It seems paradoxical. In recent years, Iraq and in particular the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq have become the second most common country of origin for refugees who have applied for asylum in the Federal Republic of Germany. According to the annual report of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), 13,742 Iraqi refugees applied for asylum in Germany in 2019 alone, of which more than two-thirds came from northern Iraq. At the same time, however, no other country has as many “voluntary” returnees as Iraq. Of the approximately 13,000 persons who took advantage of the “Perspektive Heimat” programme and its measures, also known as “assisted return”, in 2019, the majority (13 per cent) were Iraqi nationals. How can it be explained that so many people flee Iraq and northern Iraq and a relatively large proportion return “voluntarily”?
De facto two states: Iraq and northern Iraq
Not only since the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by the Iraq War in 2003 has the Republic of Iraq been at the centre of the diverging interests of other states. The country is characterised by a high degree of instability and a de facto political and social division of national territory: While central Iraq, with the large cities of Baghdad and Basra as well as most of the oil deposits, is under the influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the political leadership of the autonomous Kurdish region in the north is very much oriented towards the NATO states, above all Turkey, Western European states and the USA. In contrast to the rest of the country, the autonomous Kurdish region is characterised by a positive and stable security situation in the wake of the end of rule over the territory by the so-called Islamic State (IS). Another feature of northern Iraq is that it is politically and administratively divided into an eastern and a western area, which the two ruling parties, the KDP and the PUK, have divided between themselves.
Just a few years ago, it was definitely not the case that the inhabitants of northern Iraq did not necessarily have to fear for their lives. At the height of its territorial expansion in 2016, the fundamentalist IS militia brought large parts of northern Iraq under its control penetrating into the areas of the autonomous Kurdish region. The Yezidis who escaped the IS genocide, like millions of other internally displaced persons, sought refuge in other parts of the country and the autonomous region. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, there were still nearly 1.5 million internally displaced persons in 2019. In addition, around 280,000 refugees from other countries were living in Iraq, mainly from neighbouring Syria. Many people also fled abroad at the time, especially from Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq. At the peak of this mass flight from IS in 2016, almost 100,000 Iraqis applied for asylum in Germany. Even the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) recognised that there were valid reasons for fleeing Iraq and northern Iraq: More than 50 per cent of applications for asylum by Iraqi nationals processed in 2019 were granted protection status.
The cause of flight – lack of prospects
The fact that many Iraqis continue to flee to Europe is confirmed by Karin Mlodoch, who has been working for many years as project coordinator for the development association HAUKARI, which operates in Iraq and northern Iraq. She sees the main reason for the flight among many people, especially young people, to be less related to the economic situation than to the lack of prospects in the face of decades of violence, continuing conflicts (the IS has by no means been defeated, and is merely restaging and gaining strength again) as well as corruption and abuse of power among the political elite. “Anyone who do not have close ties to the ruling parties is powerless when dealing with state institutions and has hardly any opportunity to develop any positive life prospects for themselves,” says Mlodoch. This is in line with the experiences of the Iraqis who have participated in the “Perspektive Heimat” programme and whom we interviewed for Rückkehr-Watch. They reported degrading treatment at the hands of state institutions, widespread corruption and a lack of rule of law and due process, especially when it comes to the actions of administrative bodies. The labour market is also rife with clientelism. On top of it all, the economic situation is dismal.
Racism and a restrictive asylum system: reasons for return
In Germany, many Iraqi asylum-seekers experience exclusion and contempt, according to Roza Kurdo. This former employee of an independent refugee counselling centre in northern Germany advised many Iraqis on “voluntary” return between 2015 and 2017: “Migrants no longer want to be treated as second-class citizens. That’s why they go back.” In particular, suspension of family reunification for beneficiaries of subsidiary protection enacted by the Bundestag in January 2016 affected many Iraqi asylum-seekers who had been hoping for better prospects of permanent residence and the legal reunification of their families. “After that, up to 15 people made use of our counselling services every day. All they wanted was to return,” says Kurdo. However, as return counsellors they had not received any training informing them about the situation in the countries of return and therefore could not really advise migrants on their prospects there: “It was just a matter of filling out forms with them.”
