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Beyond Citizenship

The Kurds: A stateless nation striving for self-determination

For over a century, Kurds have been trying to fight for their rights and freedom. Sadly, their quest has been largely characterised by human rights abuses and marginalisation. Hindered by political persecution, their dream of independence has been gradually fading.

The Kurds are a non-Arab ethnic group of between 25 and 35 million people and are one of the world’s largest populations without a state. The mention of an independent Kurdistan dates back to 1920 when the Treaty of Sèvres dissolved the Ottoman Empire, suggesting the creation of an autonomous Kurdish state. Shortly after, in 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne replaced the Sèvres Treaty, but it unfortunately failed to address the issue of a Kurdish homeland. As a result, the Kurds were scattered across the territories of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, where they continue to reside today. 

Although the Kurds typically hold the nationality of the countries where they live, they cannot have Kurdish citizenship, one that aligns with their national identity. Consequently, while not de jure stateless - lacking recognition as citizens of any state - many Kurds still feel stateless. 

The case of Kurdistan helps understand the nature of statelessness and the challenges associated with feeling part of a non-existent country.

© Sartep Othman

A threatened culture

What does it mean to be Kurdish? “We have our own culture, clothes, language, flag, and borders. Having Iraqi citizenship is something we cannot escape, but we do not feel Iraqi. Being Kurdish is in our blood,” Ahmad Yasin, an electrical power engineering student at the Polytechnic University in Sulaymaniyah, explained to FairPlanet. 

He pointed out that “many people outside of Iraq think that the whole country is Arab, but it is not. Many Kurdish people cannot even read, speak, or understand Arabic well because there are big differences between the Kurdish community and the Arab community.” 

The resilience of Kurdish culture and identity in the face of statelessness is admirable. They have had no choice but to assimilate to the cultures of their adoptive states, but “despite not having a state, we are Kurds. There is nothing that can deprive us of our Kurdish identity,” Yasin confidently stated, emphasising that lacking a state does not diminish their deep-rooted Kurdish identity.

The Kurds’ dedication to preserving their language, customs, traditions and symbols has played a major role in maintaining a distinct Kurdish identity, despite living in various countries and facing pressures to assimilate.

© Levi Meir Clancy

Second-class citizens

However, even though Kurds have been successful in safeguarding their identity and passing the Kurdish spirit from generation to generation, they regularly endure systemic discrimination. 

Historical examples include the Anfal campaign, also known as the Kurdish genocide, carried out by the Ba'ath regime in Iraq in 1988. Over the course of eight months, a staggering number of between 50,000 and 100,000 Kurds were killed, as documented by Human Rights Watch. Moreover, throughout the campaign, tens of thousands of people vanished, while ninety percent of Kurdish villages and more than 20 small towns and cities were completely destroyed.

The genocide was not the only instance of human rights abuses faced by the Kurds. As a more contemporary example, in Turkey, speaking, writing, or broadcasting in Kurdish was prohibited until the 1990s, and Kurdish names were forcibly changed to Turkish.

In Syria, prior to the civil war, the government stripped thousands of Kurds of citizenship, prohibited the teaching of their language, and imposed restrictions on the functioning of Kurdish political activities.

Finally, in Iran, Kurds are “expressly denied employment in the state sector, though in practice, in parts of the private sector as well,” reported Amnesty International. 

These examples illustrate the profound and persistent challenges faced by the Kurdish population, highlighting the reality of their second-class citizenship status.

“I am often reminded that I am Iraqi because citizenship allows me to work, get education, travel, etc. However, as for the sense of belonging, I have almost never had the real feeling of being Iraqi,” Amraz, an NGO worker from Kirkuk, who asked to remain anonymous, told FairPlanet. 

Pathways to recognition

In the pursuit of resolving the statelessness endured by the Kurdish population, the exploration of increasingly inclusive policies presents a glimmer of hope. While challenges and tensions persist, the situation of the Kurds has been undergoing a notable evolution in recent years.

Iraqi Kurdistan, for instance, enjoys a degree of self-governance with its own Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), having powers to legislate security, natural resources and local administration. Similarly, in Syria, the post-civil war power vacuum allowed the Kurds to establish self-governing regions known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (Rojava). 

This autonomy has provided the Kurds with the ability to exercise greater control over their affairs, opening avenues for achieving their political, economic and cultural goals. Such advancements demonstrate a shift towards broader acknowledgment of the Kurds' identity and their aspirations for recognition. 

And yet, an independent Kurdistan remains a distant dream. “Imagine you have a job, and you work each day, but you do not have a home,” this is what being Kurdish feels like to Hawar Akravi from Akre. 

Despite the evolving legal status of the Kurds, their struggle for a more dignified existence continues. In this journey, NGOs play a vital role in amplifying their voices, advocating for their human rights, preserving their cultural heritage and fostering a strong sense of identity. Peace and Freedom Organization (PFO) based in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, has been at the forefront of documenting and raising awareness about human rights abuses faced by the Kurds. PFO creates a platform for the Kurds to share their experiences, shedding light on the injustices and human rights abuses experienced by them, while also engaging in advocacy efforts to improve their situation. 

To help the Kurdish population cultivate their unique identity despite their de facto statelessness, collaboration between NGOs, the Kurdish community and governments is crucial. By fostering dialogue and including the Kurds in decision-making processes, the Kurdish population can actively participate in shaping their own future.