“Returning Home”

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DR. Janroj Yilmaz Keles

Department of Leadership, Work, and Organizations, Middlesex University, UK
August 2016


Funded by the British Institute for the Study of Iraq


“Returning Home” 

Transnational mobility and social networks among highly skilled British-Kurdish young people


Drawing on the BISI funded research on the transnational mobility of British-Kurdish high skilled young people from the UK to Kurdistan Iraq, this report aims to provide the scope of existing debates about the “return” migration and identify the motivations of high skilled young people with diasporic background to return to their parental homeland. The phenomenon of transnational and “return” migration is an emerging issue of economic, political and technological significance in many developing and post-conflict countries and regions. In this sense, it is crucial to find out what drives British-Kurdish high skilled young people, born and/or educated in the UK, to move to Kurdistan Iraq where in the 80s and 90s, many Kurds were forced to seek refuge in Western countries as a result of war and ethnic prosecution by the Iraqi governments. However, since the collapse of the Saddam Regime in 2003 and increasingly since 2005, a significant number of high skilled British-Kurdish young people have moved to Kurdistan Iraq to participate in the “re-construction” of the de-facto Kurdish state. The words “return” and “home” need to be contextualised, as some of the highly skilled young people were born in the UK and indeed do not “return” to their homeland but move to their parental homeland where they have not previously lived but have a strong emotional and political affiliation and attachment to it.

There are more or less reliable data on incoming migration to Western countries and the public debate on migration has a tendency to consider migration as a one-way stream. The main reason for this is the assumption that once people migrate to Western countries they will stay there. Moreover, the relevant institutions such as ONS and the UK Border Agency are not able to record the individuals who return to their country of origin. Therefore, the lack of quantitative data makes it difficult to measure the return migration (Cassarino 2006) and led to negligent treatment of return migration in various disciplines.  However, as the scholars in the field of transnationalism highlight, migration is not a one-way street (Basch et al. 1994; Faist 2000). Recent years have seen an ever-growing transnational mobility and return migration, involving the rapid development of transport and communication technologies, the relative improvement of political and economic situation in the migrants’ homeland (Zhou & Hsu 2011) as well as anti-migration and the exclusion of some social groups from the labour market in the settlement countries lead to the return migration.

In addition to this, the definition of “return migration” needs to be unpacked because the vagueness of this definition makes it impossible to provide a general understanding of return migration.  The reasons that people return to their country of origin and their role in transferring knowledge, their contribution to institutional and technological innovation in developing and post-conflict countries and the challenges the returnees may face in their “homeland” need further empirical and quantitative data. Moreover, the definition of return migration is problematic; international agencies have referred to forcible deportation as “voluntary return migration” or “voluntary repatriation”. The definition of return migration becomes a buzz word.  Moreover, the approaches on return migration are based on limited empirical studies as well as fragmented and irregular official data which ignore the diversity and distinctiveness of return migration. Consequently, it is difficult to understand the role of some returnees in developing and post conflict societies.

Many studies indicate that there are multiple demand-pull and supply-push factors that shape the economic and non-economic motivations of migrants for return. The political and economic changes in the sending countries, in particular in developing or post-conflict countries, play a crucial factor in return migration. The rapid development of communication has connected migrants and refugees to their homeland and has strengthened ethnic identities, transnational linkages and networks as well as the flow of information and ideas for return migration.  The cheap transport costs lead to transnational mobility in the form of visiting homeland, building new social networks and seeking new economic opportunities. On top of this, the needs for skilled workers, transnational entrepreneurial spirits and increased business activities are also important aspect of return migration. In addition to this, the hostile political discourse, exclusive migration and labour market policies in the “host” countries function as a push factor on the behavioural patterns of the migrant in the “host” society to return to their homeland.

A number of studies have studied the impact of returnees on the social, cultural, political and economic structures in their homeland.  While some studies view the returnees as social actors with human, cultural and social capital to transfer knowledge and expertise and as intermediaries to act as a bridge between their countries and developed countries for economic growth, other research have identified return migration as a failure of individuals who were not able to integrate in the labour market and wide society in their “host” country. However, what is clear is that it is not only migrant labourers who return to their homeland but also entrepreneurs (Cassarino 2000), highly skilled migrants (McLaughan and Salt 2002; Vertovec 2002; Cervantes and Guellec 2002), refugees and asylum seekers (Al-Ali et al. 2001; Ammassari and Black 2001) do return to their homeland. But the most important finding of this research is that return migration is not the end of the migration process, merely one form of transnational migration practices.

A key element is missing from the existing theories and literature on return migration which do not consider the political dimension of the return of geographically displaced Diasporas[1] and the descendants such as the Kurds, Tamils and other stateless Diasporas who have developed a strong diasporic consciousness in their settlement countries towards their imagined homeland beyond economic concerns, they claim a legitimate belonging and desire to return to an imagined homeland whilst residing in another country.  Key arguments that scholars have put forward to explain diasporic identifications have been the role of collective memory, a shared sense of territorial identity, shared experiences, spatial imaginaries, loyalties and attachments to a particular ethnicity and territory.  Their strong sense of belonging and attachment to their homeland is intergenerational and manifested in the transnational political activities, fund-raising for homeland politics and sending remittances as well as returning to their homeland at some point to play a crucial role in post-conflict reconstruction and consolidate the process of the institutionalization of the nation building project to which they have transnationally have contributed in diaspora. In this regard, the “return” migration of highly educated young people with diasporic backgrounds to a post-conflict region has been the subject of limited scholarly work. The aim of this report is to fill in this research gap.   This report will focus on the motivations of highly skilled young people for the ‘return’ to their parental homeland and the discourse of belonging and how they build transnational networks and other strategies to have access to labour market and beyond. It will also analyse the experience of the post-return process, challenges, disappointments and difficulties returnees face in regions where they contribute to the rapid development but are also confronted with many structural, political, cultural and economic problems.  This report examines how the strategies are planned and reshaped when return takes place and the relationship between returnees and local people.

This report is organized as follows. Firstly, I briefly focus on the existing literature and debates on return migration and problematize their shortcomings. Secondly I describe the methodology and data collection as well as provide brief information about the Kurdish diaspora in the UK. Thirdly, I present my empirical data on return migration in regards to driving motivations of return migration and the strategies used to have access to the labour market in Kurdistan.  Fourthly, I argue that migration content conflict and inclusion and exclusion and this can be experienced during the process of re-integration of migration in their new home. I conclude by proving policy implications and recommendations for relevant authorities.

Section One: Debate on return migration

While we witness a return tendency among migrant retirees to their homeland if the cost of living is lower in their homeland than their country of settlement (Bolzman, 2013) or emotion and family ties that lead to return migration (Byron & Condon, 1996; Percival, 2013a), there is also a growing number of highly skilled migrants returning to their homeland or the country of their parents for various reasons. These motivations include the need for highly skilled people, in particular in post-conflict countries, the desire for better job and earning opportunities, family reunions and the desire to be part of the new political and economic development.  However, while much research has focused on the cases of brain drain to study the outflow of highly skilled people from developing countries, the cases of brain gain (Beine et al., 2008; Dulam & Franses, 2011) and the transnational mobility of transmigrants, in particular the return migration, has not received much scholarly attention. There is a limited field of research on the high skilled return migration (Guo & DeVoretz, 2006) and the motivations of migrants in particular second of third generation of skilled young people with migration background as well as their experience of inclusivity and exclusivity in their “homeland” (Olakivi 2013; Merino & Tileaga 2011).

Different theoretical approaches have been employed to conceptualize the return migration. The Neo-classical Economic Approach and the New Economics of Labour Migration (NELM) focus more on economic perspectives of the notion of return migration (Borjas & Bratsberg, 1996; Constant & Massey, 2002). The first approach views returnees as those who have a long-term migration strategy to have access to better earning opportunities and stay permanently in a destination country where the wage is higher than their country of origin.  Here the earning factor plays a crucial role in driving individuals to migrate to a country where higher earning probability than the sending country. However, the returnee fails to achieve his or her initial goal. As a result of this failure, unfilled expectation and/or deskilling of migrants (non-recognition of migrant human capital) some of them decide to return to their country of origin (Todaro 1969); others are preoccupied with the “myth of return” in their settlement country (Gundel and Peters, 2008) and attempt to fulfil the expectation which inspired permanent residence in the “host” country.  Here it is relevant to mention that the Neo-classical Economic Approach focused only on the labour migrants; this approach considers the return migration as a failure rooted in the underperforming of individuals who were not able to be included in the labour market (Borjas, 1987; Constant and Massey 2003) or are dissatisfied by their inability and expectation to achieve the goals that they aimed for migration to another country.

NELM considers migration as the calculated short-term strategy of individuals who migrated to a destination country where the wage is higher than in their country of origin to contribute to the household (Stark 1991). After achieving their initial migration goal of increased targeted earnings, accumulation of savings and wealth abroad, they will return to their homeland where they have emotional and social attachment and family ties (Constant and Massey 2002). It is assumed that together with their remittance, knowledge of the “host” country, gained skill and training, the returnees will be successful in using their human, social and cultural capital in their homeland (Cassarino 2004).  Cassarino (2004) states correctly that the above mentioned theoretical approaches have several shortcomings because Neo-classical Economic Approach purely explains the return migration through fault economic expectation and NELM views returnees only as financial intermediaries (Taylor 1996). Neither individualist oriented theoretical approach provides any relevant explanation of the social, economic and political experience of returnees at homeland and the economic and political stability in the homeland which make profitable and feasible for the return migration.

