RANYA, Iraq – Mohammed Ahmed, 20, grew up in the village of Qadirawa, a small settlement near the town of Ranya in Iraqi Kurdistan. Lying almost two hours to the east of the regional capital Erbil, the drive to Mohammed’s home winds through small villages, each entrance lined with faded portraits of men, young and old, fallen in the fight against the Islamic State (IS). On the radio, news of a deadly IS attack near Erbil dominated the airwaves. Families were mourning after scores were killed, including a child, in the region of Qarachogh.
Mohammed’s family were also in mourning. Outside his childhood home, tucked away on a quiet street near the village mosque, men sat outside in silence, come to pay their respects to his father Qadir. But unlike in Qaraqoch, where IS has waged an insurgency since its territorial defeat in 2017, Mohammed was not killed by militants, and there was no body to mourn. Instead, his parents waited to hear news of their son, presumed to have drowned trying to reach the UK on 24 November.
For the past year, Mohammed had watched as his friends left their village for Europe, a seemingly different world to this small settlement overlooking the Darband mountains. His monthly salary of £100, from a restaurant in the city of Sulaymaniyah, was barely enough to help his family, and then he lost his job completely. In October, he made up his mind to follow his friends, alone.
“I’m about to get on a boat,” he told his family last week from northern France. That was the last they heard from him.
“We don’t know for sure he was involved. We still have some hope,” said Qadir while thumbing prayer beads. Behind him, wails of grief could be heard from inside the house where women of the family were gathered.
Ranya, near the Iranian border, is no stranger to emigration. On a sunny Friday afternoon in the town’s central park, several young people spoke of leaving for Europe.
“Many friends have gone. It’s just me left here,” Ahmed Rashid, 21, said with a laugh. The man sat next to him on the park bench had two relatives on the boat Mohammed is believed to have taken to cross the Channel. They both died.
A maintenance worker, Ahmed struggles to make a stable wage – at the most, £250 a month. He said it is particularly hard in Ranya, a small town. But politics is also a factor.
“The government has turned a blind eye to this area,” he said. “There is no law here,” he added, motioning to a spot behind him where a senior member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two ruling parties in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region, was shot days before (it is unclear whether the man survived).
Many of those feared dead are believed to be from Ranya, but Ahmed is undeterred.
“It doesn’t impact me in any way. I have to go,” he said. “Leaving is like fighting Isis: you go and prepare yourself. You either make it or you die.
“There is no going back. In my neighbourhood, there are ten other young people that have decided to go. We will all go together.”
Back in the village, Qadir said he was initially opposed to his son’s plans, but as time went on, his opposition waned. There was nothing for Mohammed in the area.
“People have to leave: there are no jobs or prosperity here. The only thing they can do is join a political party,” he said. If that’s not what they want to do, few options remain.
His son’s death would not stop others from leaving, he added.
“Even after this, people are desperate and ready to take the risk. People are going every night.” On the drive back into Ranya, we hear of one neighbourhood that saw 70 people leave in one night alone.
Half an hour away from Qadirawa lie the Qandil Mountains, known as the headquarters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Dubbed a terrorist organisation by Ankara and its allies, it has fought Turkey for greater rights for Kurds for several decades. PKK checkpoints have disappeared from the area and more than 500 villages have emptied for fear of Turkish airstrikes, which have devastated border areas in Duhok province.
The Kurdistan Region is typically lauded as more tolerant and progressive than the rest of Iraq. The Kurdish sacrifice in the fight against IS was praised by the international community. A security vacuum left by both Iraqi and Kurdistan Region government forces has allowed IS to regroup and sow terror. Kurdish fighters from the Peshmerga militia continue to sacrifice their lives to quench the insurgency across disputed territories of northern Iraq.
Despite the region’s positive international image, most of its citizens struggle to lead their daily lives. Many of those recently stranded in the border zone between Belarus and Poland as they tried to enter the EU were Kurds. As the tired and weary returned to the Kurdistan Region, dejected but determined to try again, students across Sulaymaniyah province took to the streets to call for student maintenance allowances. They were met with violence from security forces. It followed a similar crackdown last December, in which eight mostly young protesters were killed. In Duhok, teachers protesting over delayed salaries were locked up and branded as threats to public stability.
The relative prosperity enjoyed by people here ended abruptly with the IS takeover in 2014. Disputes with the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad have worsened the situation. The public sector is bloated, but for many people, these are the only jobs available and the nominal salaries are low – when they’re paid at all. People go unpaid for months at a time, and the cost of living continues to climb.
Financial problems are just one factor pushing people to leave, said Handa Majed, the founder of Kurdish Umbrella, a charity that helps Kurdish migrants coming to the UK.
Iraqi Kurdistan “is becoming more difficult to live in”, she said from London. “People don’t have hope. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. If there was hope and change, people would stay and fight, and try to work and improve the system, but there is no hope.”
Majed also cited the human rights situation as a major factor pushing people to leave. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has come under fire for its increasing crackdown on journalists and activists, branding them threats to public stability and jailing them on dubious charges without a fair trial.
With a young population, many leaving the area are barely adults, and some even children, according to Majed, who said most of her cases involve people under 18.
“They cry for their mothers,” she said.
In Ranya’s park, three young men in stylish clothes posed for photos near a bench, combing through their hair and adjusting sunglasses. On closer inspection, it is clear they are all still children. One of them said he is also planning to leave.
“There is no prosperity here,” said Mohammed Hamsa, 17. He said he wants to go to the UK, alone. His friends said they will join him in the spring.
“I want to have a better future,” he explained. “I want to learn the language and become a barber. I can make a good living and have a better future there.”
Like everyone else, he was unfazed by the deaths of so many others on the way. The situation is too desperate.
“This is the last thing I worry about. I am ready to get on a boat.”