The issue of unemployment is looming issue for Kurdistan as elections for the region come to an end. Nearly half the Kurdish population is below the age of 19 and within that age group unemployment is 18%. The unemployment rate for Iraq overall is at 11% based off the reports done by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The parliamentary elections saw a record low turnout for voters, there is a major influx of European immigration coming from Kurdistan and Iraq, and militia groups are continuing to bolster their numbers with paid positions being filled by young men who cannot find jobs that pay as well.

The majority of the unemployed are made up of young Kurds and Iraqis who have received a university education and lack trade skills; admittedly the trade jobs in the Middle East seldom pay well. A student with Erbil’s Ishik University, Bahouz is studying International Relations and Diplomacy; he told local media that, “Especially in Kurdistan, due to this financial crisis, finding jobs has become very difficult. There is a crisis in every aspect. You can’t find a good job. It was easier before, but it has become difficult now.”

Kurdistan and Iraq have been rocked by financial issues over the previous four years. The constantly withheld and mismanaged budget issued by the Iraqi central government has led to large-scale nationwide protests. The war with the Islamic State paired with an economic crash in 2016 put more strain on the situation. Citizens are losing faith in the government’s ability to manage the nation’s finances. Mustafa, a student of law at Erbil Ishik University, said, “Generally, in Iraq, working is difficult because the economy of the area is very backward due to politics, due to the financial crisis, the war with Daesh [ISIS] terrorists, and internal party rivalries. Of course, the Kurdistan Region was better [in terms of job opportunities], but you know any country that is at war with the biggest terrorist group in the world, and if its finances aren’t like those of a big country, it will certainly be marred with crisis.”

Another large problem is a cultural barrier that prevents qualified people from finding work. Known as wasta colloquially it refers to families giving preferential treatment to family and clan members overqualified candidates. Ishik University’s career development center lead, Sarhang Othman, stated that, “The governmental sector is full of wasta – occupied by wasta. Sometimes I ask my students, why are you not looking for a job? And they say, sir, I don’t need to look for a job. Why? Because my uncle is the owner of this company so he will employ me.” Ishik University held a job fair this past week that saw an impressive turnout of around 30 different companies looking to hire the nations young minds. Regarding the event Othman said, “We have companies here who say they don’t want someone from wasta. They say we want candidates that have good skills and can do my requirements.”

Another local law student, Shang, had a different mentality towards the situation. She spoke among peers saying, “They all think that because of nepotism and backing, they can’t find jobs. This is very wrong because you need to look for jobs on your own. If you don’t get accepted for a job, you don’t need to lose hope. You need to try more.” Regarding the Kurdistan financial crisis, she said,

Kurdistan has given ample opportunities to the youth, but it is the youth who are at fault for giving up too soon … I frankly don’t want to leave Kurdistan because Kurdistan needs people like us. It is necessary that we work in Kurdistan. I am not thinking about living abroad. If it is for tourism, it is okay, but for living? I have never thought about leaving Kurdistan.”

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Many of the students in attendance were considering overseas employment to avoid the financial downturn. An architectural student named Shead said, “There are fewer opportunities here, I’m thinking about going to the Netherlands — there are really great architecture firms there,” adding, “Give attention to the young people. There are really good, talented people, but they are ignored by the government.”

Bahouz said,

If there is the opportunity, I will leave. Life is better [in the west] compared to Kurdistan and Iraq. Certainly, I have thought about that. After finishing university, if Kurdistan remains the same, then yes [I am leaving] … Start reforms and establish a better cabinet this time, to invest more in projects, to encourage our youth in every way.”

Between 2015 and 2017 around 25,000 Kurdish citizens left the country for Europe; this is based off reports done by the Iraqi Ministry of Migration but there is no way to get a detailed account due to the nature of the migration.

A student named Mustafa is taking an opposing approach stating, “No, no I don’t plan to emigrate to any foreign country. I haven’t had the idea to live anywhere other than Kurdistan. I believe an individual, in their country, amongst their family and with people they share the same language with, if they can’t find a job, I don’t believe they, in diaspora, in a place where the language differs, can find a job.” He added that the KRG and central government must work together to find a solution, “The government, especially the Iraqi government, should protect the areas and the provinces it considers Iraq and invest more in it. We call on the Kurdistan Regional Government for the internal problems and the problems with the Iraqi government to be solved urgently so that people can think about their future in peace and tranquility.”

Othman believes the use of private sector investors and import/export diversity paired with governmental efforts to boost employment is the best solution. He said that, “The government should open a department for employing people. There is a ministry of labour, and they are taking care of workers, arranging training course for people who can’t study in universities, but they are not caring about employing people. We need to make this department more active.”

Featured image courtesy of jan kurdistani (kurdistan Arbil .irak -Hawler) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons