RANYA, Iraq (AP) — The specter of unemployment haunts both students and teachers at universities in northern Iraq. Many speak of growing numbers of empty seats in classrooms across the semi-autonomous Kurdish region — seats once occupied by students who have left for Europe.
Those who remain, like 21-year-old law student Zhewar Karzan, are making plans to leave.
He sees no future at home, in the town of Ranya, nestled among picturesque mountains, rivers and Lake Dukan, the Iraqi Kurdish region’s largest lake. A college degree provides no guarantee of a job, and his parents struggle to pay the bills, he said.
Come spring, Karzan plans to try his luck and leave with other hopeful migrants. His brother Jiyar, who in 2016 paid a smuggler to take him to Italy from Turkey, eventually reached Britain and now supports the entire family back home while working in a pizza restaurant.
“I will join him,” said Karzan.
Iraqi Kurdish youth face a tough choice: endure unemployment and corruption at home, or try to sneak into Europe at the risk of financial ruin, or even death during the perilous journey.
Though there are no firm statistics, a substantial number of young Iraqi Kurds are believed to have left, seeing no hope in their country. Meanwhile, students who stayed are struggling to get motivated because getting an education is no longer a sure path to a job.
Across the Middle East, struggling economies have failed to keep pace with growing populations. In the three Iraqi Kurdish provinces, between 43,000 to 54,000 jobs would need to be created every year to absorb new waves of young people joining the labor force, according to U.N. estimates.
The gap between tepid economic growth and a “youth bulge” has led to persistently high unemployment. Among Iraqi Kurds between the ages of 15 and 29, it’s 24% for men and 69% for women, according to a U.N. survey. The government says these numbers have improved in the last three years but official statistics have not been released.
Iraqi Kurdish university campuses have become a hotbed of discontent. Recent protests in the cities of Irbil and Sulaymaniyah over student stipends, frozen since 2014, underscore growing public disenchantment with the government.
The Kurdish regional government halted the stipends at the time because of the costly war against the extremist Islamic State group and icy relations with Baghdad-based federal government of Iraq that further stalled budget allocations needed to pay public workers. A drop in oil prices dealt a further blow to the oil-exporting Iraqi Kurdish region.
The stipends, between $40 and $70 a month, covered transport, books, clothes and other basic needs.
With a recent rise in oil prices to above $70 a barrel and the lifting of some austerity measures, students demanded a resumption of government aid. They recently staged protests at Raparin University in Sulaymaniyah and elsewhere to press for the stipends to resume.
The students were met with tear gas and batons. Classes at the main university in Ranya were canceled for a week. Karzan, the prospective migrant, said the protests were co-opted by political groups and turned violent.
Students also argued that the universities are incapable of producing graduates qualified for the job market. They alleged that the institutions are tainted by nepotism and directly or indirectly controlled by the political leadership through appointments and funding.