However, the Structural Approach to return migration has expanded these theoretical approaches in analysing the decision to return in the context of the relevance of remittances within the economic and societal structures and realities of their homeland (Cerase 1974; Cassarino 2004). Economic and political structures can lead to the success of returnees in their homeland but the unfilled expectation, exclusion, alienation, isolation and disappointment in the homeland can also lead to re-emigration. In this context, the structuralists emphasise that changes and realities in the homeland play a crucial role in peoples’ decision to return to their homeland and play an intermediary role, but the negative local realities and structures may lead to re-emigration of the returnees. However, the structuralist approach does not pay attention to the interconnection of migrants with their country of origin over time and space across national borders due to increasing globalisation and the development of communication and transport technologies as well as transnational human mobility between country of settlement and country of origin.  Scholars in the field of migration have described this new condition “transnationalism”. Transnational networks span borders and have multiple relationships with more than two countries (Basch et al. 1994; Portes et al. 1999; Faist 2000; Vertovec 2001; Pries 2002; Wahlbeck 2002; Keles 2015a). The emerging transnational social space which has resulted from these processes has partly overcome the nation-state and extended to several other nation-states, societies and continents. The relation of this new reality of “transnational social spaces” in different countries has expanded and blurred the boundaries of nation-states. “It has created deterritorialized identities that are not contained within the nationally-orientated majority culture of either the country of settlement or country of origin. The effects of the new social interaction through transnational networks can be seen in both the country of origin and the countries of settlement, as well as between them” (Keles 2015a: 25).  Scholars in the field of transnationalism consider return migration to be an integral part of transnational mobility and identify return migration as not the end of the migration process but a transnational circular process based on multi connectedness and multi referential relationships between country of origin and country of settlement. The rapid development of communication and transport technologies makes it possible for migrants to sustain their connectedness and networks in their homeland through the transnational media consumption, regular visit and participation in civic, cultural and political life in their homeland. This transnational interaction allows migrations and their descendants connectivity, continuity and familiarity with their homeland and helps them to build network as well as the ability to negotiate their identities, positions, statues in their country of origin and/or settlement country. While the Neo-classical Economic Approach, NELM and Structuralists believe that returnees need to re-integrate and adapt to the society and structures in the homeland, transnational scholars consider the deterritorialized identity and connection of returnees as a social and cultural capital to have access to the resources (Keles 2015b).  The shared experience, norms, values, kinship, ethnicity, language, culture and political aspirations are the sociological clue that contribute to the cross-border connectedness and maintaining and sustaining linkages and building cross-national networks and social capital. Social network theories have also been used to explain the strong interpersonal, financial, emotional, cultural and political interconnectedness of “connected” migrants across the border of nation states and these multiple ties may provide opportunities and motivations to returnees to return their homeland.  Social capital (Bourdieu, 1983; Coleman, 1988; Putnam, 1993a) generally refers to those resources available to individuals and/or social groups that, through their membership, mobilization, attachment and belonging in social networks, constitute resources and can be converted into economic and human capital as well as well-being. The key aspect of social capital is participation in the network and investment in ‘relationships’ in order to have access to the resources embedded in the networks. Social networks consist of relationships and interactions that are both interpersonal and between people, groups and organizations (Granovetter, 1973; Putnam, 2000).  Studies of social capital emphasize the social embeddedness of actors in specific networks to get access to available resources. This access is determined by the economic, political and cultural position and involvement of the individuals and group in society (Bourdieu, 1983; Coleman, 1988; Putnam, 1993a). For example, Woolcock (2001, p. 13) discusses ‘linking’ social capital, which refers to the ‘capacity to leverage resources, ideas and information from formal institutions’ connecting to local and national authorities, policy and decision makers (Hepworth & Stitt, 2007). The theory of social capital has been widely and critically discussed in the literature (Narayan & Pritchet, 1997; Portes, 1998; Smith & Kulynych, 2002; Fine, 2010) and can be summarized as the relation and connection of people who share common values, sentiments, and attachments as members of a specific network and community (ethnic, religious, occupational, etc.) for mutual benefit. However, the correlation between membership of a network and economic outcomes for individuals is still arguable (Glaeser, et al., 2002). What is clear is that joining a social network and participating in coordinated actions are seen as ‘the most common forms of social capital investment’ (Glaeser, et al., 2002, p. 443).

In network theories, the returnees are considered as actors “who confer a subjective meaning to their embedded actions, in a given context. In fact, network relationships can be based on the principle of “complementarity” (Laumann et al. 1978: 462) which may occur in a situation where actors, who differ in terms of access to resources, personal characteristics and ascribed attributes, decide to enter into a partnership which will be beneficial to both parties (Cassarino (2004:267). In this respect, in social network theories, returnees are considered as social actors who have multi-referential and multi connectedness and these ties determent the failure and success of the returnees in their homeland. If they have strong long-term ties and virtually and/or real involvement in these networks, then these networks will influence the return decision of migrants. These networks are not based on the commonality of ethnicity, identity, shared experience but based on mutual interests. The communality of interests makes it possible for returnees to have access to the local networks in their homeland and influence the nature of networks and organisational structures. Simultaneously, the returnees will also be able to fulfil their expectations (Phillips and Potter 2003). However, networks can only lead to return migration, if political and economic stability have considerably improved in the homeland and the social, political and economic structures allow and encourage the participation of returnees and offer them opportunities. We have a considerable number of studies on the transnationalized social and economic networks of Diasporas, organised around a collective and shared ethnic identity, territorial attachment and sovereignty claim for a real or imagined homeland. However, this research shows that membership to the networks may be seen as inclusive and collective from outside but it is complex. Social networks are social fields and each social field accepts only members with similar taste, social and political interests, culture, and class background and so on. Indeed, it is not inclusive but exclusive and associative. In this regards, these networks are choosy and discriminatory.

The pre-migration’s networks (family, friends and political connections) may have a degree of influence on the return migration, if they are able to offer economic and emotional benefits. This research shows that pre-existing political, social and financial resources motivate return migration but also shape the performance of returnees positively. Of course, before return migration, resources needed to be secured. My research shows that these resources may not limit to the financial resources but might include human capital (gained education and skills in “host” country), cultural capital (languages, familiarity with various cultures for various purposes) and social capital (multi- connectedness and multi-referential relationship).

Highly skilled professionals and Return migration

Deskilled migrants or migrants with a low level of human and social capital have difficulties in adopting new economic and cultural structure but highly skilled migrants with low earning perspectives in the destination country may return to their homeland where they can have access to good quality of work and are bale to increase their earning through their human capital (education and skills learnt in “developed” countries) as well as social and cultural capital (language skills and cultural familiarity with more than two countries connection).  In this context, some scholars have considered the returnees as a less productive group compare with those who remain in their settlement countries (Borjas & Bratsberg, 1996; Gibson and McKenzie 2011[2]), arguing that returnees including highly-skilled migrants are more likely to return to their country of origin. Venturini (2008) notices that return migration would be more feasible and profitable for highly skilled  migrants to turn their human, cultural and social capital (connection with organizations, institutions in two countries) into economic capital and social and political status, in particular those who have weak employment ties with the labour market in their settlement countries and experience unemployment and underemployment e.g. return of Hong Kong skilled migrants from Australia (Guo & DeVoretz, 2006). “Underperforming” migrant or graduated foreign scientists and engineers in the USA were the most likely to return to their homeland. However, other research found that in comparison with less skilled migrants, the high skilled migrants were more likely to return to their country of origin (Gundel and Peters 2008) such as the high skilled Turkish return migration from Germany to Turkey in recent years due to their negative experience in Germany (Yilmaz Sener & Pacaci Elitok 2016).  Dustmann & Glitz (2011) have indicated that in comparison with non-students, students have higher probabilities to return to their country of origin because obtaining US education is valued in the labour market of some countries such as in Taiwan and students believe that they can be better off in their country of origin.  The economic boom and the desire for high skilled fellow citizens, higher incomes, salaries, career opportunities, quality of working and social life for high skilled migrants (Ambrosini et al. 2011) for returnees may be relevant pull factors and encourage the return migration.  In addition to this, even if the economic condition may not be favorable enough, strong emotional connection to close relatives in the homeland (Gibson and McKenzie 2011; Khoo et al., 2008), and social and cultural ties to the homeland may also lead to return migration (Wang & Fan 2006; Constant & Massey, 2003).   On the other hand, in development studies, the skilled returnees are often viewed as transnational intermediaries with social, human and cultural capital and strong ties to developed countries and resources as well as cultural and political knowledge of their country of origin which enable them to transfer technological innovation, knowledge, innovative practices and connect their country of origin to the global economic, cultural and political structures (Saxenian, 2006, Kuznetsov and Sabel, 2006; Jonkers and Tussen, 2008; Choudhury, 2010). In this context, the skilled returnees are seen as the catalysts of economic innovation and growth.

