In recent years, as the war with ISIS has raged, the relatively stable Kurdistan region has been hailed as a “safe haven,” “beacon of democracy” and “the other Iraq.”
It has earned these labels by welcoming almost 2 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) — many of whom are ethnic and religious minorities from Iraq’s provinces of Nineveh, Anbar and Saladin. Assyrians, Yazidis, Turkmen, Shabaks, Christians and other minority groups were targeted by ISIS for their religious beliefs, cultures or ethnicities, despite having lived in the region for thousands of years.
ISIS inflicted unspeakable cruelties on these populations with murders, lootings and sexual slavery, as well as destruction of their homes and their cultural and religious heritages. For example, the Yazidis, the biggest internally displaced group in Kurdistan, suffered heavily from ISIS atrocities, with 450,000 displaced people in 16 camps in Kurdistan. The U.N. estimates that 3,200 Yazidi women, girls and children are still held captive by ISIS, and the Yazidi community, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and others are working to rescue these abductees.
In March 2016, the U.S. Congress recognized the genocide against ethnic and religious minorities by ISIS, set it as a priority in the fight against ISIS, and laid out even stronger support for what the Kurdistan region is doing. Theirs is the right approach toward the humanitarian situation in the Kurdistan region — which deserves more international support.
The Kurdistan region has provided safety and security for religious and ethnic minorities and guaranteed them freedom for practicing their religious beliefs, even though the Kurdistan region is going through financial difficulties and its austerity measures have limited the services for host communities. Despite this, medical help and shelter, as well as other needs, are continuously provided for IDPs and refugees in the Kurdistan region.
What should happen next?
The work of civil society and charity organizations in the Kurdistan region has been crucial since the beginning of the ISIS attacks. Nonprofit agencies and nongovernmental organizations, including the Barzani Charity Foundation, have worked selflessly with the people and the U.N. Refugee Agency, and their efforts will continue.
Moreover, the tasks of reconstructing Christian and Yazidi towns and villages must begin very soon, but this cannot be done by the KRG alone. The international community must assist the KRG to deal with the massive influx of refugees and IDPs — which has put an enormous economic pressure on the region — and also help the reconstruction of the destroyed areas.
While some have argued that a simple solution to the question of refugee and IDP minorities would be their exodus to safe countries elsewhere in the world, this is, in fact, in nobody’s interest: It would decrease and undermine the cultural, historical, symbolic and religious values of the Kurdistan region. Also, a mass exodus would ignore the problem, and undermine the minorities’ rights to return to — and stay in — their ancient homelands and preserve their cultures. We must ensure them a safe return — and a safe future upon return.
Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani has already declared his support for this, saying that religious and ethnic minorities have lived and prospered together for thousands of years, and the people should instead fight to bring safety and security back to our community.
Going forward, violent extremism and cycles of oppression have been issues in the past and will continuously be unless radical changes are taken. To tackle them will require political will, leadership, sufficient finance, eradication of poverty and corruption, and also good governance and trust.
The Kurdistan region is committed to remaining a sanctuary for persecuted minorities and refugees. In the last decade, Kurdistan leaders made several changes that take the various religious and ethnic minority groups into consideration. For example, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs is now the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs. It gives the right to all religious groups to have their own directors and manage their own religious affairs. Kurdish law gives equal rights to all ethnic groups to take senior positions in the government. It also takes steps to guarantee a voice for everyone in the government decision-making. Thus, in practice, Kurdistan has already worked hard to transform the judicial and administrative system, and to guarantee the traditionally Muslim-dominated senior positions are also open to religious and ethnic minorities, such as Yazidis and Christians.
• Awat Mustafa is Director of Operations and Public Relations at the Barzani Charity Foundation (firstname.lastname@example.org), which provides education, health care, food, shelter and other services to Kurdistan populations, including orphans, refugees and IDPs. He can be reached at email@example.com. Mariette Hagglund, recently a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University, contributed to this article.
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