Emboldened Iraqis embark on next great wave of emigration

After years of violence and broken promises, many see a new opportunity to leave


Having sold his car for $4,600, and then some of his wife’s jewellery, and having loaded his smartphone with photographs of his five children, all that was left for Haider Abdella to do was say goodbye. “From yesterday to today, we are crying,” he said. His mother sat next to him on the couch, sobbing. “He’s never left me before, from when he was a child until now,” she said. “How can I bear him leaving?”

Abdella (42), a police officer, had never left Iraq – never even seen the sea. But last week, he was on a plane to Istanbul, and from there travelled to the coastal resort city of Izmir, Turkey. A day later, he was on a smuggler’s boat to Greece, crying and praying over the phone with his family left behind in Baghdad. By the weekend, he told them, he was well on his way to Germany.

Emboldened by the recent wave of media coverage showing their countrymen and fellow Arabs fleeing the war in Syria and reaching Europe, many Iraqis see a new opportunity to get out. Their reasons for leaving vary. Some, like Abdella, who said he was threatened by militias, fear for their lives. Others are displaced from areas controlled by Islamic State militants. Still others are lifelong residents of Baghdad escaping harsh economic circumstances brought on by falling oil prices.

Great wave

“I’ve spent all of my life in Iraq in sadness,” said Khalil Hussein, a Baghdad resident whose relatives have set off for Europe. He said he would join them soon, and to raise money has sold his wife’s sewing machine, kitchen utensils and an air cooler. “There is no hope,” he said. “I just want to get rid of Iraq.”

The migrant flight represents a small piece of the humanitarian disaster unfolding across Iraq, where nearly 3.1 million people are internally displaced. The International Organisation for Migration has recorded about 6,000 Iraqis arriving this year on boats to either Greece or Italy, a fivefold increase over last year.

But that is just a small fraction of the number of Iraqis actually taking the journey, as most avoid being registered officially when they arrive in Greece. And since mid-August, at least 250 Iraqis a day have been landing on Greek islands, Konstantinos Vardakis, the top European Union diplomat in Baghdad, said in an interview. To accommodate increased demand, Iraqi Airways recently added two new daily flights to Istanbul from Baghdad.

In recent weeks, the phenomenon here has snowballed, as Iraqis track migrants on messaging apps like Viber and WhatsApp and hear back from friends who have reached places like Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has welcomed migrants and has become a hero on social media to many Iraqis. The stories Iraqis hear from relatives in Europe are often euphoric, and full of possibility.

“When you go to Europe they treat you well, they give you a house, they pay you money, they take care of your health,” said Ali Hattam Jassim (37) whose brother recently arrived in Belgium. “We have so many friends there and they tell us how great the life is.”

Appeal to patriotism

For almost four decades, Wadie al-Waily has owned a travel agency, the Iraq & Egypt Travel & Tourism Co, on Saddoun Street in central Baghdad. Al-Waily, who these days is selling a lot of one-way tickets to Turkey, has seen up close the traumas of Iraq’s modern history through the travel patterns of its people.

In the 1970s, a period often held up here as a brief golden age, he said, “The young people were not thinking of leaving Iraq because when they graduated from school they immediately found a job, a house. They could have a future.”

The 1980s brought the long war with Iran, and many young men left to escape military service. In the 1990s, crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United States devastated society here. “In the 1990s life was destroyed,” he said. “Most of the people started thinking about leaving Iraq.”

Taking flight again

On a recent afternoon, three friends who were in their 20s were purchasing tickets to Turkey at a bus station in the upper-class neighborhood of Mansour. One of them, Hattam Jabbar (28) pulled from his shoulder bag an identification card issued in 2008 by the US Army that said he was a fighter for the “Sons of Iraq”, the US-backed programme that brought Sunni fighters into the government fold to fight what was then al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to the Islamic State.

“There is nothing to make me sad about leaving,” he said. “There is no humanity here.” Hattam said he hoped his journey ends not in Europe but in the United States, where, he said, “even the dogs live well”.

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