The length of immigrations may have also an impact on the idea of return migration. Dustmann (2003) and Constant and Massey (2003) state that the longer migrant stay in their settlement countries, becoming citizens and participating in economic, cultural and civic life, the less they will return to their country of origin.  In particular, if they have children, they will not return for their education and future, (Dustmann, 2003). However, scholars in the field of transnationalism explore the transnational behaviour and the “return” of the so called second generation of Caribbean to Jamaica (Reynolds 2010), Cypriots to Cyprus (Teerling 2014); Swiss-Italians to southern Italy (Wessendorf 2009); Portuguese-Canadians to Portugal (Sardinha 2011).

It should be noted that some countries particular encourage return migration for knowledge and expertise transfer, building and sustaining institutions or view the return migration as a good solution to fulfil labour shortage in the ageing societies. In this context, it is relevant to mention that some research focuses on the return of people who are from the same ethnic group but immigrated to other countries decades ago such as Japanese descendants from Latin America (“nikkeijin”) to Japan (Tsuda 2003) or as a result of war and/or mapping the modern nation states (Mähönen et al 2015).  In such process, the discourse of biological ancestry and language are used by politicians and state institutions as “marker of ethnic belonging” (Mähönen et al 2015:127) and as “criteria for inclusion in the national community (Mähönen et al 2015:128) as well as justification of accepting new migrants mostly from ex-Soviet to Finland, Germany and other European countries. However often the ethnic identity of returnees has been questioned and considered as not any more “native” or “pure”.

Section Two: Diasporas and return migration

So far I have provided debates and theoretical concepts on return migration. Drawing on my empirical research on British-Kurdish highly skilled young returnees, I argue that the economic and structuralist based analysis missing a key sociological and political dimension in the literature on return migration.  I argue that these theories may reflect to some cases such as the unskilled returnees of Albanian migrants’ from Greece and Italy to set up their business with their remittances and those unskilled returnees who often left outside of the labour market in their settlement countries, however these theories have also shortcoming in the context of the return of highly skilled professionals to the conflict and post-conflict regions and countries. A key element missing from the existing literature about the political dimension of geographically displaced diasporas to return to their imagined homeland.

While Portes points out that “immigrant transnationalism is not driven by ideological reasons but by the very logic of global capitalism” (Portes 2001:187), my research show that some transnational diasporas’ mobility may be driven by diasporic consciousness along with economic and financial aspects. The political and emotional connection, attachment and solidarity to a homeland, combined with a feeling of guiltiness and responsibility and/or obligation with those living in the homeland, pro-sovereignty claims, and their own personal experience of persecution, displacement, memories and territorial attachment, creates the basis for politicised-altruistic behaviours and diasporic philanthropy (Gillespie et al. 1999, Nielsen and Riddle 2010, Koinova 2011, Nkongolo-Bakenda & Chrysostome 2013) but also leads them to make decision to go back to participate in “re-construction” of their homeland. Their strong sense of belonging and attachment to the homeland is also manifested in the transnational political activities, fund-raising for homeland politics and sending remittances as well as returning to their homeland at some point to play a crucial role in post-conflict reconstruction and “consolidate the process of the institutionalization of the nation building project to which they have contributed from abroad” (Al-Ali et al. 2001b:617, also see Koser and Black 1999a). These quotations from a British-born Kurdish student and a female business owner in Kurdistan give some idea of how emotionally and politically attached they are to their parents’ homeland.

You don’t choose your homeland. Although are brain and thinking is always here our hearts are always in Kurdistan, there is not one Kurd who didn’t feel passionate or angered by ISIS when they attacked Sengal or when they attacked Kirkuk or Kurdistan as a whole (Siran, 23, male, Student at University of Cambridge).

I always consider Kurdistan as my home and I always wanted to come back to my home where my parents grown (Sara, 28, female, business owner, Kurdistan-Iraq).

Geographically displaced diasporas imagine a political aspiration and emotional hope to return to their homeland at some point. However, many studies have highlighted that the majority of diasporas live with “myth of returning” but they will not return to their real or imagined homeland (Mishra 2007). Other scholars have highlighted that alienation in their settlement county may contribute to the yearning for ultimate return (Sheffer 1986, Safran 1991, Clifford 1994).  A key characteristic of diasporas without a home state is their strong ethnic group consciousness based on shared memories of trauma and loss but also on the shared political aspiration and imaginations for a homeland. In this regard the stateless diasporas differ from that of other migrants.  This is why diasporas have developed a politicized ethnic identity in diaspora and maintain a strong attachment to their homeland through involvement and engagement in homeland politics and post-conflict resolution and reconstruction. However, the focus of existing research on return migration has paid little attention to the role of the politicisation of diaspora agency.  The strong ethnic group consciousness is transferable to the new generation through the collective trauma, sense of loss, guiltiness and attachment to the homelands. Speaking of the children of Holocaust survivors, Hirsch (1998) argues that the generations of diasporas born away from the home/land have an “imaginative investment” in “post-memory.” Unlike the first generation of exiles, newer generations have no direct experiences of a place of departure, and hence no capacity to imaginatively rely on memories of that place (1998: 420). As a consequence, “Post-memory characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are displaced by the stories of the previous generation, shaped by traumatic events that can be neither fully understood nor recreated” (1998: 420). This notion of belonging despite distance, and despite identificatory investments in a new place, may generate new exile imaginaries and processes. Kaminsky (1999: 2) speaks of the Latin American exiles who returned to Argentina, Uruguay and Chile after the end of dictatorships, and of how many of those exiles have constructed a “routine of travel” between the Latin American “home” and the society that hosted them as exiles.  I argue in this report that diasporic groups with an increasingly strong ethnic identity and transnational solidarity, based on shared trauma, loss, and the myth of return to the homeland, have developed a strong bonding and bridging social capital (strong and weak ties), reciprocity as well as obligations and expectation among themselves across the borders of nation states. This ‘diasporic consciousness’ (Gilroy 1993; Hall and Du Gay 1996; Clifford 1994; Keles 2015b) functions as a sociological ‘superglue’ for diasporas helping them consolidate their offline and online resources and generate social and economic capitals over time and space. These resources (information, supports, ideas, connections, assistance for jobs or business) are embedded in the offline and online networks which are organized around communality such as ethnicity, kinships, language, shared experience, solidarity, political vision and aspiration, sovereignty claim for a real or imagined homeland.

The rapid movement of capital, goods, services, accompanied by Transnational Satellite TVs,  the internet and more specifically social media play a key part in this by enabling a re-connection of diasporic populations with the homeland (Karim 1998, Tsagarousianou 2004, Georgiou 2005, Keles 2015a), in particular forcibly displaced people such as the Kurds who were forced to reside outside of their homeland but claim a legitimate political aspiration for it, and therefore the homeland  is an important reference with regard to individual and collective identity (Jacobsen, 2002) and network as well as future plans.  As Zana, a research participant, states, the rapid growth in the use of communication  and transport technologies by diasporic people, such as satellite TV and the internet, especially social media (Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, LinkedIn, Instagram, Skype, LinkExpats, and so on) and visiting their homeland has increased their sense of belonging, their social connectedness, mutual benefits and has strengthened social ties to create a ‘transnational social field’ contributing to the growth of social networks, social capital and political participation across the nation-state borders.

I am constantly either on the phone to various sources or if I am at home. I listen to the Kurdish Satellite TVs. Even online I have subscription with all the newspapers. The internet helps many young people to build connection with employers and Kurdish authorities. If it wasn’t from the internet and the media outlets I would have never booked a ticket to go back to Kurdistan. It definitely has an influence” (Zana, 29, works for a UK credit card company).

However, in the literature of the diaspora, some argue that the activities of diasproas and their internet activism make them passive and marginalized actors in the settlement country who nurture heroic daydreams through their myth of return, diasporic politics and virtual activism in the homeland (Anderson 1992). Moreover, Zetter conceptualizes the complexity of the idea of returning as “a future in the past’ and ‘a future without the past’ of diasporas in settlement countries (Zetter 1999:3). The idea of returning home “not only encapsulates this sense of a fictitious past, or at least one that is idealized and reinvented, but also a fictitious future” (Zetter 1999:4). But scholars of transnationalism argue that return migration is a part of transnational activities and diasporas are part of an interconnected transnational field (Portes et al. 1999; Vertovec 2001; Schiller 2009; Keles 2015a). Similarly, to the transnational studies, the development studies view return migration as a way of transferring the knowledge and expertise into developing countries (OECD, 2008, Dayton-Johnson et al 2007; World Bank, 2005). Before going into the details of the motivation of highly skilled British-Kurdish young people and strategies they use to be prepared, access to the labour market and experience of adaptation or dissatisfaction, I would provide brief statement in term of methodology and Kurdish migration to the UK.

Section Three: Methodology

This report is based a multi-method approach to explore British Iraqi-Kurdish young people’s off-line and online communication and the written and audio-visual contents of their conversation in relation to build and accumulate digital social capital to return and have access to employment opportunities in Iraq.

