August 26, 2006
Arab invasion, or specters from the past
By Tanya Goudsouzian
As Arab families flock to the Kurdistan Region to seek refuge from the ever-worsening security conditions in the center and south of Iraq, many Kurds fear a repeat of the Baathist Arabization campaigns.
An urban legend is doing the rounds of Iraqi Kurdistan. An Arab refugee family knocks at the door of a Kurdish home. They are fleeing the dangers of southern Iraq, and ask for a few days of shelter while they look for a place to stay. The Kurdish family obliges, and hospitably offers their Arab guests the first floor of the house, while they move to the second floor for the night. The following morning, when the Kurdish family awakes and goes downstairs, they find the Arab family has gone, and so have all of their belongings.
They’ve been robbed! It is such stories which feed the widespread perception in the region that the Arab refugees are not to be trusted, and risk wreaking havoc if they are permitted to stay for too long.
“If they are coming to Kurdistan for a holiday, they are welcome,” says Kamal Shally, a former member of the Kurdistan Parliament.
“If they are coming to stay for a short period, until the situation in the south or center of the country improves, they are welcome. But if they are planning to set up permanent home here, to buy land, and have no intention to ever return to their real homes, then this is not good.”
Shally explains that many Kurds fear a repeat of the Baathist Arabization campaigns, which began in the 1970s, notably in Kirkuk. “What we don’t want is for history to repeat itself, for these Arabs to come here, and change the demographics of our region,” he says.
It is generally not considered that while the Arabization campaigns of the Baathist regime were premeditated and systematic,, the fleeing of the Arab families from the center and south of Iraq seem to be motivated by the search for refuge from the ever-worsening security conditions.
“The Kurds are not happy with the idea of Arabs settling here in Kurdistan for good,” Shally adds, “also because they fear it will bring terrorism to our region, which has remained stable and secure throughout the crisis in the rest of the country.”
According to the former MP, the security of the Kurdistan region is partly a result of a semi-official “neighborhood watch” system, whereby all Kurds keep watch over suspicious characters and report to the ASAISH, the region’s security apparatus.
“Right now, all Kurds are watching these Arabs for any missteps,” says Shally, “but we must take care not to allow them to integrate into the community, because then it will be much more difficult to monitor them.”
As such, Shally says that the popular consensus among Kurds is that these Arabs be confined to a refugee camp, in much the same manner as the Kurdish refugees from Kirkuk were maintained.
On the practical side, this would also help in providing the refugees with basic necessities, such as water, electricity and education for the youngsters, he says.
Another factor, he adds, is to protect these refugees, who are mostly poor, from wily Kurdish property owners, who will charge sky-high rents in the hope of making a quick fortune at the expense of the Arabs’ desperation.
“In a camp, these refugees will be provided with everything they need, and they will be spared such difficulties, until such time as they can return to their homes,” he explains.
Shally pointed out that the plight of the refugees is somewhat easier in the summertime, but when the chill of winter sets in, it will be harder for the poorer refugees to simply survive on the streets without heating or food.
“Sure, the wealthier refugees can afford the sky-high rents quoted by landlords, but for the lower class refugees, winter will be very tough, unless the government organizes a solution, such as a refugee camp,” he says.
Shally concedes that should wealthy Arab businessmen invest in the region, it would be beneficial to the region, but most of the refugees are actually poor, working-class Arabs, who are looking for jobs. The only solution to the quagmire, according to Shally, is for the central government to exert more effort in quelling the violence in the center and south of Iraq, and rendering these regions livable again for the refugees to return to their homes.