An Inconvenient Problem: The Awarakan in the Kurdistan Region / OUR SOIL & OUR LAND ONLY



20/1/2016 – THE PASEWAN – Megan Connelly-Amin: – As the Kurdistan Regional government prepares for a referendum on the status of the Article 140 territories (and possibly on the Region’s independence), the arrival nearly 2 million, mostly non-Kurdish, refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), or awarakan as they are referred to collectively, not only places a great strain on the region’s economy and infrastructure; it also raises urgent questions about the Region’s political stability and security. While the Kurdish leadership has been preoccupied with the idea that most of the displaced persons (DPs) will return to their lands, it is unlikely that this will happen in the near future, if at all. The KRG must now carefully address the crisis to ensure that the already desperate situation in the refugee and IDP camps does not escalate into ethno-sectarian conflict.

The Kurdistan Region has, without the assistance of Baghdad or much help from the international community, provided sanctuary, shelter and services to those escaping the horrors of the Daesh occupation and sectarian warfare, resulting in a 30% increase in the Region’s population in under one year.  It is perhaps due to the abruptness of this steep population increase that the leaders in the Kurdistan Region have hitherto regarded the absorption of DPs as a grave, but nonetheless temporary, crisis and not one that would affect Kurdistan’s political future because a) the awarakan are ineligible to vote in the Kurdistan Region and b) it was expected that they would voluntarily return to their original lands.

According to Ali Hussein Ahmad, Chief of the KDP’s Lqi 2 office in Erbil, the awarakan were welcome to come, but not to stay: “It is not their land. We accept them, we respect them, we give them food and work together like a brother…but it is Kurdish land”.  He seemed confident that “we will get more than 80 or 90 per cent [of the IDPs and refugees] to get back to their region”. General Mahmoud Sangawi explained that the displaced would voluntarily return to their lands: “Those people don’t want to stay here for a long time, I think, because they have houses, they have farms, they work over there. They want to go back” (Sangawi, 2014).  Some measures have been taken to make the choice easier for the awarakan, including a law passed in October by the Provincial Council of Sulaimani on property ownership by non-Kurds. However, the continuing political instability and high-intensity warfare as well as the lack of services and utilities have made large stretches of Iraqi territory uninhabitable. Moreover, the scorched-earth tactics of the retreating Daesh army has left large population centers in ruins. Many will have nothing to return to, leaving the awarakan with little choice but to remain in the KRG for the long-term.

As the war became more protracted, the KRG has struggled to contain the humanitarian crisis…and the demographic changes it has brought to the Region. The issue of non-Kurdish migration to KRG-held territory is particularly sensitive in the Article 140 territories, which have been undergoing a process of normalization (i.e., the reversal of the Ba’ath era Arabization) in preparation for their amalgamation with the KRG since 2004, but which remained vulnerable to ethnic tensions and jurisdictional disputes with Baghdad. The sudden demographic changes brought on by the mass emigration of non-Kurdish people from the regions south of the KRG-administered lands has threatened this process.  Article 140 requires that a census be carried out in the said territories prior to a referendum, and concerns that the influx of non-Kurdish IDPs and refugees would be reflected in the census have prompted leaders like Sakhewan Abdulla, a Kurdish MP in the Iraqi parliament, to propose that the Kurds, who “gave their blood in these lands to make the transition from normalization to referendum,” would be willing to forego a census. While Iraqi citizens have never been able to legally vote or claim residency in a district that is not their own, such a large, and possibly long-term, forced migration has left at least 1.5 million Iraqi citizens politically disenfranchised, unable to own property, and unable to return. Accordingly, the unilateral drafting and execution of a referendum is likely to arouse violent resistance from the non-Kurdish IDPs who have their backs to the wall.

Moreover, socio-economic exclusion compounded with the inadequacy of Iraqi national and international aid organizations to provide relief to the camps may contribute to the onset of ethnic and civil conflict and create conditions in which militias can exploit displaced persons and their camps as bases for insurgency. In historical cases of large population displacements such as the Sudanese Civil War, the Second Congo War, the Albanian insurgency in the Republic of Macedonia and the ongoing conflicts in the Caucasus, IDP/refugee political and economic alienation has been associated with the onset and/or escalation of ethnic conflict (Buhaug & Gleditsch, 2008; Forsberg, 2009; Gleditsch, 2007; Kahn, 2008; Salehyan & Gleditsch, 2006).

While Iraq is in the midst of a war with no foreseeable end, there is no easy resolution to the DP question for Kurdistan. It is unlikely that they will voluntarily relocate anytime soon and their presence has placed an enormous humanitarian burden on the KRG that it cannot possibly bear alone. The KRG must promote the voluntary return of refugees and IDPs without alienating and provoking sectarian discord between the Kurds and non-Kurdishawarakan. It must also ensure that sectarian militants are not using IDP/refugee camps as bases for recruitment and operation. Of course, with the Region in the midst of a severe financial crisis and a war against a terrorist state, this will be impossible for the KRG to carry out alone. The international community must also act.

The United Nations must intensify its humanitarian, security, and diplomatic roles in the KRG and Iraq as a whole.  First, it must assist with the coordination of security forces in the country to ensure the safe return of the awarakan. Secondly, it must provide shelter and security for the displaced. Lastly, it must mediate the discussion between Erbil and Baghdad to ensure that Article 140 is executed fairly and that there is no attempt on either side to alter the demographics of any of the disputed territories while the war continues. Likewise, Erbil and Baghdad must both commit to an agreeable and fair resolution.  The Kurds have spent nearly 10 years reversing the effects of Arabization, a painstaking and emotional process for a nation that has endured the genocide of its population and culture and the denial of its right to self-determination. The referendum would mark a long-awaited victory of the Kurdish people over those who tried to annihilate them. However, as much as the the KRG leadership and the Kurdish people would like to advance the Article 140 process, this cannot be done unilaterally if Erbil wishes to prevent ethno-sectarian conflict in areas heavily populated with non-Kurdish awarakan that can be easily manipulated by sectarian militias to violently resist such a move. Instead, as previously stated, Erbil must obtain guarantees from the Security Council and Baghdad regarding the proper execution of the normalization, census and referendum. Of course, the Iraqi and KRG security forces must also end the war with Daesh, and prevent fighting between Peshmerga and militiamen, in order to begin the process of returning IDPs and refugees…an outcome that, at the present time, seems distant.


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