This report draws on empirical research carried out with 32 British-Kurdish young people of diverse age (18-35), gender, income, political affiliation, occupation, religious background and length of residency concerning return migration and social networks, through research funded by the British Institute for the Study of Iraq.  The occupation background of young people were: Teachers including two English language teachers, four university lecturers, four oil and civil engineers, a researcher who worked with Serin- the European centre for nuclear research, three IT workers including a web-designer, two medical scientists, two humanitarian aid workers, two local government service provider, two media workers, two young entrepreneurs, five students and three key informants. In total 32 people including 10 living in the UK (6 males, 4 female) and 22 living in Kurdistan Region of Iraq (14 males, 8 females).

Alongside all this, online discussions and internet activism of the British-Kurdish young people living here and in Kurdistan have been observed to understand their cross-national communication. I undertake the virtual ethnography for this study (Hine 2000). Virtual ethnography is also described as nethnography, ethnography of computer mediated communication (CMC), internet and cyber ethnography (Hine, 2000).  As a “new” form of research method, virtual ethnography is the process of conducting and constructing an ethnography through uses the virtual, online environment as the site of the research” (Leighton, 2010:11). It examines the constructed identities, communities and cultures through computer-mediated social interaction, “the impact of CMC on social interactions and the presentation of the self-online” as well as pattern of economic and social behaviours (Mann & Stewart, 2006:4). Virtual ethnography was important for this study to reach and interact with a larger number of people with diverse backgrounds including class, gender, ethnicity, age, different geographical spaces and to understand the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness, gaining and accumulating social capital within the virtual communities. I’ve set up a Facebook page and invited highly skilled Iraqi-Kurdish young people from the UK and Kurdistan from various Facebook groups and examined their conversations over a period of 4 months to understand how the young people construct their identities and sense of belonging across the national borders and build social capital to overseas employment through computer-mediated social interaction.

In addition to this, I also used some data from my previous research to provide a general background on Kurdish diaspora in the UK including some data from my PhD research in 2009. I draw on data from a Kurdish transnational audience of 25 equally diverse people and including first, second, and third generations living in London. Other research, undertaken with colleagues for IOM-Iraq in 2011, studies Kurdish migrants from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq who have insecure migration status in the UK. Data was collected from four focus group discussions in London, Brighton and Birmingham and a survey of 219 young people (18-35, diverse age, gender and length of residency).

In comparison with our previous research on Kurdish transnational audience (2009), Kurdish migrant workers (2010) and undocumented Kurdish young people (2013), the data collected over four months shows how the communication technologies have changed the relationship between Kurdish individuals and community associations. Whereas until 2000 the diasporic community centers were the main source of information, this has changed with the increase in communication and transport technologies so that, in particular, Kurdish Satellite TVs and the internet have now become the main information providers. Moreover, with the increased coverage of the ongoing developments in the Middle East, especially in Kurdistan and international interest in Kurdish issues, the language of online communication among Kurdish young people originated from contemporary Turkey has changed from Turkish to English. Similarly, the British-Kurdish young people originated from other part of Kurdistan are increasingly communication in English on virtual communities. This allows those who speak English, and Kurds who speak different dialects, to communicate in a common language for issues related to the Kurds, in particular with a global audience engaged with Kurdish issues such as Kurdish fights against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, most commonly known as ISIS.

 The interviews have been carried out through face to face in the UK and in Kurdistan Region as well as via Skype. The participants have been informed about the research through the informed consent. The consent forms made clear what the research was about, that the information they provided me with would be treated confidentially. It also informed them that that they could withdraw from the study at any time. All data was recorded on audio-tape with the permission of the individual. All the information has been anonymized during the writing-up of this report because as researchers have an obligation towards research participants to protect the identity of the research participants.

Section Four: Kurds in the UK

Displacement and forced migration from the disputed territory of Kurdistan (Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria) has a distinct historical meaning in international migration. The brutal and coercive policies of the Iraqi, Turkish, Syrian and Iranian states have caused permanent crisis and instability in the region (Keles 2015a). The ethno-centric nation-building projects in these states were based on the ‘Arabisation’ (Syria and Iraq), ‘Turkisation’ (Turkey) and ‘Persianisation’ (Iran) of other ethnic groups other than the dominant ethnic groups with a nation state (Batatu, 1978; Kaynak 1992; Sheyholislami 2011; Hardi 2011, Keles 2015a), which have marginalised or excluded the Kurds and other ethno-religious groups in the region. In order to maintain the hegemonic domination, these states used coercive and consensual methods. However, such policies have caused a hegemonic struggle between dominant and subordinated groups in the region and mass refugee influx. In this context, the migration of Kurds to the EU differs from the movement of some other migrants who came to Europe after the post-war economic boom to meet labour shortages or after the enlargement of the EU, the majority of Kurds fled from discrimination, persecution, war and hardship in the wider contested territory of Kurdistan.

Significant Kurdish migration from Iraq to the UK began in the early 60s and increased in the 70s when the Kurdish political movement pushed for Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, but was defeated by Iraqi government after a heavy war. As Shayan states that those who fled from Iraq were well educated.

 We came to Britain in 1976; I think there was maybe a handful of Kurds from Iraq that came here in the mid-seventies as a result of the collapse of the Kurdish movement at that point.  The numbers were probably small, but I think that it was significant that Britain took those high profile families as refugees. But really the numbers dramatically increased in the eighties with Saddam’s genocide campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan, the chemical bombardment, the war with Iran, then later war with Kuwait (Shayan, working for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) representative in the UK, 26.03.2013).

This permanent crisis led to the enactment of the anti-democratic state of emergency law, displacement, mass killing of Kurds (Kaynak 1992; Day and Freeman, 2003), the Anfal campaign against the Kurds and even the genocide in the Kurdish populated city of Halabja (Casey 2003; Hardi 2011). Events including the eight-year war with Iran (1980-1988), the chemical gas attack on Kurds (1988), the invasion of Kuwait (1991), the Gulf War (1990-1991), the UN Security Council’s sanctions in the 1990s and the brutal response of Saddam’s regime to Shiite and Kurdish uprisings in 1991, dramatically increased the migration influx from Iraq to neighbouring countries and to Europe.

Due to the long war between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish state, over 3 million people were displaced by the Turkish military at the end of 80s and in the 90s. Many fled to Turkish cities or Western countries. Kurds in Iran took refuge from the oppressive policies of the Shah and his Islamist successor. From Kurdistan, ‘over a million, perhaps almost as many as two million Kurds fled from their home towns and villages in 1991’ (van Bruinessen 1999:3). As a result of this tremendous migration influx, the Kurds became more visible in the Western European countries and the question of Kurdistan was internationalised through the articulation and mobilization of the Kurdish migrants for the ‘homeland politics’ (Keles 2015a).

With the creation of ‘a ‘safe haven’ and later a “no fly zone” imposed by the UN Security Council in Northern Iraq in 1991 after the brutal attack of Saddam Hussein against Kurds in Kurdish-populated Northern Iraq and against Shias in the southern Iraq, have created a hope among Kurds in diaspora and neighbouring countries to visit their families and places they were born.  While many politicians returned from the exile to participate in the establishment of the de-facto Kurdish state, other Kurds started to visit their families in Kurdistan (Iraq) and form transnational marriage after a long distance from their homeland. Kurds who were sent for educational purpose to East European countries have returned home in the 90s. Today many of them hold the key positions in Kurdish institutions in Autonomous Kurdistan Region in Iraq.  However, the Kurds from Western countries have mostly moved to the region temporarily to provide their knowledge and expertise in institutionalization of Kurdish regional government. As Shayan states that the reasons that they did not return to Iraqi Kurdistan were:  the poverty, security in Kurdistan and political mistrust in Kurdish political parties. However, they were the key actors in internationalising the question of Kurdistan through their articulation and mobilization for the ‘homeland politics’ (Keles 2015a). They have also contributed to the reconstruction of Kurdistan through their remittances and waited for economic and political stability to return.

Of course in the nineties there was the no-fly zone over the Kurdistan Region, but Kurdistan wasn’t fully out of Saddam’s grasp, there was real poverty… There was poverty, there were people who still lived in fear of Saddam Hussein; a large part of Kurdistan wasn’t covered by the no-fly zone, the Kurds in Mosul, Kirkuk, Sinjar, all of those areas were not covered, in Baghdad, so I think in the eighties and nineties the migration continued and probably in much larger numbers (Shayan, works for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) representative in the UK, 26.03.2013).

However, the internal conflict (1994-1997) between the Kurdish political parties, in particular between the Kurdistan Patriotic Union and the Kurdistan Democratic Party has led to postpone the dream of returning home and caused further migration influx from Iraqi Kurdistan to the Western countries of Germany, Sweden, Denmark, the UK and the Netherlands. The numbers of refugees from Iraq increased during the 1980s and 1990s due to Saddam Hussein’s regime of brutal policies against the Kurdish people and the internal conflict among the rival Kurdish parties. Therefore, today, the majority of people from Iraq in Europe, including the UK, are Kurds.  The statelessness of Kurds has also impacted on their lives in settlement countries where they have been registered according to their nationality but not ethnic affiliation. This policy has led to the invisibility of Kurds in the official data of the EU countries, including the UK (Holgate et al. 2012), and has hidden them from the public (King et al. 2008) leading to a paucity of statistical data on Kurdish migrants in the UK (Keles 2015a).  The Iraqi Embassy in the UK estimates that the Iraqi population in the UK is around 350,000 – 450,000 people (IOM 2007). However, it is difficult to verify this claim. The estimated population of Iraqi nationals, resident in the UK by nationality, is 34,000 people and the estimated Iraqi-born population, resident in the UK is 69,000 people, according to the Census of 2011. It should be kept in mind that these data are also not adequate because many people do not complete the census forms for various reasons. The majority of Kurds from Kurdistan Region of Iraq live in London, in particular west London. Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff, Glasgow, Derby, Leeds and Plymouth are other cities. The Kurdish and Iraqi communities estimate the number of migrants from Iraq to be up to 150,000 people.  Again it is difficult to provide a reliable and exact number of the Kurdish in the UK. The majority of migrants from Turkey are also Kurds. The Kurdish community organisations identify 250-300 thousand Kurds as living in the UK, but again it is difficult to verify this too.

