iraqi Kurdish youth face a difficult choice: endure unemployment and corruption at home, or try to sneak into Europe at the risk of financial ruin or even death on the perilous journey.

Although there are no reliable statistics, a substantial number of young Iraqi Kurds are said to have left, seeing no hope in their country. Meanwhile, the students who have stayed find it difficult to motivate themselves as going to school is no longer a safe path to employment.

Across the Middle East, struggling economies have failed to keep pace with population growth. In Iraq’s three Kurdish provinces, between 43,000 and 54,000 jobs are expected to be created each year to absorb new waves of young people entering the labor market, according to UN estimates.

The gap between timid economic growth and a “youth explosion” has led to continued high unemployment. Among Iraqi Kurds aged 15 to 29, it is 24% for men and 69% for women, according to a UN survey. The government says these numbers have improved over the past three years, but official statistics have not been released.

Iraqi Kurdish university campuses have become a hotbed of discontent. Recent protests in the towns of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah over student allowances, frozen since 2014, underscore growing public disenchantment with the government.

The Kurdish regional government suspended allowances at the time due to the costly war against extremist Islamic State and icy relations with the Baghdad-based Iraqi federal government which again blocked the budget allocations needed to pay public workers. A drop in oil prices has dealt a further blow to the Iraqi oil-exporting Kurdish region.

Allowances, between $ 40 and $ 70 per month, covered transportation, books, clothing and other basic needs.

With a recent rise in oil prices to over $ 70 a barrel and the lifting of some austerity measures, students have demanded a resumption of government aid. They recently staged protests at Raparin University in Sulaymaniyah and elsewhere to press for the resumption of benefits.

The students received tear gas and batons. Classes at Ranya Main University were canceled for a week. Karzan, the future migrant, said the protests were co-opted by political groups and turned violent.

Students also argued that universities are unable to produce qualified graduates for the job market. They alleged that the institutions are tainted with nepotism and controlled directly or indirectly by political leaders through appointments and funding.

Inside the university halls, framed posters of Kurdish leaders hang on the walls – a constant reminder of the reach of the political parties dominating the region.

Even teachers are unable to escape the attraction. A Sulaymaniyah university professor said he often received calls from his superiors, urging him to give passing grades to the offspring of powerful officials. Another said he was ostensibly discouraged for being overly critical of the ruling elite in his college-level courses. The two teachers spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing that they would lose their jobs.

Aram Hamza has said he is fed up with the prevailing political nepotism and just wants to leave.

“You need connections to survive here,” said the 20-year-old student. “If I were the son of a powerful person, I would find a job, no problem.”

The Iraqi Kurdish region is more prosperous and stable than the rest of Iraq, in large part thanks to the power-sharing between the two dominant Kurdish parties which have divided the region into zones of control. Each party controls the institutions on its territory and secures loyalty through appointments. The government remains the largest employer in the region.

Iraqi Kurds who fall outside these patronage networks are unable to find employment or, if employed, struggle for years with back pay and pay cuts.

Serena Wso said she worried about the cost of her education on her parents. Her father, a government employee, earns $ 412 a month.

“My father’s salary is so small,” she said. “And the government is doing nothing to help.”

Mathematics major Salah Sabir said he was considering giving up, disappointed after his two older sisters with dental degrees couldn’t find work.

Ali Barez, a 20-year-old history student at Erbil, said he spent every day wondering if he would find a job as a teacher after graduating. He said there hadn’t been any openings for years. Six friends recently left for Europe and he could follow them, if he can borrow enough money to pay the smugglers.

Jiyar Othman, an English teacher, said students often ask him what is the point of studying if there is no job after graduation. Many college graduates ended up working as laborers or in restaurants, earning less than $ 137 a month.

“It’s hard to motivate them,” he says. “They don’t see the end of the tunnel.


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