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The role of transnational networks in Kurdish migration to the UK

In February 2024, Europol announced the dismantling ‘one of the most active and largest people-smuggling gangs operating in Calais’ with the help of German, French and Belgian police. Many migrants on their way to the UK from Iraq and the rest of the Middle East to the UK gather in the French city of Calais before being smuggled on boats over the English Channel. During the operation, Europol arrested the Germany-based Iraqi Kurdish leader of the smuggling gang along with five individuals holding key roles in people-smuggling operations. A recent BBC News article investigated one of the alleged smugglers, who was later arrested in Iraq, and details both his experiences and some of the smuggling practices on which his ‘people-smuggling trade’ relies.

Experts have indicated that Iraqi Kurds represent a significant portion of migrants arriving in the UK via the English Channel. In 2023, Iraq was ranked as the fifth highest origin country for these arrivals, with 80 per cent of the rejected applications belonging to Iraqi Kurds. Although there has been an overall decrease in the total number of refugees since 2018, Iraq has consistently been among the top five source countries for small boat arrivals in the UK, with the majority being Iraqi Kurds. 

The challenging conditions within northern Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), stemming from conflict, corruption, limited opportunities and continuing insecurities in places like Sinjar, contribute to instability. These factors collectively drive the motivation behind migration among Iraqi Kurds and members of Sinjar’s Yezidi community (according to government authorities, since 2014 approximately 120,000 Yezidis chose to take irregular migration routes to Europe).  

Corruption and scarce opportunities are spread all over Iraq. In fact, the poverty rate across southern provinces is much higher than in the Kurdistan Region. In Muthana, for example, the poverty rate is 52 per cent whereas in Erbil it is 6.7 per cent and in Sulaimania 4.5 per cent. Similarly, the unemployment rate is higher in the south. However, most Iraqis who flee the country come from the KRI because it is the mix of corruption as well as national and transnational conflict that fuel the migration. Smuggling networks exploit the vulnerabilities of those fleeing, facilitating their journeys and capitalizing on their desperation to find safety and better opportunities. 

The actions against the prominent smuggling gang, described above, illustrate the criminalization approach that many European countries have taken in response to perceived increases in movement of people. However, despite those measures, migration has continued. Rather than a narrow focus, there should be an emphasis on broader national and regional strategies that address the drivers of migration. This includes addressing and tackling the drivers and sources of conflict and insecurities in the KRI.  

Iraqi Kurdistan: where the smuggling network is rooted  

In recent years, numerous citizens of the KRI have lost their lives trying to cross the English Channel in small boats. Many people moving from the region to Europe and the UK since 2014 have done so in response to corruption and political conflict in the KRI. Since its creation in 1991 with the support of the US and the UK, the KRI has been under tight control of two main parties: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Ruling the region through a duopoly, the PUK/KDP have provided little power, resources and economic opportunities to citizens who fall outside their own clientelist and patronage networks.  

Party dominance and corruption, combined with years of conflict over resource-sharing with the central government in Baghdad, have compounded the KRI’s financial and economic crisis and generated strong incentives for the region’s citizens to migrate using available smuggling networks. The KRI is riddled with active smuggling networks that make it possible for citizens from the region to invest their entire life savings in the hope of relocating to the UK to begin anew, highlighting the deep-seated desire for change and a better life away from the systemic issues plaguing their homeland. 

Local issues, transnational networks   

Chatham House XCEPT research highlights the involvement of both local and international actors in a complex web of human smuggling, which capitalizes on the desperation of individuals seeking better lives. This transnational network exacerbates the plight of its victims, exploiting their circumstances for profit. The recent arrests have once again brought to light the issue of Kurdish migration, which for years has been driven by political corruption and conflict within the KRI, facilitated by transnational networks.  

In the KRI, key local ‘enablers’ include proprietors of money transfer businesses, known as Hawalla offices, and associates of prominent smugglers who facilitate operations across various countries. On the international front, smugglers are predominantly based in Türkiye, extending their operations through Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Belarus, Italy, France, Germany and the UK. This network comprises Kurdish smugglers who bring their extensive experience and connections to the table. 