Owing to this migration, a Kurdish-oriented diaspora has developed in many European countries through local and national homeland oriented Kurdish organisations, transnational communications and transport technologies and mediated homeland. These have helped them to construct a Kurdish imagined community in Europe and elsewhere. This poses a considerable challenge to the hegemony of the nationalistic ideology of the countries occupying Kurdish territories.  The engagement of Kurdish diasporas with homeland politics have played a crucial role in post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq, organising petitions, fundraising, holding demonstrations, lobbying their settlement country governments and connecting their cause and homeland organisations and parties to international political structures. Indeed, the Kurdish diaspora in Europe and the USA has spoken on behalf of the subordinated Kurdish population in homelands where they were not allowed to express their ethnic identity, language and political position.

However, it is important to mention that the diasporas do not have a historically fixed ethnic identity and a single political aim due to the division of the Kurds which reflects their contemporary life. The Kurdish diaspora has an ongoing, dynamic, hybridity and a changeable condition. As a researcher, I have conducted several cross-national research projects on the Kurdish diaspora, and have come to the conclusion that the Kurdish diaspora, with its multiple identities and opinions, should not be considered as a bounded group with a fixed customary practice and a single ascribed identity.

With the collapse of Saddam Regime in 2003 and in particular with participation of diasporas in the Iraqi general election and Kurdistan election in 2005 and economic boom in Kurdistan, a significant return migration has started among the Kurdish diaspora[3]  from Western countries including the UK to Kurdistan. The relatively political stability and economic growth from 2003 to 2014 have created a hope among Kurdish diaspora to contribute to the imagined Kurdish political project and play a crucial role in post conflict reconstruction and consolidate the process of nation building project, democratic process and economic growth.  As a result of this political aspiration and economic opportunities, many skilled and unskilled European citizens with Kurdish background moved to Kurdistan and Iraq.  However, little is known about the motivations and the decision-making of the British-Kurdish young “returnees”. The “returnees” may play a crucial role in post-conflict reconstruction, however as we know from the literature every return migration entails cultural, political and economic disappointments and conflict in the imagined homeland.

Section five: Return Migration to Kurdistan

It is clear that the first generation of Kurdish migrants from disputed territory of Kurdistan have a strong desire to return to their homeland where they have been involved in varying degrees in struggles against the oppressive governments, and later on, as refugees become part of transnational Kurdish political movements in Exile. The myth of returning “home” is still alive amongst this group due to their political attachment, strong sense of individual and collective Kurdish identity, behaviour and social norms. The narrative constructed around the ‘myth of return’ bears close relationship to the notion of an idealized home: “the concreteness of a familiar home “(Zetter 1999: 4) in the country of origin, idealized imagery of the past, the substratum of “the memory of collective loss “(Zetter 1999: 5), attachment to the place and its meaning in peoples’ lives keep the imaginary home and myth of return alive. These help them to reconstruct “a cultural inventory” in the diaspora. Zetter (1999: 3) states that the notion of returning home has been “a dominant theme” for many refugees and diasporic communities for whom “return remains a profound conviction”. Zetter provides a useful concept of “how refugees perceive the relationship between their past” (Zetter 1999: 5), their aspirations for the future and the mediating role of the present. The ‘myth of return’ is constructed because protracted exiles are living in a condition where they feel that “their exile is temporary and that they will eventually return home” (Zetter 1999: 5). Although they make “numerous failed attempts at reconciliation” and return ’home’, simultaneously they resettle and integrate rather than becoming temporary residents. This means that they create their economic and social spaces within majority society in settlement countries where their lives, livelihoods, identities are reshaped in accordance with where they live. But they live in a situation where interaction between myth and reality becomes part of everyday life and “overlaid with an abstracted or imagined realm” (Zetter 1999: 4). Zetter conceptualizes the complexity of the idea of returning as ‘a future in the past’ and ‘a future without the past’ of diasporas in settlement countries (Zetter 1999:3).  The idea of returning home “not only encapsulates this sense of a fictitious past, or at least one that is idealized and reinvented, but also a fictitious future” (Zetter 1999: 4).  Zetter states that “the construct of the myth of return home also offers insights into how refugee groups frequently manage to sustain both their social cohesion and distinctiveness during exile, despite the countervailing forces of time and assistance programmes. Repatriation constitutes a material objective and the aspiration to an ideal—essentially the restitution of a past shattered by diaspora” (Zetter 1999:5). However, this contradictory attitude of “the perceived limbo-like situation of being neither ‘here’ nor ‘there’ can be a paralyzing force and prevent refugees from developing strategies to make a living in the settlement country.  The ‘myth of return’ can also contribute to the establishment of transnational networks which provide potential resources e.g., access to jobs, political participation maintenance of cultural and linguistic elements of ethnic identity for socially bounded groups (Portes 1998).

Myths of return serve to “strengthen ethnic solidarity but in many cases have little practical effect. The `return’ of many in the diaspora is an eschatological concept used to make life easier by means of a belief in an eventual resolution – a virtual utopia. The return is hoped for ‘at the end of days’ and … ongoing support of the homeland and, a collective identity … relationship (Shuval 2000: 8).   Because of their dream of returning “home”, Kurdish first generation migrants pay close attention to events in Kurdistan and they get all their news about these events from the media. While living in a ‘foreign country’ where they face multiple forms of discrimination, exclusion and the feeling of not being accepted by the ’host’ society, the ‘myth of return’ becomes an alternative, imaginary strategy in the mind of migrants. Therefore, they imagine returning to an idealized home. Within this conception, one of the most powerful ideas is the myth of return which manifests itself in many communities (Zetter 1999). Therefore, the visually imagined homeland and myth of returning “home” through the media play a crucial role in the everyday life of the first generation. Moreover, they have a strong attachment to their homeland because of their cultural and social norms, political and emotional connection with political parties, collective memories and their family members in the homeland. Therefore, some migrants plan their return in the first hand and some of them manage to return to their homeland.  However, the literature on return migration shows that return migration does not only consist of a particular group within a diaspora community. Indeed, all the segment of diasporic community has sort of desire to return to the real or imagined country. However, they have similar as well as distinct characteristics, behaviour, motives and expected outcomes upon return.

The Kurds have historically been displaced from their homeland. Kurdish political movements and political figures have been forced to leave their homeland and live in Exile such as Molla Mustafa Barzani, the leader of Kurdistan Democratic Party in the 40s, 50s, but returned to his homeland with his fellows at the end of 50s but when the peace accord collapse with the Iraqi governments in the 70s, and the Kurdish movement was defeated, Kurdish political figures and their fellows have sought exile again.  However with the creation of ‘‘safe haven’ and later   “no fly zone” imposed by the UN Security Council in Northern Iraq in 1991 after the brutal attack of Saddam Hussein against Kurds in Kurdistan Region of Iraq and against Shias in the southern Iraq,  an unprecedented scale of hope of return have started among Kurds in diaspora and neighbouring countries to visit their families, places they were born as well as the desire to contribute to the establishment and political development of “Kurdistana Azad”( liberated Kurdistan)- referring to the Kurdistan region of Iraq un the control of the Kurdish authorities. While many politicians returned from the exile to participate in the establishment of the de-facto Kurdish state, other Kurds started to visit their families in Kurdistan and form transnational marriage after a long distance from their homeland. Kurds who were sent for educational purpose to East European countries have returned home. Moreover, since 1985, many Euro-Kurds have moved to join the Kurdish armed struggle against the countries occupying Kurdistan (Keles 2014). However, the Kurds from Western countries have mostly moved to the region temporarily to provide their knowledge and expertise in institutionalization of Kurdish regional government. As the key informants state that the poverty, insecurity in Kurdistan, the internal conflict (1994-1997) and political mistrust in Kurdish political parties as well as lack of structured institutions have prevented them to return to Kurdistan. However, dream come to true with the collapse of Saddam Regime. The remove of Iraqi military from Kurdistan and the control of Kurds over their fate in Kurdish populated region of Iraq and the economic and political stability have attracted the Euro-Kurds[4] of diverse age, gender, political affiliation, occupation, education, socio-economic background and length of migration have returned from Western countries including the UK to Kurdistan.   A key respondent in Erbil, the capital city of the de-facto Kurdish state told me that “a significant number of the Kurdish politicians and public sector servants have Swedish, German, British and American citizenship. They come here back 15 or 20 years ago”. It was difficult to verify this claim but many politicians and public sector servants in high positions told me that they have been in exile in Iran or in Europe for a certain time.  The relative political stability and economic growth from 2003 to 2014 have created a hope among Kurdish diaspora to contribute to the imagined Kurdish political project and play a crucial role in post conflict reconstruction and consolidate the process of nation building project, democratic process, gender equality and economic growth.  As a result of these political aspirations and economic opportunities, as Amedy, a research participant in Erbil states that many skilled, deskilled and unskilled European citizens with Kurdish background moved to Kurdistan – Iraq.

