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Iraqi Crisis Merchants

2024-06-13 10:34

Issam Khoury

#HumanitarianCrisis , #IraqRefugeeCrisis , #Corruption, #Exploitation , #RefugeeRights , #Migration,

Iraqi Crisis Merchants

"Refugees in Iraq face exorbitant fees for residency permits, turning them into commodities in a system rife with corruption and exploitation."

Corruption, violation of refugee rights, and manipulation of obligations imposed on governments that have ratified the Refugee Protection Protocol, and the competition between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, with refugees paying the price, turning from a vulnerable group into a group traded upon. In light of this, we see the weakness of the information published by the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Iraq. Is it weakness, cover-up, or a lack of transparency and good governance?



The outbreak of the civil war in Syria has led to an increase in the number of refugees in Iraqi refugee camps, which include Turkish, Iranian, and Palestinian refugees. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is the most attractive region for refugees, where we find 26 camps for displaced Iraqis fleeing the Islamic State organization and refugees from various countries, 16 of them in Dohuk Governorate, six in Erbil Governorate, and four camps in Sulaymaniyah Governorate.


The number of refugees in those camps is estimated at approximately 174,132 people[1], distributed as follows:

  • Erbil Governorate: 5,387 families consisting of 26,577 individuals
  • Dohuk Governorate: 27,115 families consisting of 136,876 individuals
  • Sulaymaniyah Governorate: 2,218 families consisting of 10,679 individuals.



The Syrians are classified as the largest refugee community in Iraq, with 241,937 people according to the statistics of the Crisis Coordination Center in the Kurdistan Region for the year 2023. A large number of them reside outside the camps after obtaining residency permits, while the number of Iranians is 8,241, most of whom have been refugees since the time of Saddam Hussein and continue to be so to this day. The number of Turkish refugees is 7,860, most of whom are Kurdish opposition to the Turkish government, while the number of Palestinian refugees is 615, most of whom are from the time of President Saddam Hussein. There are also several nationalities such as Afghan and Chinese, but their numbers are very few.


Inside the camps, a commercial, social, and educational community has emerged, in line with the prevailing Syrian culture among the general refugee population. Syrian refugees have built homes from the ground up, opened businesses, and have not lived in tents like the displaced Iraqis fleeing from the Islamic State organization. This has led to the expansion of these camps, turning them into densely populated human cantons despite their small size.



The Syrian displacement to Iraq


Kurdish Syrians were among the first to migrate to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, relying on the deep connections between their parties in Syria and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and the Kurdistan Workers' Party. Later, particularly after 2015, many Syrian Christian and Druze families migrated to Erbil with the aim of seeking opportunities to migrate to Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. It seems that these embassies were sympathetic to these minorities.


Recently, migration to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has become common for all Syrians, with the purpose of seeking employment opportunities. Despite the Kurdish-Arab differences, many Arab refugees chose to migrate to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq for several reasons, the most important of which are:


1. Financial reasons


The Kurdistan Regional Government requires any registered refugee in the Refugee Commission to obtain a residence card to legalize their stay in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The cost of obtaining this residence card within government circles is approximately 80,000 Iraqi dinars, equivalent to about $58. In reality, refugees can only obtain this residency through a law firm or a transaction processing company. According to our local sources, we found that the fees vary between different offices and depend on the age of the refugee as follows:






Fees for offices to obtain a visa for 

the Kurdistan region of Iraq 

for one person for one year




Fees for offices to secure residency for 

a person over 18 years old, for one year




Fees for offices to secure residency for 

a child between 14-18 years old, for one year




Fees for offices to secure residency for 

a child under 14 years old, for one year




Fees for offices to secure residency for 

a man over 65 years old, for one year




Fees for offices to secure residency for 

a woman over 55 years old, for one year




Blood test fees for refugees as 

a condition before obtaining residency







Certainly, these fees are much higher than those demanded by the Kurdistan Regional Government. It is likely that these fees will increase due to the efforts of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor to obtain a share of these amounts in 2025.


It is worth noting that the fees of law firms for obtaining residencies in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq are much lower than those for obtaining residencies in the central Iraqi government, which includes the central and southern regions of Iraq, where the value of residency reaches about $2500 per individual. Since refugees do not have financial resources, they certainly prefer the less costly Kurdistan Region of Iraq and then plan to move to other Iraqi regions through smuggling networks.


