As Europe disappoints, many Iraqi migrants return home
Some were displaced by Isis, others sought a better life – but life in Europe has been hard
Muntadher Tareef (centre) and Hosham Hassen (right), who want to return to Iraq after about five months in Finland, at a travel agent in Helsinki. Many Iraqis who migrated for economic reasons, or out of curiosity about Europe, are now returning to their homeland. Photograph: Ilvy Njiokiktjien/The New York Times
Night after night, Mohammed al-Jabiry tossed and turned in his bed at a refugee centre in Finland, comparing life in Europe with life in Baghdad. After many sleepless nights, he decided to come home. “In Iraq, I can find a girl to marry,” Jabiry (23) reasoned. “And my mom is here.”
There were little things, too, that drove him to return, like the high price of cigarettes and the chillier weather. “In Europe, I was isolated,” he said. “Life in Europe was not what we were expecting.”
Last year, beckoned by news reports of easy passage to Europe through Turkey, tens of thousands of Iraqis joined Syrians, Africans and Afghans in the great migrant wave to the continent. Now, thousands of Iraqis are coming home. Many say they arrived in Europe with unrealistic expectations for quick success. Some also say the warm reception they received from Europeans last summer gave way to suspicion after the Paris terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic State in November.
Many Iraqis have stayed in Europe, of course, especially those who were displaced from lands controlled by Islamic State, also known as Isis. And others are still risking everything to cross the seas to get there. Last week, the bodies of five Iraqis who drowned in the Aegean Sea were returned to Kirkuk in northern Iraq.
The returnees largely reflect another segment of migration: those who left Baghdad for economic reasons, or merely out of curiosity after seeing so many reports of migrants arriving joyously on the shores of Europe.
When Jabiry left last summer, he said, “I was thinking, ‘I have no job here, and I never finished school.’ I thought of a better future there – that I would find a better job, that I could continue my studies, earn more money.” He added: “I was crying the first day I arrived in Finland. Crying of happiness.”
As the days stretched into months – time he said he mostly spent working out at the gym, or aimlessly hanging out with other Iraqis in the refugee centre – he realised it would be a long time before he could get a job or a home of his own.
Complaints about food
The International Organisation for Migration said it helped almost 3,500 Iraqis return home last year – just a portion of the overall number coming back, as many do so with the assistance of local governments or Iraqi embassies in European countries.
“Since early 2016, requests for more assistance are increasing,” said Thomas Weiss, the organisation’s chief of mission in Iraq. The Iraqi government recently sent a delegation to Europe to organise the return of Iraqis, and it may send chartered airplanes to bring them back.
“There are large numbers of Iraqi migrants who want to return from Europe,” said Satar Nawrooz, spokesman for Iraq’s ministry of migration and displacement. “Some want to return for personal reasons, others because their applications for residency have been refused or because of the expensive living conditions. We are not able to count them all because a lot return on their own expense and not that of the ministry.”
Many of those returning to Iraq are also broke, having sold most of their belongings to pay smugglers to get them out of Turkey, on a dangerous sea voyage, to Greece. “Our dream was to leave the country,” said Haitham Abdulatif (48), who sold his Mercedes for $8,000 (€7,150) to pay for the trip he took with his 10-year-old daughter. “It was the talk everywhere – on TV, on social media.”
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“They would always describe to me how living outside the country was different from living in Iraq,” he said. “They are comfortable. They are safe. There are job opportunities.”
He arrived in Belgium with this in mind: “I was expecting them to give me a house, a good job, so I could have a better life. This is what I was dreaming about.” The reality, he said, was much different. He quickly spent the $8,000 he brought, mostly paying smugglers, and found himself almost broke. He hated the food (milk and toast for breakfast, he said, and cheese sandwiches for lunch). And obtaining residency and finding a decent job would take months, he said.
Finally, he went to the camp authorities and said, “I want to go to Iraq.” “They were surprised,” he said. “But I told them I’d rather die in my country than die outside in a strange country.”
Many Iraqis, too, did not count on the difficulty of landing in a liberal, European society from a conservative Arab culture. “I felt like I couldn’t live in an open society,” said Aqeed Hassan (26), who plays the clarinet and, back in Baghdad after going to Finland, is trying to get a job in a military band. “My wife has her head covered, and I didn’t feel like they liked Arabs.”
After the attacks in Paris, though, many Europeans began to regard the migrants as a security threat. “They turned their faces away from us,” he said. “I felt like the Finnish people really didn’t want us anymore.” He said he was not pushed to leave by the Finnish authorities, but he did notice signs that went up in the refugee centre where he lived saying that Finland would pay for plane tickets to go home.
Some Iraqis who returned had fond memories of their brush with European culture, and few regrets for at least trying a new life. “It was very green and clean,” Abdulatif said. “It was beautiful. Even the people’s morals – they all respected us. Everyone said ‘bonjour’ to me every morning. “It was 99.9 per cent different from Baghdad. People here all talk in a sectarian way: He’s Sunni, he’s Shiite, he’s Kurdish.” He added: “I now consider the journey as something that was fun. I don’t regret it.”
New York Times