Some people who come back here simply because they are tired of Europe, some people don’t want to live abroad anymore. It is not necessarily because they have any particular skills. I know people who have come back to work here as a driver as a taxi driver these are not skilled people they just got tired from living in Europe. But there are also people who were very academics, writers, teachers and engineers before leaving Kurdistan but had to work as taxi driver in Sweden or the UK. They are also back here. And of course young people who are educated in Europe, they join the chain to come to Kurdistan in recent years (Amedy, male, 31, works for a bank in Kurdistan)

This report is about highly skilled young people between 18-35 years old, born and/or educated in the UK. Therefore, I will not go further with other type of return migration such as family return migration which has increased in recent years. However, it is relevant to mention here that as a research participant states that the first generation are returning to Kurdistan because of deskilling, isolation, loneliness, language barrier, difficulty of cultural and economic adaptation in the UK and longing for homeland, family and atmosphere of familiarity with culture, language and political and social structures.  With the economic boom and political stability after 2005, Kurdistan becomes a hub for highly skilled young people who were born and/or educated in Europe, the USA and other western countries.  The skilled return migrants have been considered as agents of economic transformation in their home countries. Returnees are often regarded as cross-border intermediaries whose ties to foreign resources and familiarity with their homeland institutions enable them to bring innovative practices to organizations in their countries of origin (Kuznetsov and Sabel, 2006; Jonkers and Tussen, 2008; Choudhury, 2010). However, it should be noted that highly skilled returnees may face many difficulties that they unlikely to be productive and contribute the economic and political developments in their new home and homeland which may lead to lack of commitment to homeland institutions.

Today the mobilized Kurdish diaspora exhibits cross-border and multiple offline and online connections with their family, friends, ethnic political and cultural organizations and non-ethnic networks where they exchange information, online and offline support and solidarity, monetary remittances, and social capital. The highly skilled European Kurdish young people are not homogenous in term of occupation, education, socio-economic background, political affiliation and length of time they spent in their settlement countries.  I provide here a typology of those of the highly skilled young people return to Kurdistan

  1. Those whose family have been involved in political parties or affiliated to political parties or politicians, they usually return with a hope to get a job in public sectors, working for Kurdistan Regional Government including at universities, foreign relations and other public sectors. The political activities of their parents have a huge impact on their study, occupation as well as networks. As a key informant in Erbil states tha

They have good connections with the political parties and the parties want people who can be trusted by the parties to come back and get a position within the KRG. Of course young people who have connections with the political parties, they have a good chance to get a job in Kurdistan ( Hemresh, male, works for the KRG, Erbil)

They are the privileged young people who can use the struggle of their parents in the 80s and 90s for building a future for themselves in Kurdistan. They have mostly moved there before workplaces in public sector become overcrowded by newly graduated young people who were born and grown up in Kurdistan but completed their graduation with the KRG generous scholarship in the UK or other Western countries.

The second group is mostly engineers working for foreign oil and gas, communication and construction. There are also a significant number of medical doctors and teachers who moved to Kurdistan to work for hospitals and schools. And other university educated and working in finance companies, human resources and for NGOs.

  1. The third group is mostly young people with entrepreneurial spirits moved to start up their business such us IT and website designers, property developers and entrepreneurs investing in tourism sector. They point out that “relying on oil and gas will cause an economic crisis in Kurdistan”, therefore they “invest in tourism and property”.
  2. Idealists who are involved in or grown up with the narrative of imagined Kurdistan in diaspora and campaigned for “a democratic and an independent Kurdistan” and strongly believed in contributing to the change of the social and political structures in Kurdistan. As actors, they have very political and intellectual principles which differ from other returnees and their network relationships. Their personal characteristics, subjective awareness, political and intellectual position, motivation to return and vision of Kurdistan are very distinct from those of the other returnees. This group is critical to the political parties or existing and mostly corrupted structures; they are frustrated about the “mismanagement of the Kurdish institutions”, “corruption”, “bribery”, “nepotism” and “lack of transparency” as well as “lack of accountability” in Kurdistan. I call this group “excluded new elites” or “subordinated new actors” who are present in the public domain through expressing their critical positions in the Kurdish media, participating in round table discussions and criticising the political parties and they are also connected with the outside, in particular with Kurdish diaspora who are also critical to the ongoing development in Kurdistan. They attempt to push the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for more transparency and accountability and if they work for the Kurdish universities, they attempt to transfer their knowledge and expertise into their institutions e.g. establishing gender studies at the Kurdish universities or re-writing the content of the modules in the light of contemporary economic, social and political theorists and current debates in economic, social and political theories. However they are under-resourced and are not significant to make a remarkable change. Some of them have already left to Europe.
  3. The last group is more young people who moved with their families from Europe to Kurdistan. They are the most vulnerable position because they are still struggling to understand the purpose of their present in a relatively “conservative society” in Kurdistan. As Arin (18) states that “I am bored here. There is not much cultural and social life here for young people”. But others disagree with him and state that there is a growing entertainment sector in Kurdistan. E.g. cinemas, cafes, clubs and attractive and touristic events etc.

A number of studies have highlighted the fact that men consider return more than women (Wang & Fan, 2003; Avenarius, 2009). My research corresponds with Avenarius’s conclusion.  The majority of highly skilled returnees are male. A significant number of young females have also returned to Kurdistan. However, my research shows that young males believe that they will build their careers and form a family there but the female young people have some reservation in returning to Kurdistan or staying there for numerous reasons including difficulties to find a job, socio-cultural structures that restrict women to enjoy the cultural, social, financial and gendered freedom that they have in the UK.  On top of this, sexual harassment and sexist remarks make very difficult for young female returnees to stay in Kurdistan.

One female participant states that “sometimes I feel that Kurdistan consists of men only. Where you go, you will see a crowded men group, talking on politics and business. They need to realize that half of this society is women and should open a space for women too” (Vîan, 31, works for an NGO in Erbil). During my visit, I met many returnees working for public and private sectors and struggling for gender equality and demanding the KRG to develop serious and effective policies to tackle with problems and difficulties that women face at workplace and wider society. Having said this, I should also mention that some interviewed highly skilled female told me that they have started their businesses or work successfully as English teachers, lecturers or humanitarian aid workers in Kurdistan.

Political, social and cultural ties and network relationships (Coleman 1988, Wang & Fan 2006; Constant & Massey, 2003) play a central role in the decision and motivation to return to the homeland. The pre- migration networks, the relationship with political parties, family ties, the influence of culture, language and contact with private sector shape the process of return among Kurdish young people. However, as I have mentioned above, membership of the network where resources are embedded, is not easy. Belonging to co-ethnic group and being part of Kurdish diasporic mobility for the homeland politics do not mean that they will have access to the available resources. The strong ties in the structures of relations between actors and among actors from diaspora and in the homeland determine the access to the resources. If the returnees go with their ideas, visions and projects, they will try to realize this through their existing networks but if the political and social structures do not allow them, then they will either attempt to establish their critical networks or leave forever.

All the young people interviewed state that before returning permanently to Kurdistan, they visited Kurdistan during their summer holiday and built some sort of local networks which proved very useful when they looked for a job in Kurdistan.  Transnationalized online and offline mobility and activities play a crucial role in linking them with their homeland. There is also an emerging transnational family relation. Some young people commute between the UK and Kurdistan and if they have children. Female partner usually stays with children in the UK.  This new type of transnational family relationship take place among them however it should be noted that this type of transnational relationship take place more among older generation rather than young people. Their cultural capital, such as speaking English and Kurdish and social networks, are relevant for the foreign companies. In addition to this, the European citizenship is crucial to have job in many foreign companies so their staff can travel without any visa problem.  During my research, I also met some young people from Germany in London who come to learn English in order to return to Kurdistan.

Job market in Kurdistan

Before the rise of ISIS and the Syrian conflict, Kurdistan had become a very lucrative market for jobs. A significant number of oil, pharmaceutical and communication companies have started operating in Kurdistan.  Putting on top of that the amount of construction that was happening in Kurdistan for both people and also for government.  Many young electrical engineers and civil engineers have moved to Kurdistan to work for the rapid developed construction industry.

The development of major oil and gas reserves in the autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq is a recent phenomenon, dating back no earlier than 2005. The Kurdistan -Iraq could soon emerge as a significant oil producer on a par with, or even exceeding, Oman, Colombia, or Azerbaijan. Many international oil companies including Canada’s Western Oil, Norway’s DNO, the UAE’s Dana Gas, Korea National Oil Corporation, India’s Reliance Industries, Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, CNPC, ENI, Petronas, CNOOC, Gazprom Neft, Total, Occidental, Turkey’s TPAO and several other major companies have moved to the Kurdish region or were considering to start their companies.  Most Kurdish young people become a bridge between these companies and the local authorities and people, working in logistics, working in oil itself the drilling part, production part, sales and marketing was another aspect. It was easier to work for foreign company while being able to easily interact with the local people taking advantage of the face that the returnees knew both languages. Young people who returned before the crisis had that advantage. This economic boom and political stability were one of the main reasons why many young people moved to Kurdistan and gain a good salary. Moreover, many non-Kurdish people have also moved to Kurdistan to work in the health and oil industries including people from Philippines, China, Pakistan, India, Germany and England.

