With Eyes On Europe, Iraqis Line Up To Leave Baghdad

With Eyes On Europe, Iraqis Line Up To Leave Baghdad

12:58pm Sep 05, 2015
Iraqi protesters hold a picture of German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a demonstration calling for government reforms on Friday. Thousands of Iraqis are leaving the country, fleeing violence and a dire economy and drawn toward the perception of a welco
Iraqi protesters hold a picture of German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a demonstration calling for government reforms on Friday. Thousands of Iraqis are leaving the country, fleeing violence and a dire economy and drawn toward the perception of a welco
Hadi Mizban/AP

At first it seems lively outside on the weekend in Baghdad — the lights are bright in open-air cafes, music streams from beribboned cars in a wedding party and at Ali Hussein's juice stand, decorated with plastic bananas, they're squeezing oranges on old brass presses.

But even as Hussein offers me a sharp, fresh juice, he's downcast. When I ask about the subject on everyone's mind here — the migrant flood into Europe — he laughs. "We were just talking about this!" he says. Several of his friends just passed by to say farewell.

They heard that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was welcoming Iraqis. "Each one said, 'I'm traveling,' 'I'm traveling,' 'I'm traveling,' " says Hussein. All want to be smuggled to Europe.

Conversations in the Iraqi capital, between the rich and the poor, travel agents, taxi drivers and demonstrators in Friday protests, show a city galvanized by the news from Europe. The violence and decrepitude here are nothing new, but now there is a perception of an opportunity for an alternative, and many are seizing it.

Fleeing Iraqis already form a significant chunk of the migrants streaming into Europe. The International Organization for Migration says roughly five times as many Iraqis — about 5,000 people — have arrived illegally in Greece through July this year than in all of 2014.

But the mood in Baghdad suggests that number is set to rise. Everyone seems to know several friends and relatives who have left abruptly this summer.

Mehdi Salman, a travel agent, says the number of daily flights to Turkey, as well as the cost of tickets, has tripled. People sell their cars, furniture and clothes for the cost of the plane ride and to pay the smugglers. It's great for business, but he thinks it's terrible for Iraq.

"I want them to stay, and I usually tell them not to leave," he says. But to little avail: "People reach a stage, they cannot take any more."

Iraqis have plenty to run away from. People cite violence since a swath of the country is controlled by ISIS and various forms of fighting kill hundreds each month, according to the U.N. Low oil prices have also shattered the economy, and one of the world's most corrupt governments provides little in the way of services.

At the taxi line at the airport, Ahmed Abdullah, tall and curly-haired, is saying goodbye to friends heading to Istanbul, and thinking about joining them in Europe in a couple weeks, if they make it safely.

The incentive is simply that he's seen so many people take the trip lately, and believes Europe is more welcoming now than before. And of course, the situation in Iraq isn't getting any easier "There's no security here," he says angrily. "There are bombs." And there's little opportunity to get a better job than driving a taxi a few days a week.

Nothing's getting better in Syria, either, where the vast majority of the newcomers in Europe come from. Rabia Banna, a Syrian in Lebanon, works with a charity helping Syrians.

"The people coming from Syria, they are fleeing the danger like the fighting, the barrel bombs, the rockets," Banna says.

Rockets and barrel bombs are still falling on civilian areas across Syria, where the war kills thousands every month. Banna says that as summer turns to fall and the weather gets stormy, fewer people will try to cross the sea — but there will be more in the spring.

The hundreds of thousands arriving in Europe are still a small percentage of the millions of refugees languishing in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, though most of them are too poor to make the trip. Banna says it's the remnants of the middle classes who can just manage to pay the smugglers' fees. But still, he sees no end to the exodus.

"I think it will be the same for the next years," he says.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And in Iraq and Syria, there's still many people who are considering leaving. They're drawn by the stories of friends who make it all the way to Europe. NPR's Alice Fordham in Iraq finds many eager to join the exodus.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: It seems lively out on the weekend in Baghdad. A wedding party drives past open air cafes. And at Ali Hussein's juice stand, decorated with plastic bananas, they're squeezing oranges. But he's gloomy.

ALI HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Some of his friends just passed by to say farewell. They heard German Chancellor Angela Merkel was welcoming Iraqis, so, one by one, they said, I'm going to Europe.

HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Hussein says you can't count the number of his friends who've gone and all in the last two months.

HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: The Germans should expect a lot more people, he adds. Iraqis form a significant chunk of the migrants streaming into Europe. The International Organization for Migration says a thousand Iraqis got to Greece illegally in 2014. More than five times that arrived there through July this year. And interviews with a dozen people here suggest those numbers are going to rise. Everyone knows several friends and relatives who've left abruptly this summer. Travel agents are doing a roaring trade in plane and bus tickets to Turkey, the first stop on the smuggling trail.

Iraq has long struggled with violence and dysfunction. That's nothing new. So to find out why so many are leaving right now, I head to the taxi line by the airport.

AHMED ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Ahmed Abdullah is wearing a T-shirt which says, in French, save bamboo, eat a panda. He doesn't actually speak French, but as he says goodbye today to friends heading to Istanbul, he's thinking of trying to get to Europe himself.

ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: The incentive is simply that he's seen so many people take the trip lately and believes Europe is more welcoming now than before.

ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He drives a taxi and is in a kind of informal syndicate of 80 guys, except that 50 of them left over the summer. And all of them made it. They're in various parts of Europe seeking asylum, so he's inclined to join them. And, of course, the situation in Iraq isn't getting any easier.

ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: There's no security here, he says. There's bombs. The U.N. counts several hundreds Iraqi civilians killed each month. Plus, a swath of the country is controlled by ISIS, and low oil prices have damaged the economy. And nothing's getting better in Syria either, where the vast majority of the newcomers in Europe are coming from. I call Rabia Banna in Lebanon. He's Syrian himself and works with a charity helping Syrians.

RABIA BANNA: The people coming from Syria - they are fleeing the danger, like the fighting. There are barrel bombs and the rockets.

FORDHAM: Rockets and barrel bombs are still falling on civilian areas across Syria, where the war kills thousands every month. Banna says, as summer turns to fall and the weather gets stormy, fewer people will try to cross the sea. But there'll be more in spring.

BANNA: I think it will be the same for the next years.

FORDHAM: The hundreds of thousands arriving in Europe are still a small percentage of the millions of refugees languishing in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. But most of them are too poor to make the trip. Banna says it's the remnants of the middle class who could just manage to pay the smuggler's fees.

Outside Baghdad airport, I talk with a couple who fled ISIS with their toddler. Wijdan Najah is a Shiite Muslim, and ISIS is a Sunni group that kills Shiites systematically.

WIJDAN NAJAH: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Najah says she just wants safety for her daughter.

ABDULRAHMAN MOHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Here, it's getting worse and worse, says her husband Abdulrahman Mohammad. Of course it will be better there. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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