Kurdistan Region PM addresses migrant crisis, regional politics, the economy, and climate change
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Migrants from the autonomous Kurdistan Region now stuck on the border of Belarus did not leave their home country as a result of actions of the government, Prime Minister Masrour Barzani said on Tuesday, but rather were taken advantage of by human traffickers.
He made the comments at the Middle East Peace and Security Forum, held this week at the American University of Kurdistan in Duhok.
Barzani expressed his concern regarding the recent migration crisis on the Poland-Belarus border in which thousands of migrants, largely from Iraq, Syria, and the Kurdistan Region, are being exploited by “travel agents, human traffickers, some of the political merchants, and some people in Belarus as well.”
“The Kurdish migrants weren't forced to leave the Kurdistan Region against their will. It was their own choice to leave,” Barzani said pointing out that these individuals face no known legal issues and traveled using tourists visas to “spend some days in hotels in Belarus and were then directed towards the border.”
“The innocent children seen in the cold on the border are paying the price for what looks to be a political game,” Barzani said, adding, “We are reaching out to all our friends abroad and also here, dealing with Baghdad to find a way for all of those who are willing to come back so that they can return.”
The leader continued, saying, “Kurdistan, relatively speaking in compare to the rest of the region, is a very secure place,” pointing out that the region is currently hosting one million internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Iraq and refugees from other countries because they feel safe and secure here.”
Economic Situation in Kurdistan Region
Prime Minister Barzani explained that the economic difficulties of the Kurdistan Region are not the fault of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), explaining that “from 2020 to 2021, 12 months of the KRG budget was not paid by the Iraqi government, and then COVID hit us at the very beginning of this cabinet's term, and the oil price dropped.”
He indicated that, despite these difficulties, the region survived with the help of “reforms we have started. Yes, we couldn’t pay full salaries, but we did pay salaries every month.”
Barzani said that people are coming “all the way from Asia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Lebanon, and Africa” to work in the Kurdistan Region and that those who recently migrated from Kurdistan Region “have spent thousands of dollars on travel agents and other individuals to reach the Belarus-Poland border.”
Though the region still faces both economic and security challenges as part of the wider region, he continued, “What have done in KRG in terms of reform has helped us survive in these very tough times,” and that, if it wasn't for his government reform program, “we probably would have collapsed.”
Despite such challenges, he said, “We are looking forward to having a better economy, with the creation of new jobs and opportunities, and with solving some of the outstanding issues with Baghdad.”
The major problem that the KRG faces, he said, “is political.”
"We should not forget that the Kurdistan Region is hosting 1 million IDPs and refugees without any support from Baghdad," the leader added, stressing that “in order to help them return, their living conditions and security of these people and their homes must improve.”
Regarding the Kurdistan Region’s share of the national Iraqi budget, Barzani emphasized that “the KRG never received 17 percent of the Iraqi budget,” adding that, based on the personal decision of the Iraqi Prime Minister, the “KRG received 13 percent of 52 percent of the Iraqi budget which is allocated for sovereign expenditure, which is less than 5 percent of the total Iraqi budget.”
He explained that the total amount not paid for 12 months in 2020 and 2021 is equivalent to roughly $3.1 billion.
Barzani also said that the KRG is diversifying its economy to secure sources of revenue other than oil, the revenue from which is “not enough to pay salaries and improve the economy. That's why we decided to make reform, and diversify revenues,” Barzani added, pointing to ongoing robust efforts to continue increasing foreign investment in the region.
Regarding the developments in Syria, Barzani said, “as Syria's neighbor we want peace for Syria and to have a sustainable solution. The players in Syria have to come to an agreement,” expressing his “concern about fate of the Kurdish population” there.
He argued that the KRG is doing everything it can “to reduce tensions and to make sure that there will be a comprehensive solution for all of Syria,” pointing out that the majority of the Syrian refugees seeking shelter in the Kurdistan Region for years have not returned to their homes due to “uncertainty of the future of the country, what could happen next, and whether the United States will stay there or not.”
“We will always support peaceful dialogue with all regional countries,” he said, but adding that “separating” the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is fighting a decades-long conflict with Ankara over Kurdish rights in Turkey, from the local administration in northeastern Syria “would help the situation there.”
In addressing the current political and security struggle in Iraq, Barzani said that the federal government in Baghdad “needs to get back to its original place in playing a regional role to maintain stability and solve problems.”
The prime minister also stressed that the Kurdistan Region “does not support any military build-up or additional incursion or invasion in any part of this region.”
Regarding the PKK presence in Iraq, he explained that “not all of the Kurds are affiliated with the PKK,” and that Turkish officials always claim that they have no problems with Kurds in general, only with the PKK.
“Iraq has never been at peace. It has always been in war,” he stated, adding that the system of governance in Iraq has never been a “supportive one” and suffers from “deep-rooted problems in Iraq that politicians want to ignore.”
When asked if he considered himself a Kurd or an Iraqi, Prime Minister Barzani said, “I am a Kurd who is forced to live in Iraq,” since “Iraq was drawn to be a country. It was a fabricated state, built to be Iraq,” explaining that Iraq was not built on a proper national or geographical base.
Barzani emphasized that peaceful coexistence can only be achieved by a “system that is accepted by the Shiites, Sunnis, and the Kurds, not only ink on paper,” adding that “the Iraqi constitution could not stop the Iraqi PM from using force (against the Kurdistan Region).”
United States support towards Kurdistan Region and Iraq
When asked about the involvement of the United States, Barzani extended his appreciation, stating that, as “allies, and as friends we have been through so much and we appreciate the support they have given to us since the toppling of the Saddam regime and helping us during the war against ISIS.”
“Iraq still needs help, and that help could come from anyone,” he continued, pointing out that any disengagement of the US in Iraq would affect the power balance. “We think that America still needs to stay engaged until Iraqis are strong enough to make up their own mind and make their own decisions and any gap the US will leave in Iraq will be filled by non-Iraqis.”
Regarding the current drought crisis now faced by Iraq and Kurdistan Region, Barzani said, “This climate change is global and we are all collectively facing it. If we don't respect the environment, the environment will retaliate.”
When asked about dams Turkey is now building upstream on one of the two main rivers Iraq depends on for its water supply, Barzani said that “any blockage of Iraq's rivers coming from Turkey will have a negative impact on Iraq.”
The leader also pointed out that no country has total control of its water if it flows into its land from another, so increased water and food security for one can be at the expense of another.
“We decided to build 23 dams of different sizes. Help funding these dams will help with agriculture and industry,” said Prime Minister Barzani.
“We are in this together,” he concluded. “We can’t just think about our own security as an isolated entity; we have to look at collective security in the area.”