However, in June 2014, ISIS seized Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city. The fighting against ISIS and the influx of refugees into Kurdistan-Iraq worsened the existing budget crisis, and made it even more urgent for the KRG to secure a reliable route for oil exports and payments. Oil companies withdrew most expatriate staff. The unfavourable economic conditions in Kurdistan has declined the return migration however my research show that there are many young people and families continue to return to Kurdistan. In this sense the economic based explanation of return migration is not much able to provide a reason for this. In the British-Kurdish highly skilled young people case, the diasporic consciousness (political and emotional attachment to the homeland) may be relevant to explain the return of young people to a post-conflict region.

KRG has been left alone in dealing with the 1.8 million internally displaced people from Singal and Mosul regions as well as refuge influx from Syria. While the international community expect that devolvement of the country should take of the IDP, Iraqi government has not support the KRG financially during this difficult time. Because Kurdish region is not an independent country, this prevents also the KRG to receive substantial aid from the UN, other donors and countries.

Return Motivation of Euro Kurds

The return migration of young people seems to have been influenced by a variety of factors. Many studies have highlighted that the return migration takes place because the political and economic changes in the home country make return feasible and profitable. Returnees are often motivated by a political and emotional attachment to the homeland and the feeling that homeland needs their knowledge and expertise to re-construction of the country. This is related more politicized diasporas who believe that they are obligated to be part of the political and economic development of their country of origin. It could not be described simple as a patriotic reason. The attachment to the family, locality, language, culture, the impact of narratives, (post)memories and transnational Kurdish political movement in creating hope, the political and economic stability in the homeland and future vision of geotropically displaced people are also central reasons for the return migration. However, the hostile and negative political and economic climate in the settlement country can also lead to return migration where migrants may not find any opportunity to achieve the goals that they had aimed.   In the light of about explanation, I list the motivations of the highly skilled young people to return to Kurdistan.

  1. To participate in the re-construction process

The majority of young people interviewed state that their motivation to move to Kurdistan is to participate in “re-construction process in Kurdistan” through their human and cultural capital.  The “hope for an independent Kurdistan is so high” that they have intention to be part of this “historical development” and contribute to the livelihood of “the people living in Kurdistan”.  A strong feeling of patriotism flows from part of the below statements of the interviewed young people.

Various people have different motivation. In my case I have a strong feeling of patriotism to Kurdistan. I felt that was my opportunity to return to Kurdistan to help my country. (Dara, male 33, Lecturer at a British University)

I think at least if I speak for myself I’ve been interested in the development there and the events taking place. The Kurdish question so to speak and what we are all trying to strive for which is an independent democratic Kurdistan free from oppression (Lorin, female, 29, worked for a media company in Kurdistan)

I returned because I though my skill will be useful for my country (Baran, male, 27, works for an oil company).

  1. Growing up with the reconstructed narratives

Personal stories gather people around them connecting people and promote empathy among generations and across different locations (Keles 2015a). Many Kurdish young people are heavily influenced by the retold, re-constructed and re-negotiated narratives of their family.

I am from there and also I come from a background where my father has been very engaged in the political movement there, in the liberation movement there. He has been a Peshmerga. He has been in the mountains. He has been one of the key figures in establishing a political party there. He has been writing history and political things about the situation there and also about Kurdish part of Iran so it comes from that as well.  When I grew up we had that in the home so for me it’s very important to be part of that I have been engaged both in Europe where I have been based but I decided to go back to Kurdistan because 2011/2012 was the peak a lot of people went back there. Lots of things were happening it was a boost there were major opportunities there for diasporic Kurds (Lorin, female, 29, worked for Telecommunication Company).

It should be noted that mostly the fathers are the key actors in the narratives of the homeland. Mothers are totally absent. Although they are critical against patriarchal and men dominated Kurdish society, but unnoticeable they also glorify a heroic man (father) in their re-constructed narratives.

  1. A sense of obligation toward “our nation”, “our people”.

Diasporas such as the Kurds have a strong feeling of guiltiness and responsibility and/or obligation with those living in the homeland because they unintentionally think they have left people alone under oppressive policies of respective countries in Kurdistan. This leads partly to political mobilisation for homeland politics in diaspora as well as supporting political organisations financially.  As Karwan statement shows that this feeling is also leading to return to the homeland to participate in the political and social process.

Our fathers as Peshmerga gave everything for Kurdistan. I study at University of Cambridge for a reason my view is it’s a shame for me not to go out to Kurdistan and serve in a particular role etc. (Karwan, 22, studying IR)

  1. Beyond nationalistic discourse

However, the reasons for return go beyond nationalistic discourse. For example, for Aras, who worked as a fellow researcher with Serin, the European Centre for Nuclear Research has a different intention.  The narrative constructed around the ‘myth of return’ bears close relationship in his case to the notion of an idealized home: “the concreteness of a familiar home” (Zetter 1999:4) in the country of origin, idealized imagery of the past and attachment to tradition, language and social networks are also play a central role in motivating people to return to their homeland, in particular those young people who were born and spent their childhood and teenagehood in Kurdistan.

I think it may be one of the reasons that speaking the same language, coming from the same culture and the same background, I think that in itself allows a better understanding for the return migration to Kurdistan. That itself just makes me feel welcome. Going around and speaking to people in Kurdish. It feels good (Aras, male, 29, scientist works for a foreign oil company)

  1. Longing for family and social networks

Some people have planned for their whole life to return to Kurdistan. For this reason, they have received the necessary education to work in Kurdistan at some point and one of the return motivations has been repeatedly mentioned that they would like to live closer to their families and networks that they can get multiple help and support from them including housing, work, childcare, emotional support. Many of them state that lack of support has led them to experience some sort of isolation in the UK.

 I did have the intention to come back here I did not have a firm plan of what I will do or how I will come back but I always thought at that time that I will do a PhD and will be able to teach and I can come back here and teach at university that plan did not work but nevertheless I did manage to come back here in another form (Aras, male, 29, scientist, works for a foreign oil company)

  1. The economic boom and political stability

Individual motivation and personal attributes led to re-migration from the UK to Kurdistan. The economic boom and the political stability have attracted various social groups to move to Kurdistan. The access to job and high wages have contributed to the new standard of material well-being and ambitions for upward mobility. A key respondent states that:

Returnees are academics, young people, even second generation who were brought up in the UK or America. They found good jobs whether it was oil companies or certain universities or certain private companies and then moved back to Kurdistan” (Dara, male, 33, works for a university in the UK)

My initial view it was they felt that there was a lot more opportunity in Kurdistan. Obviously it depends on their skill and the human capital of those who actually do migrate back. They felt they had much more opportunity in Kurdistan” (Solin, female, 29, works for a Kurdish community organisation in the UK)

  1. Dissatisfaction

The majority of the interviewed young people talk very positively about their experience in the UK.  They state they have gained access to education and enjoyed living, spending their childhood or young adulthood in the multi-cultural British society and had not any difficulties in term of having access to the labour market in the UK.

“I would say it was- if it can be described in a few words, educational, eye opening and in certain way I owe what I know and even some of the opportunities that has opened to me to the education that I have gained in the UK. Even some of my beliefs and ideas that I still firmly believe in were due to the fact that I spent part of my life in the UK. Under no circumstances I would describe my time and place in the UK as unhappy” (Botan, male, 29, works for an oil company in Dukan, Kurdistan).

But there were also some young people talking about their difficulties accessing the labour market in the line of their qualification.  Moreover, the dissatisfaction over inability to achieve the goals and ambitions they noticed that the UK would not be feasible for their future.

So in that sense they saw an opportunity in Kurdistan. They saw a booming economy. They saw a lifestyle which is in line with their aspirations. They can have a house. They can have a car which is the contrary to what they can have in the UK.  That is like the first layer when I looked into it deeper, when I was talking to people, it came down to the cultural aspect of the UK. They thought that they can be socially mobile here [Kurdistan]. In that sense it’s much deeper” (Rojda, female, works for local government in Kurdistan)

Contribution of the Returnees

Although the return of the highly skilled Euro-Kurds has mainly started in 2005, they have greatly contributed to the knowledge production, critically thinking and influencing as well as shaping the social, political, cultural and economic policies and life in Kurdistan. KRG has widely benefited from their cultural, social and human capital in local and international level.

They brought the pluralism and diversity of opinion on issues of democratisation, urban life, gender position, secular lifestyle, education and health sectors, acceptance and respect of the minorities in Kurdistan. They play a crucial role in improving service culture for citizens, transferring technological development and know-how to Kurdistan. They contribute to the multi-culturalism in Kurdistan and create new translocal spaces where different culture, language, norms and people meet and reshape the ideas, institutions and urban lifestyle in Kurdistan-Iraq.