2. The security reason


The majority of Syrian refugees are from the Sunni sect, and this group fears crossing through areas controlled by the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, known for their harsh treatment of Sunnis. It is easy for these militias to accuse any Sunni Syrian of being affiliated with the terrorist organization ISIS, especially if they are opposed to the Syrian regime, and this accusation could lead to their killing or lengthy imprisonment. Therefore, all Sunni refugees prefer to pass through Iraq legally or illegally via the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.


3. Access to greater travel opportunities


The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is more stable and secure than areas under the central government, so most countries have opened consulates or travel offices there. This has led to greater travel opportunities for refugees residing in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq compared to those in areas like Baghdad or Basra. Iraqi law requires refugees to obtain security approval to move between Iraqi regions, and it is difficult for refugees residing in Baghdad to obtain travel approval to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Therefore, most refugees prefer to have their residency documented in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.


4. The existence of refugee camps


Registered refugees in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Iraqi camps have always received food rations and in-kind assistance from relief organizations. However, this aid was suspended in 2023 due to the financial constraints of relief organizations. Nevertheless, many refugees continue to hope that this aid will be reinstated when financial support becomes available for these organizations. It is noteworthy that the majority of refugee camps are located in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, making them the first destination for refugees. Some of the most well-known camps are in Duhok province (Duhok city, Danyal Metran Road, Domiz 1 and Bardarash camps, and Kawergosk) and Erbil province (Basirma, Qushtapa, Karkosk, and Darashakran) and in Sulaymaniyah province (Arbat and Sulaymaniyah).


5. The United Nations ignorance of the procedures of the Iraqi central government


Many recommendations published on the page of the UNHCR in Iraq indicate ignorance of the executive procedures followed by the central government. For example, the following statement is seen: "Refugees and asylum seekers holding a card issued by the Permanent Committee for Refugees at the Ministry of Interior do not need to obtain a separate residence permit." In reality, the central government in the middle and south of Iraq does not recognize the documents issued by the UNHCR in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and has even gone as far as to arrest any refugee without a residence permit in the middle and south of Iraq.




This reality has become tangible to refugees, so most of them prefer to reside in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, as it is more compliant with the laws it issues and more compliant with the recommendations of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. However, there is still misinformation in the information published by the UNHCR regarding residence in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where the UNHCR refers to the cost of issuing residence permits by the government at a value of 80,000 Iraqi dinars, approximately $58, but it does not show the impossibility of obtaining these permits without intermediaries, making the actual cost exceeding $550, as we clarified in the previous table!



Entering to Iraq


At the end of March 2024, the Iraqi government stopped issuing travel visas for Syrians. Before that, law firms and transaction processing offices charged $150 to secure a tourist visa for Syrian individuals with a valid passport for six months to enter the Kurdistan region of Iraq. However, the cost of travel visas for Syrians to other regions in central and southern Iraq exceeded $1,200.


This was clearly in service of smuggling networks, as the cost of transporting one person from Syria to Iraq was between $200 and $300 in 2019. However, this number has risen to nearly $2,000 following the visa ban.


There are two illegal ways to enter Iraq:


1. Medical fraud method


Due to the deteriorating medical reality in the self-administered areas of northeastern Syria and the sympathy of the Kurdistan Regional Government with Syrian Kurds, the Iraqi Kurdistan government allowed free passage for critical medical cases, provided that they are supervised by a medical committee confirming the impossibility of treatment in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria areas. In reality, most of these medical committees are corrupt or sympathetic to the needs of refugees, so they provide inaccurate reports for a fee ranging between $200 and $300, allowing Syrians to enter through the Fishkhabour crossing into the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where they can then go to the refugee commission to obtain asylum rights.



2. Actual illegal routes


The Syrian-Iraqi borders are vast and cannot be controlled, especially with tribal connections between the two sides of the border, tangible cooperation within the same tribe, in addition to the prevalent corruption in the security forces and Iraqi officers. The most prominent of these crossings are:


  • Al-Ya'rubiyah Crossing: It is designated for trucks and goods, and sometimes some illegal migrants hide among the goods, and they are overlooked due to bribery. Also, a few kilometers away from this crossing, local groups are active in organizing illegal crossings in cooperation with Iraqi parties, where the latter determine the safe crossing time after ensuring the absence of border patrols.






