By Diliman Abdulkader
“The referendum locks voters, and young Kurds in particular, into an impossible position: Voting against independence feels like a betrayal of the decades-long struggle for an independent Kurdish state; voting in favor means unquestioned support for the status quo and those leaders who represent it and who proposed the referendum.” – Maria Fantappie, Senior analyst in the Middle East and North Africa Program of the International Crisis Group
Kurdish independence is a desire for all Kurds at home and abroad. If this statement holds true, why is it that backing for a referendum is weak among Kurds living in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) compared to the diaspora?
While the Kurdish diaspora pushes for referendum, aside from corruption at the top, Kurds at home face unemployment and a deficient education system, two of the most important aspects of a successful society, and ultimately a successful state. This is the trouble the diaspora fails to address and there is a large gap that seems alien to those living abroad.
First, let’s state the obvious; Kurds abroad do not have to go through the day to day hardship of those living in the KRI.
Unemployment is one of the biggest challenges that must be addressed. As of 2016 the unemployment rate hit 14 percent compared to 2013 at 6.5 percent, while other estimates put the rate at 20%. Furthermore, unemployment among women is 29.4% compared to men at 9.7%. Among the youth, ages 15-24, unemployment is at 24% with a staggering 69% for women. The World Bank ranks the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as 57th worse, which is a poor score in terms of business environment. The opportunities and tools have not been made available to Kurdish citizens, Dr. Frank Gunter, Professor of Economics at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania stated, “to legally start a small business in the KRG, one must pay about 50% of what the average resident earns in a year in governmental bureaucratic procedures.” It takes nearly 249 days to obtain legal business permits.
To make matters worse, KRG is lacking on investing locally and would rather hand out profits to Turkish companies. Strong ties between Erbil and Ankara has hit locals especially hard. In 2009, an estimated 485 Turkish companies existed in the KRG, this number skyrocketed to over 1500 Turkish companies in 2013. Over 80% of all goods sold in the KRG are made in Turkey and Turkish companies constitute over 65% of all foreign businesses operating in Kurdistan. The lack of diversity in the KRG market isolates locals and increases tensions. According to research conducted by the RAND Corporation, “[Of] all the jobs in the region, only 20% are wage-paying jobs in the private sector,” the rest are employed by the government.
Furthermore, 50% of the population is age 20 or younger which requires a sound and efficient education system. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Dr. Mohammed Shareef, a fellow of the Royal Asiatic society in London and a lecturer at the University of Sulaimaniya in the KRG, states that, “students in Kurdistan are victims of a dysfunctional educational system that has impacted them negatively since the age of six.” Although the education system has been built from ground up, it has struggled to keep pace with today’s demands. Classes are overcrowded which inhibits students from engaging in intellectual dialogue and creativity. Today there are 6000 schools in the KRG which surprisingly operates like a workplace, in two-three shifts. KRG education heavily relies on traditional methods and there is always a hierarchal teacher-student relationship. Moreover, the curriculum is largely based on memorization rather than discussion, in return the students feel discouraged and overwhelmed.
The tense political atmosphere in the entirety of the region does not allow space for college students to thrive. While the number of students at higher education is 94,700, freelance journalist Aras Ahmed Mhamad believes that Kurdish education “directs individuals and society from the perspective of party politics and ideology. The educational process also takes place amid a media hysteria and political chaos that various parties are continuously creating in order to cling on to power.”
In a 2016 report titled Education and Media: Needs and Priorities in the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI), due to the financial crisis, public employees are not receiving full salaries, and many teachers have either not been paid for 5 months or received only partial salaries. This results in teacher motivation being extremely low, and turnover rates increasing.
Unemployment and education is connected in many ways. Simply put, if the unemployment rate stays consistent at the estimated 14%, or increases, there will be a decrease in the desire for college students to complete their respective degrees due to the lack of career opportunities.
Moreover, is the Kurdish diaspora prepared to trade places with those facing difficulties at home? Are they willing to face unemployment and a weak education system? Does the diaspora truly understand why those living at home rather focus on their day to day survival than false hope of tribal politicians?
The Kurds are certainly long overdue for a state of their own, but this is no reason to ignore the difficult conditions of those at home. The diaspora must engage with their fellow Kurds to better understand their needs, holding a referendum against them only creates further division. No problem will automatically be solved. A successful nation only prospers when all voices are heard, this starts with closing the gap between the diaspora and Kurds in the KRI.