By Sheikh Jamal al-Dhari for Peace Ambassadors for Iraq
Armed conflicts, political oppression, and corruption are driving refugees to the borders of Europe. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) more than 300,000 refugees have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year compared to 219,000 during all of 2014. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has publicly stated that the crisis threatens the future of the Schengen Area, which would undermine one of the core institutions of modern Europe by imperiling the free movement of goods, information, money, and people across the continent.
As a leader of the Zoba Tribe, one of the largest in Iraq, I am deeply saddened to see so many of my fellow Iraqis forced to leave the country that they love. As of December 2014, over 369,904 refugees and 103,733 asylum seekers have fled Iraq. According to the International Organization for Migration, as of July of this year, five times as many Iraqis — about 5,000 people — have arrived illegally in Greece than during all of 2014. Even more troubling is the fact that many are predicting the number of Iraqi refugees fleeing to Europe is slated to increase in the near future. The long-term situation in Iraq is so poor that many Iraqis in the national army and militias who have been fighting ISIL and containing its expansion are leaving the country. If this trend continues, the region will only continue to grow more unstable.
Since 2003, corrupt, inefficient governance and malign foreign interference in Iraq’s national affairs have triggered numerous internal conflicts. Under the influence of Tehran, the central government in Baghdad progressively excluded the Sunni population from Iraq’s institutions and national life. The marginalization, in turn, led to the growth of such groups as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as ISIS, IS, or Daesh. During the course of this conflict, ISIL and the Iranian-supported militias have killed, tortured, and abused civilian populations on a wide scale. However, in the face of such violence, the government has done little to improve the situation.
Even as the world has come together to fight ISIL, the central government in Baghdad has not reformed in the ways that the international community and the Iraqi people have demanded. Transparency International reports that Iraq has the sixth highest perception of corruption in the world and Freedom House has assigned Iraq the status of ‘not free’ with very low ratings in freedom, political rights, and civil liberties. Corruption has spread, the economy is in ruins, and the same people who brought the country into this perilous situation under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki still surround the new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Complicating matters even further is that other conflicts in neighboring Syria, Iran, and Turkey have pushed over 270,000 refugees into Iraq itself, straining the government’s already limited capacity.
The international community has given commendable support to Iraq. However, by unconditionally backing an unreformed central government, by not supporting real reconciliation between Iraq’s communities, and by giving tacit support to Iran’s generals and militias in Iraq, Europe will be unable to end the current fighting and the outward flow of refugees from the country.
In the face of the government’s inability to provide even basic services, the people of Iraq have taken to the streets to demand reform and are ready to forge a brighter future for themselves and their country. Responding to the protests, Prime Minister Abadi has proposed a series of reforms to tackle corruption. It is vital for Europe to seize upon this opportunity to support the people of Iraq by ensuring that Abadi implements these reforms.
European states must recognize that Iraq’s refugee crisis will not end by simply defeating ISIL militarily. Iraq needs an inclusive government, freedom from malign foreign interference in its national affairs, and a diversified, well-developed economy. If there is no comprehensive response along these lines, the increasing number of refugees from Iraq and neighboring countries will continue to endanger the stability of the EU and the very future of the European project.
All Iraqis have a deep love of their country and want to see it fulfill its true potential rather than leave their homeland and, in doing so, destabilize Europe. We want the Middle East to look like Europe; not Europe to look like the Middle East. In order to make this dream a reality, Europeans and Iraqis must work together as partners. Only then can we forge an enduring peace stretching from Brussels to Baghdad.
This article was originally posted in E!Sharp.