  • Faysh Khabur Crossing: It is a crossing that cannot be crossed illegally, but it is used for illegal escape under the pretext of medical reasons, and sometimes some officials' cars pass through without inspecting illegal immigrants who are close to these officials.





  • Al Bukamal Crossing: Controlled by Syrian customs and units of the Popular Mobilization Forces on the Syrian side, and on the Iraqi side, there are anti-terrorism units, army units, in addition to units affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces, making it difficult for smuggling networks to illegally cross. Therefore, the smuggling circle at this crossing is limited to officers and leaders in the Popular Mobilization Forces units, where they hide illegal Syrians in their cars, and since their cars are not subject to inspection, they transport illegal refugees to the city of Ramadi for an agreed amount of money, usually around $2,500. Only Syrians loyal to the Syrian regime or Syrians opposed to the self-administration government in northeastern Syria resort to this crossing.


Other crossings are random and do not allow cars to pass. Smugglers lead illegal refugees on foot to the Iraqi border, where they are met by a relative of the smuggler on the Iraqi side, who then escorts the legal refugees on foot to the nearest area accessible by cars.



According to our interviews with illegal refugees, most smugglers are from the Shammar tribe, which is distributed on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border. The smuggling networks run by Arab tribes have excellent connections with smuggling networks run by Kurds in the towns of Derbasiyah, Mabrouka, and Al-Rmeilan in Al-Hasakah. 


Erbil is the preferred destination for refugees after crossing the Syrian border, and the journey from the border to Erbil takes about three hours. Prices vary among smugglers, depending on the travel date and security conditions. In 2019, smugglers demanded $200 from each refugee, while in 2024, the fees reached nearly $2,000 per refugee.




The journey from Iraqi Kurdistan to Baghdad


Job opportunities in the Kurdistan region of Iraq are very weak due to low investments and high population density, with a large number of displaced persons and refugees in the region. 


If a refugee does not find work in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, the alternative plan is for the refugee to seek the help of Iraqi smugglers to reach the central and southern regions of Iraq, where there are better job opportunities. 






Through our investigative research and interviews with residents living illegally in Baghdad and Basra, we found that they were all transported at night from the Kurdistan region of Iraq along the following route: Erbil-Kirkuk-Tikrit-Baghdad. The smugglers, who are connected to Iraqi army officers, charge $300 per passenger, and the car usually accommodates four passengers. Passengers are required to hide under the seats when reaching any checkpoint to avoid embarrassing the officer driving the car in front of the army personnel or the military checkpoint (known in Iraqi dialect as "Al-Saytara") where they work. Recently, officers themselves have become the smugglers, as in one documented case, we learned that a major-ranked officer was driving the car transporting illegal migrants!



Moving between the cities of the central Iraqi government


There are many military checkpoints "Al-Saytara" at the entrances of cities, and this prevents illegal refugees from moving freely between cities, so they also resort to smugglers, who are also linked to the security apparatus, army officers, or Popular Mobilization Forces, where the cost of transporting an illegal immigrant between the city of Ramadi and the city of Baghdad is $100, and prices vary between cities.



Residence, Work, and Detention


Iraqi society is tribal, and in tribal customs, there is a general culture that calls for honoring the guests and protecting the refugees. Therefore, we see real tolerance from the locals towards illegal refugees in terms of securing residence or providing housing at an affordable price, especially if the refugees are families with women and children.


As for the working conditions, investors benefit from the low wages of illegal refugees, especially since they are not financially obligated to provide health insurance, paid leave, and other job benefits provided to Iraqi workers.

This reality has put the Iraqi Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor in danger, prompting them to conduct patrols in markets and urban projects to monitor and detain illegal workers. This has led employers to instruct their illegal workers to hide upon the arrival of any patrol.


Overall, our investigative report clearly indicates a state of widespread corruption in Iraqi institutions, which has negatively affected the situation of refugees, turning them into a financial commodity in the hands of those benefiting from corrupt practices. As refugees are the most vulnerable group in Iraqi society, everyone is now trading with them.


Therefore, international and UN bodies should exert serious pressure on the central government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government to fulfill their international commitments and not forget that they are signatories[2] to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol[3] Relating to the Status of Refugees.





[1] The Crisis Coordination Center reveals the numbers of displaced people and refugees in the Kurdistan region/ Kurdistan TV/ May 20, 2023



[2] United Nation, UNHCR/ The 1951 Refugee Convention, 1951.



[3] UN, Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1967



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