Dreams shattered and pockets empty, Iraqi migrants return home from Europe
Erbil, Iraq // In a modest workshop in an anonymous part of Erbil, Majid Al Jawad is left counting the costs of his failed enterprise.
The 48 year-old family man is one of the growing number of Iraqi refugees and migrants that have come back from Germany, where their asylum claims got stuck in an overburdened bureaucracy, leaving them without prospects and few options but to return.
Like many others, Mr Jawad spent thousands of dollars on the perilous journey, only to find himself on a flight back to Iraq five months later. His dream of a better life away from war and upheaval has been shattered by the realities of the refugee crisis.
“Before I left for Europe, I thought it would be a very good life, but when I got there I changed my mind,” he says.
Mr Al Jawad fled his native Mosul the day it was stormed by ISIL in June 2014, and took his family to Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. His parents and brothers stayed behind, and he found out from friends that his electrical repairs shop had been plundered by ISIL. He soon set up a new business in Erbil, but found it difficult to support his family in a tough economy.
The Kurdish north has been flooded with 1.3 million Iraqis looking to escape ISIL. The influx of people, the cost of war and flagging oil revenues have plunged Iraqi Kurdistan into deep recession. While the Kurds are feeling the pinch, most internally displaced people live in camps without work.
Many Iraqis have looked to Europe, which has become a magnet for people seeking to escape conflict, destitution and lack of opportunities from Africa to Afghanistan. Roughly 120,000 Iraqis applied for asylum in the European Union in 2015. Germany tops the list of destinations, after chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to keep its borders open.
More than one million refugees and migrants poured into the country in 2015 as a result. The government was left struggling to accommodate the new arrivals, and less than half of those arriving in Germany were able to file asylum applications that year. Without asylum being granted, they remain in legal limbo, and are not allowed to work.
Stuck in a crowed refugee centre in Cologne, Mr Al Jawad tried desperately to apply in the backlogged registration system when arriving in Germany last October. He had braved the dangerous waters of the Mediterranean in a cramped boat that took him from Turkey to Greece, and made his way through Eastern Europe. But government officials told him that the asylum process might take a year. Frustrated, he flew back to Iraq in February through a return programme organised by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Now back in Erbil and running a shop selling and repairing treadmills, Mr Jawad feels that Germany mismanaged the refugee crisis by not discriminating between those escaping war and economic migrants.
“The system was chaotic in Germany,” he says. “Germany opened its borders to all refugees, but they should have only let in refugees from Iraq and Syria. I couldn’t take my chance because of the others.”
A keen autodidact who taught himself English with the help of the internet, and who took a language course that was offered to refugees and migrants in Cologne, Mr Al Jawad is aware that he was underqualified for most work in Germany.
“Germany is different to Iraq. To get a job, I have to go to an institute to get my qualification, and maybe then I would find work. Here, I can just open a shop and start working,” he says.
Ali Ravo, a 30 year-old Yazidi from the village of Khanasoor near Sinjar, also feels that the German authorities are not selective enough.
“I thought Germany would give me preferential treatment because I was from a minority that had experienced genocide,” says Mr Ravo.
The father of six left Iraq in October 2015, after his family was displaced by the murderous ISIL surge into the Sinjar area in August 2014. The extremists killed and abducted thousands of Yazidis, and most of the traumatised survivors now live in refugee camps around the Kurdish city of Dohuk.
“When Daesh came to Sinjar they wanted to kill all the Yazidis. At the time, I thought there was no future for us in Iraq,” said Mr Ravo, who ran a photography business in Khanasoor.
When he did not receive asylum status in Germany, Mr Ravo came back to Iraq only two months later. He is not the only one. Flicking through his phone in Dohuk, he shows a picture of a group of men posing for a photo in a refugee centre in Germany.
“All but one of them have since gone back to Iraq,” he says.
Mr Ravo’s village was liberated late in 2014, and the town of Sinjar was retaken a year later by Kurdish forces. But he does not feel it is safe to go back to the area while ISIL remain close, and his family continues to live in a refugee camp.
Not everyone leaving Iraq for Europe has been forced from their homes by ISIL.
Many Kurds took their chances because of the dire economic situation in the autonomous region. The cash-strapped government stopped paying public sector workers for four months at the end of last year until they resumed paying reduced salaries. With the collapse of the oil price, the government cannot afford to pay the bloated civil service, and the underdeveloped private sector has not been able to cushion the blow.
“I left because of the economic situation. There was no work, so I decided to search for a better life. I had heard from other people that there was work in Germany and that life there was better,” says Asad Aziz, a 36 year-old Kurd from Erbil.
Mr Aziz sold his car and borrowed money to stump up the $10,000 (Dh 36,729) he needed to pay smugglers to get him to Germany during Eid in 2015, hoping to get his wife and son over once he had settled in.
Instead, he returned to Erbil seven months later, having been unable to gain asylum status, and went back to his upholstery business that he runs with a partner. He hopes to receive up to €5,000 (Dh21,085) in resettlement money that the German government gives to returning refugees and migrants through IOM to be able to invest in a business back home, but he is clearly left out of pocket by the trip.
To make things worse, it has become even harder to make a living in Iraqi Kurdistan since he returned. With salaries slashed and savings exhausted, Kurds are spending less and less.
“There is no work here. Its more difficult now then before I left,” says Mr Al Jawad.
Updated: May 3, 2016 04:00 AM