Understanding the Kurdish Student Protests

Sarkawt Shamsulddin
Sarkawt Shamsulddin is a former member of Parliament, Strategic Planning Committee, Iraq-US Friendship sub-committee. He is a board member of the Press Freedom Project, a registered non-profit organization in the United States. You may follow him on Twitter @MPsarkawtShams

In recent weeks, students from public universities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq took to the streets and started a region-wide demonstration.[i] But, as usual, security forces used excessive force to disperse the demonstrators, arrested hundreds of student activists, beat detainees, and forced student detainees to sign a memo, never to organize demonstrations again.[ii] But why did the protests start? And how are these demonstrations essential to understanding the Belarus-Poland migrant crisis?

Student Grievances against the Government

Initially, the demonstrations began in order to force the Kurdistan government to reinstate student allowance payments. According to the Kurdistan Ministry of Higher Education’s law, students in public universities receive a monthly allowance of 50 to 60 thousand Iraqi Dinars ($40) per month. This policy was introduced to help the middle class and low-income families send their kids to college. However, this policy was suspended in 2014 by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).[iii] The justifications given were the KRG’s budget cut from Baghdad and the region’s financial crisis due to lower oil prices and government corruption.[iv]

However, the allowance payment is just the tip of the iceberg. The crisis is more profound. Since the demonstrations started, I have attended the virtual events on Twitter’s Space platform and clubhouse rooms listening to the students. I was impressed by their knowledge and understanding of the root causes. They told the audiences that they feel they have no future in the country. They mentioned that they wanted freedom and opportunities. One student said to me that they experience inequality daily. He said,

“my campus is next to the American University of Kurdistan in Duhok (a private university owned by the son of Prime Minister Masrour Barzani). I see all rich students parking their luxury cars, wearing fancy clothes, living in five-star dorms, and attending well-equipped classrooms because they are the son of a government official or a business owner linked to ruling parties. While my college is underfunded, the curriculum is outdated, and we live in crowded dorms.”

Another student was comparing her future with those who attend expensive private colleges.

“They have their future life set up for them. Where is mine? I was top class of my high school, but I have no future, and if I express my disapproval of government, I face threats by security forces,” she said.

The growing social injustice, rampant corruption, nepotism, and market monopoly by the ruling parties have widened the gap between regular citizens and the ruling elite. For years, this has pushed Kurdish students and their parents to express their anger through demonstrations.[v] But their demands went unanswered. So instead, the ruling parties used security forces and their militias to kill and end the protests.[vi] However, speaking up and criticizing government policies can have devastating consequences for you and your family. Last week, my wife and I came under direct attack as KRG’s PM Barzani falsely accused my wife of having “an affair” with a reporter who exposed his corruption. Not only does he not want to be held accountable for his corruption, but he also terrorizes his critics and their families.

Root Causes for Government Distrust

The students’ outcry is part of a wider public disenfranchisement and anger against the government. The issue is not solely regarding the student allowance payment. Public employees also faced a devastating financial crisis as the KRG failed to pay its employees for months and forced them to face salary cuts of up to 75 percent. The impacts of the financial crisis continue to this date.

Public employment has been officially on hold since 2015. The impact of this resulted in no replacement for retirees. The private sector job opportunities, mainly white-collar jobs, for regular workers are scarce and monopolized for individuals associated with ruling political parties. Only high-skilled individuals have opportunities to be employed by companies, international organizations, and oil companies.

Most highly skilled individuals are graduates of private universities or Western-based colleges. The public schools in the Kurdistan region are outdated and do not prepare students for new opportunities. Therefore, students from public colleges are most likely to be unemployed or find blue-collar jobs with a monthly income lower than the minimum wage.[vii] In the last two years, after the new Cabinet of KRG was formed under the leadership of Masrour Barzani in 2019, things have become more complicated as PM Barzani introduced new measures to crackdown on freedom of the press and tightened financial measures.[viii] Barzani’s policies led to the imprisonment and unjust trials of dozens of independent journalists and critical voices who dared to question his policies. Moreover, the regional parliament is weakened as PM Barzani took on opposition MPs and sued them when they questioned his policies and criticized him and his party for corruption.[ix]

The dire economic conditions of middle and lower-class citizens have become worse. PM Barzani introduced new reform measures to lower government spending, increase taxes, government services, and privatize education, healthcare, and electricity while failing to provide more opportunities for the region’s growing number of unemployed youth.[x]

Since 2014, the KRG has not sent any budget bill to the parliament, and there exists no accountability for government spending.[xi] The KRG’s reform packages targeted struggling families the most. The price of electricity tripled; government service increased by five folds.