Kurdish smugglers stationed along those routes leverage local networks to facilitate the passage of migrants. The final leg of the journey for many involves crossing from France to the UK. Efforts by smugglers in this phase aim to navigate people across the English Channel. This is accomplished either through concealment in trucks or via inflatable boats, with Kurdish networks operating from France to orchestrate these perilous crossings. 

Tackling the underlying causes 

Despite various efforts by the UK and other countries to curb migration, embodied by the contentious strategy of relocating asylum seekers to Rwanda for claim processing, the flow continues unabated. Smuggling networks persistently find new methods to bypass restrictive measures, exploiting the desperation of disillusioned Kurds. Rather than resorting to such approaches, the UK and its allies need to address the fundamental reasons driving people to leave, especially from the KRI. This includes confronting the ongoing conflict and entrenched corruption, which compel individuals to seek safer and more stable lives elsewhere. 

The UK, along with the US and major European countries, should help introduce economic stability into the lives of Iraqi Kurds by pushing for a sustainable resource-sharing agreement between the KRI’s formal authority – the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) – and the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. Continuing tension between the KRG and the Baghdad government over sharing finances and resources may further undermine the economic security of the region’s citizens and provide them with greater incentives to migrate using the available transnational smuggling network. Through exerting greater diplomatic pressure, the UK and its allies would be able to change the current course of negative interactions between the Baghdad government and the KRG, that recently left 1.2 million civil servants without salaries for months in a region where government salaries constitute the main source of livelihood for many citizens and their families.  

Within the KRI itself, the UK and its allies should leverage their long-standing ties to the PUK and the KDP in order to encourage transparency and reform in the region’s system of rule.  For several years, the KRI’s ruling parties have used their control over the region’s resources (income from the KRI’s oil sector, and revenues from taxation on trade at border crossings with Iran and Türkiye and from local businesses) for self-enrichment and for expanding patronage and clientelist networks. Efforts by the UK and its allies should specifically focus on supporting transparency in the KRG’s financial institutions and on helping to devise an anti-corruption strategy that could reduce party capture of resources and job opportunities in both the public and private sector in the KRI.  

Finally, the UK and its allies need to address the continuing conflict in Sinjar where transnational armed groups such as the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) compete for influence and authority. As our recent XCEPT report shows, the presence and activities of these groups have generated insecurities that prevented the return of thousands of Sinjari Internally Displaced People (IDPs) to their homes in the conflict-riven district. Instead, the IDPs have relied on the transnational smuggling network to leave Iraq in search of security and stability elsewhere. The UK and its allies need to double down on their efforts to stabilize Sinjar and pave the way for the return of the IDPs by further leveraging their diplomatic, economic and military ties with major stakeholders in Iraq and beyond.  

The need for sustainable solutions 

Beyond disrupting smuggling networks, the UK and other international actors should expand legal avenues for migration, while also taking part in global initiatives to mitigate the factors that necessitate people’s movement via dangerous and exploitative means. Adopting this strategy is not only in line with international commitments but also honours the dignity and rights of those seeking safety. 

At the same time, international actors must tackle the KRI’s entrenched issues to diminish the motivation for dangerous migrations as traffickers adapt and find alternatives. International efforts should empower KRI citizens to positively impact their community by engaging with reformists in the system, enhancing governance and advocating for anti-corruption and accountability measures, particularly within dominant political parties, which often enjoy regional and international support to the detriment of locals.  

Additionally, addressing the KRI’s transnational conflicts, exacerbated by ongoing bombardment from Iran and Türkiye is crucial. Furthermore, the exclusion of groups like the PKK and PMF from policy discussions and agreements exacerbates the situation. Their involvement or representation in negotiations is vital for achieving stability and reducing the region’s conflict dynamics. As they can undermine any agreement fostering regional stability. It is essential to engage in dialogue with these actors or their intermediaries while ensuring accountability, considering the broader context of transnational conflict. This approach is critical for addressing the underlying issues contributing to the region’s instability. 

This article was produced with support from the Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy and Trends (XCEPT) research programme, funded by UK International Development. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.

This article was updated on 24 May 2024.