We asked Hajjaj Mustafa whether anything has changed in counselling practice in Germany since 2017. He is head of the reintegration programme at the European Training and Technology Centre (ETTC) in the northern Iraqi capital of Erbil. The non-governmental organisation is the institution in Iraq that cooperates on the Iraqi side with the European Return Programme ERRIN and carries out reintegration measures in the migrants’ countries of origin on behalf of the European states. Mustafa says that there are still returnees who return with false expectations regarding reintegration measures. He attributes this to the lack of exchange between return counsellors in Germany and reintegration workers on the ground in Iraq. What worries Mustafa even more is the growing pressure on migrants in Germany to leave the country, which is being exerted by the immigration authorities in general and return counselling in particular. In their counselling sessions, people are clearly feeling the weight of an increasingly restrictive asylum policy: “Returnees often take advantage of assisted departure out of fear and desperation in order to avoid the violent and traumatising experience of deportation or to spare their children the ordeal,” Mustafa continues. If people do not leave on a truly voluntary basis, successful reintegration is scarcely possible.
Start-up funding that misses the mark
All experts agree that successful reintegration is an extremely complex process. One of the guiding principles of the return programme is to support returnees in establishing independent gainful employment. For years, however, Western states and companies have hardly made any headway in modernising the economy in the Kurdish autonomous region and building up a private sector. It is therefore not surprising that returnees own a business or a small enterprise thanks to the support, but they themselves hardly believe in the long-term success of their business. This is also due to the fact that the “start-up aid” provided for example by the Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) often misses the mark with regard to needs. And the funds per returnee are too limited to really build a viable business model. A few thousand euros are not enough, even in northern Iraq and Iraq. Former return counsellor Roza Kurdo, who interviewed returnees in northern Iraq for an evaluation study, is convinced: “No one who is now standing on his or her own two feet has achieved this through return assistance. It is rather financial and social support from family and friends that is crucial for professional success.
On top of this, the fact that returnees are only supported for a maximum of one year poses a problem. Not only experts doubt whether long-term prospects for the future can be built up so quickly. According to an evaluation study on the “Starthilfe Plus” programme conducted in 2019 and commissioned by BAMF itself, only 39 per cent of returnees surveyed have fixed employment eight months after their return and only 15 per cent can live on their income. Not even half of returnees are satisfied with their living situation, and more than 60 per cent are considering leaving for Germany again.
The limits of voluntary return
Nadia Mahmood is not surprised by all this. The feminist activist of medico partner organisation Aman has long been concerned with economic development and related youth unemployment in Iraq: “Young people are so desperate that they do unpaid jobs in the hope of eventually getting a paid job with the state. How is the German government with a few thousand euros per person supposed to create positive long-term prospects for young people here? Mahmood continues, “If you rebel against this situation politically, as happened in the big protests that broke out in autumn 2019, you are living very dangerously. Only recently, in February 2021, five young political activists were executed on the street by militia members.”
In our discussions with returnees and experts, it became evident that the return of many participants in the programme cannot be considered a voluntary departure. Rather, people have taken advantage of the programme due to a lack of prospects if they stay in Germany and thus act out of desperation. Nothing has changed in terms of the structural causes of flight and personal reasons for fleeing, however: The desolate economic situation, rigid gender relations, political authoritarianism and widespread corruption persist. Contrary to what the name of the programme, “Perspektive Heimat”, would suggest, returnees do not find any prospects for the future in their homeland.
“The programme does not focus on the well-being of people. It is about getting as many migrants as possible to leave Germany again. That is dishonest towards the participants in the programme and I don’t want to condone or support that.”
An Iraqi refugee and translator in asylum procedures who was offered work as a reintegration scout.
“No one who stands on his or her own two feet after returning has done so thanks to return assistance. The decisive reintegration assistance is provided by family and friends in the home country.”
Roza Kurdo, former return counsellor