|Iraq: No country for young men
Saif fights the so-called Islamic State for a living and can barely pay his bills. Falih is desperate to leave Iraq, but can’t get a visa. Abdullah works for the government but says it’s corrupt.
These three young Baghdadis are part of a generation labelled lost, chaotic, and ripe for radicalisation, but the truth is they feel disenfranchised from the future being offered by the current government. “By failing to provide a vision and concrete prospects for the future, it is pressing young men into the straitjacket of jobs-through-patronage, pushing them into combat with either the Islamic State (IS) or Shiite militias or inducing them to emigrate,” warned the International Crisis Group in a recent report.“They are the country’s most important resource; abandoning them could turn them into the most important threat to national and regional security.”
Young Iraqis, Sunni and Shia alike, agree there’s little to look forward to in a country where poor service provision, corruption, and daily violence is the stuff of private conversation and public protest.
Politicians pay lip service to reform, but talk of reducing the age of candidacy and other appeals to young voters are dismissed as electoral pandering ahead of important provincial polls in 2017 and parliament elections the following year. It will take a lot more than Facebook pages to convince young Iraqis that their future is anything but grim.
By UN count, 473 Iraqi civilians were killed in acts of terrorism, violence, and armed conflict in August alone, 231 in Baghdad governorate. Nearly 3.4 million Iraqis have been displaced since the conflict with IS began in 2014. And last week Human Rights Watch alleged that forces aligned with the Iraqi government have been recruiting children to this struggle.
Young men who have grown up since the fall of Saddam Hussein have few options. Job opportunities are few. Salaries are low. As the ICG report highlights, Iraqis effectively must find a way into employment via a government patronage system, join a militia, or leave the country – nearly 149,000 Iraqis applied for asylum in Europe in 2015.
As Iraq’s government and the wider international community focuses on the fight against IS, they ignore their young men – not to mention their young women – at their peril.
Here’s how it looks from the perspectives of Saif, Falih, and Abdullah:
The militiaman – Saif Abduljabbar, 28
Did you have trouble finding a job?
When my father passed away, I had to quit [secondary] school to look after my family… I worked as a construction worker. It’s a hard job, but easy to get. But when IS gained territory in Iraq and after [Iraq’s most powerful Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa calling on believers to fight IS in June 2014], I joined the Popular Mobilisation Forces.
I couldn’t find a government job anyway because they asked for a $5,000 [bribe]. I’ve never earned that much in my life.
Finding a good job in Iraq has become really difficult. It’s like you are looking for a needle in a haystack. Employment is just for people who have government connections and can pay.
Do you make enough to get by?
Although the [militia] salary doesn’t cover all my expenses it’s still better than nothing. Half of my wages go for rent and the rest to my mother.
Depression and continued violence have pushed some people to join militant groups because they offer good money. It’s the same reason people leave the country.
It’s a high-risk job since we are dealing with terrorists. I could die at any moment, but I have no choice.
Finding a good job in Iraq has become really difficult. It’s like you are looking for a needle in a haystack.
Do you want to stay in Iraq?
I wish I could leave and raise a family outside Iraq, but I have to stay here with my mum and brothers because I’m the oldest and I have to look after the family.
I would have left years ago if I had the chance. The future in Iraq is unknown and dangerous, with such political chaos and a constant security crisis.
Do you think Sunnis and Shias have equal opportunities?
[I’m Shia] and there is no justice in Iraq amongst Shias. So how can we imagine justice between Sunnis and Shias and the other sects?
Sunnis are suffering under a government that is dominated by Shias and Shias are suffering under the government too.
What do you think about Iraq’s political system?
The political situation in Iraq is a dirty game played by politicians who steal everything, even our dreams and aspirations… they serve only themselves.
We are depressed for all the time that has been wasted going up to the election. I would fire all the politicians if it were up to me.
Do you have hope for the future of Iraq?
I wish I could be optimistic, but so far there are no positive indications.