Kurdish Migrants and the Belarus-Poland Border

The recent migrant crisis at the Belarus-Poland border has gained the world’s attention.[xii] According to reports, many of the migrants were Kurds from Iraqi Kurdistan. The humiliating return of the migrants to Kurdistan disappointed people who saw the new route between Belarus and Poland as the future route to reach Europe for a better life.[xiii]

As more people lost hope for change in Kurdistan, they manifested their anger through demonstrations and disapproval of the political system and migrating to Europe. In the recent national elections, the turnout was below 35 percent. Consequently, since 2014 the flow of Iraqi immigrant Kurdish families has risen steeply. Local NGOs reported that most of those who leave the country are university graduates who have been unemployed for several years. The situation continues to deteriorate, but the KRG has yet to address the root causes– their only strategy is to suppress the demonstrations and criminalize criticism. However, the recent protests by students of Kurdistan and their determination and resistance give a new hope that unless KRG addresses the root causes, the students will not give up, and some may find their way toward Europe seeking a better life. Others want to face the ruling parties with their life.


[i]Al-Monitor Staff . “Student Protests Continue in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.” Al-Monitor, November 24, 2021. https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/11/student-protests-continue-iraqs-kurdistan-region.

[ii]Bajec, Alessandra. “Behind the Student Protests That Have Rocked Iraqi Kurdistan.” The New Arab, December 1, 2021. https://english.alaraby.co.uk/analysis/behind-student-protests-have-rocked-iraqi-kurdistan.

[iii] Mahmoud, Sinan. “Students in Iraq’s Kurdish Region Protest for Fourth Straight Day.” The National, November 24, 2021. https://www.thenationalnews.com/mena/iraq/2021/11/24/students-in-iraqs-kurdish-region-protest-for-fourth-straight-day/.

[iv]Jasim, Dastan, and Rodgers, Winthrop. “Beyond the Elite: Taking Protest and Public Opinion Seriously in the Kurdistan Region.” Middle East Institute, February 24, 2021. https://www.mei.edu/publications/beyond-elite-taking-protest-and-public-opinion-seriously-kurdistan-region.

[v]“Kurdish Educators Protests against ‘Injustice.’” Shafaq News, September 8, 2020. https://shafaq.com/en/Kurdistan/Kurdish-educators-protests-against-injustice.

[vi]“Protests Turn Violent in Iraqi Kurdistan.” Workers Against Sectarianism, December 11, 2020. https://was-iraq.org/protests-and-the-violence-used-by-the-security-forces-resulting-in-the-deaths-of-several-protesters-duhok/.

[vii]Wilgenburg, Wladimir van. “New Kurdistan Survey Shows High Youth Unemployment, Low Income.” Kurdistan 24, September 13, 2018. https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/story/17342-New-Kurdistan-survey-shows-high-youth-unemployment,-low-income.

[viii]Culebras, Ignacio Miguel Delgado. “Press Freedom On ‘Brink of Extinction’ in Iraqi Kurdistan, Journalists Say.” Committee to Protect Journalists, September 9, 2019. https://cpj.org/2019/09/press-freedom-extinction-iraqi-kurdistan-puk-pdk/.

[ix]Wali, Zhelwan Z. “For First Time in Its History, Kurdish Parliament Strips Opposition MP of Immunity.” Rudaw , May 7, 2020. https://www.rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/070520202.

[x]Aziz, Biner. “Emerging Risks and Reforms: The KRG’s Challenges in Building a Post-Coronavirus Economy.” The Washington Institute, May 7, 2020. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/emerging-risks-and-reforms-krgs-challenges-building-post-coronavirus-economy.

[xi]“Parliament and KRG Discuss Kurdistan Region’s Rights and Responsibilities in Iraq 2021 Budget Law.” Kurdistan Parliament – Iraq, April 13, 2021. https://www.parliament.krd/english/parliament-activities/latest-news/posts/2021/april/parliament-and-krg-discuss-kurdistan-regions-rights-and-responsibilities-in-iraq-2021-budget-law/.

[xii]Salim, Salar, and Zeina Karam. “Iraqi Kurd’s Death in Belarus Underscores Migrants’ Despair.” AP NEWS. Associated Press, November 15, 2021. https://apnews.com/article/lifestyle-belarus-poland-europe-germany-7f79e63d864ac00fbfefffc2bc803418.

[xiii]Zebari, Ahmad. “Hundreds of Kurdish Migrants Return Home from Belarus.” VOA, November 19, 2021. https://www.voanews.com/a/hundreds-of-kurdish-migrants-return-home-from-belarus-/6320970.html.

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