Section six: Social Networks and return migration


This section provides details of how the social capital networks of young British-Kurdish people help them to build online social networks and generate digital social capita. It also outlines how young British-Kurdish online social and political ties in their country of settlement and country of origin affect their behavior and social mobility transnationally.   The individual and collective use of social media for political purposes and social mobility amongst diasporic young people has been less explored and there is not much knowledge about the individual political activism pathway of young people. In this context, this report is concentrated on how the strong ethnic affiliation, sense of belonging and political aspiration of young British-Kurdish people is expressed in online and offline spaces and how their engagement and interactivity may lead to social mobility.  Previous research has concluded that the compression of time and space resulting from the use of media, in particular the internet, has created new cultural, political and economic networks offering resources that lead to multiple benefits for diasporas in their settlement countries and country of origin (Keles 2015a).

Youth, migration and social media

The impact of the internet, especially social media on growth of online activism among young people has been widely discussed. In recent years, particularly in the context of the Arab Spring, the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movements, the 2014 Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong shows that social media plays an important role in facilitating young people’s social and political participation, their collective activisms through political movements, protests and forming opinion. The internet has made the mobilization of young people possible for various issues. (Zhou, Wellman, & Yu, 2011, Bennett and Segerberg, 2012; Chen & Reese, 2015).  Others have found that the interactivity of young people on the internet, especially social media may lead to the civil engagement, political participation and social mobility (Bakker and De Vreese, 2011, Enjolras et al., 2013). In this sense, social media becomes a hub for performing a new citizenry, constructing and expressing individual and collective identities, political opinion and positions, belonging and solidarity but simultaneously these issues are also constantly negotiated (Bennett, 2008). Research has indicated that social media contributes to the civic and political engagement and participation (Enjolras et al., 2013) and coordinated offline social movements and political action of young people (Lee, 2006; Harlow and Harp 2012; Conroy et al., 2012) in many countries. Virtual spaces may have a liberating potential, a new form of digital participatory citizenry and interaction between differently socialized, racialized and ethnicized people.

The internet and its applications such as social media have also revolutionized the way migrants communicate transnationally. Indeed, until the 1980s the migrant population, including displaced people, consumed only limited homeland print media and TV programmes. Migrant associations were the only places where migrants gathered and organized cultural and political events. They were a ‘homeland’ in diaspora where people shared limited information about their homeland and built limited local networks. Whilst videos from the homeland entered into migrants’ lives in the 1980s, the turning point came in the late 1980s and increasingly in the 1990s, when transnational satellite TV (Matsaganis et al, 2011), the internet and digital technologies inter-connected people from different geo-political spaces and took them virtually ‘home’ (Madianou 2012; Nedelcu 2012). This ended the dependency of migrant audiences on the media of their settlement countries leading to the development of non-space bounded identities and political positions in the world as this new communications technology interconnected the migrants with their transnational networks and contributed to a cross-border conversation among migrants, in particular geographically displaced people.

The rapid development of communication and transport technologies have led to wider opportunity and possibilities for young people from a migration background to be part of cultural, political, civic and economic activities transnationally. The internet and its applications have become crucial tools in facilitating cross-national digital participation and inclusion through new and innovative virtual networks that contribute to the interpersonal ties which provide exchange flows of knowledge, information, multiple supports, sense of belonging, sociability, constructed identities (Wellman 2001: 18). In this context, the internet functions as a facilitator for individual participation and collective activism of young people (Bennett and Segerberg, 2012). While a number of studies have focused on the political participation of young people in the process of the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and the Indignados (Velasquez Perilla 2012), only a limited number of works have analyzed the interactivity of migrant young people. In particular, young people’s diasporic online and off-line activism has not much received scholarly attention.  Drawing on my empirical research among highly skilled young British-Kurdish people living in the UK and/or Kurdistan (moving from the UK), I argue in this section that the rapid growth in the use of communication technologies, such as satellite TV and the internet, especially social media (Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, LinkedIn, Instagram, Skype, LinkExpats, and so on), has mutual benefits, increasing the sense of belonging among geographically displaced people and their social connectedness to each other and to their homeland,. This has strengthened social ties and created a ‘transnational social field’, contributing to the growth of social networks, social capital and a community’s cultural and political participation within and across the nation-state borders. The case of the Kurdish diaspora is a good example, especially the ongoing transnational mobility of highly skilled young British-Kurdish people who have developed various online ties and networks with their homeland since the 90s.

Diasporas with a strong diasporic consciousness have started to sustain a sense of community across and beyond the locality through various forms of communication and online and offline networks (Keles 2015a).  In this report, the concept of diasporic consciousness highlights the dual reality of the collective memory of geographically dispersed peoples: forcible expulsion from the homeland; and the political aspiration of a nation-building project and the legitimate belonging and return to an imagined homeland whilst residing in another country. This shared identity endows some contemporary diasporic communities with political purpose and direction as they operate between their countries of origin and of settlement (Gilroy 1993; Hall and Du Gay 1996; Clifford 1994; Keles 2015b). ‘Diasporic consciousness’ by fostering hope and sustaining a community over time and space, can serve as a sociological ‘superglue’ enabling diasporic networks to become a resource and source of social capital. In this process, diasporas become relevant political and cultural actors who recreate new ethnic and religious spaces in settlement countries while simultaneously reconnecting emotionally, politically and culturally through travel and media to ‘their’ real or imagined home country. In comparison to previous generations, the ‘proliferation of global communications has also reduced the “emotional distance”’ for potential migrants (Stalker 1994:32).

Castells (2006:470) explains in his discussion of the ‘network society’ how people act and create meaning in this virtualized life in ‘virtual communities’:

People increasingly organize their meaning not around what they do but on the basis of what they are, or believe they are. Meanwhile, on the other hand …global networks of instrumental exchanges selectively switch on and off individuals, groups, regions, and even countries, according to their relevance in fulfilling the goals processed in the network…

He emphasizes how social structures and agency activities within these structures are organized around information provided in networks and, in this sense, he considers virtual networks as the source of power and resources.  The virtual social networks become a hub for ‘connected’ (Diminescu 2008) migrants to communicate and benefit from their interaction in the multiple networks in their homeland and their settlement country (Bakewell et al. 2012). Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have contributed to the ‘exchange of resources and information along with participation in socio-cultural and political activities’ (Vertovec 2001:574). In particular, the internet has changed the nature of ‘relationships’, compressing time and space as it removes the distance between thereness and hereness (Nagel and Staehel 2010). It has connected people from different political and geographical spaces and created virtual conversations (Tsaliki, 2003; Parham 2004, Tynes 2007 Madianou 2012) which have led to the emergence of new and virtual social networks, that is, virtual digital public spaces that can be described as ‘virtual communities’ (Rheingold 1993; Komito 2011). Studies on the relation between migrants and the internet emphasize that migrants have re-connected to their homeland through the internet and are able to sustain relationships with those who stay in the homeland and others who have migrated to other countries (Parham 2004; Bernal 2006; Diminescu 2008; Nedelcu 2012; Kissau 2012; Komito 2011; Madianou 2012; Keles, 2015a). The internet provides spaces for migrants to re-imagine their own communalities and construct a sense of community that may contribute to providing mutual benefits, building reciprocal trust, the strengthening of both pre-migration and new social ties, and the exchange of information and opinions. As a result of this process, diasporic individuals may share and accumulate social capital and mobilize individuals and communities for social, economic and political benefits in the settlement country and beyond (see figure 1). Therefore, the internet becomes a bridging tool in creating real or imagined relationship among migrants including scattered, displaced people (Tynes 2007; Nagel and Staehel 2010; Chen and Choi 2011; Dekker & Engbersen 2013).

At the same time, the internet creates virtual spaces and links between people across national borders and boundaries who have not previously met face to face and probably may never be in physical contact. However, people interact on the internet on the grounds of a shared collective real or imaginary identity, often based upon a place of origin. In this context, the imaginary or real homeland and territorial identity play a central role in their virtual public spaces and conversations. In addition to this, some scholars have stressed that migrant experiences of discrimination, isolation, homesickness and exclusion from the labour market and political participation in settlement countries have contributed to strengthening their involvement in virtual communities (Miller and Slater 2000, Mitra 2001). While virtual communities cannot operate like face-to-face communities (Fernback 2007), which may build effective and stronger social capital because ‘trust relationships and resilient communities generally form through local personal contact’ (Putnam et al. 2003:9 ), however the internet can provide the opportunity for face-to-face interaction with friends, family and community members and expands the networks of individuals beyond their local personal contact within the ‘diaspora space’ (Brah 1996) and transnational spaces (Faist 2000). Virtual communities also create a degree of trust and mutual reciprocity (for example, by requesting or accepting friendship, membership, etc.), and also solidarity, especially on the basis of shared ethnicity, memories and experiences. This could be considered as ‘bonding capital’ (Putnam 2000) within diasporic virtual communities (Diminescu 2008) and, in this context, the internet may contribute to the improvement of the life of the ‘connected migrant’ (Diminescu 2008) by providing multiple e-virtual public spheres. He or she can choose to join relevant virtual networks to participate in the economic, political and cultural life in the settlement country and the country of origin (Baltaretu and Balaban 2010; Ellison et al 2007).

Both the separation and differentiation of the individual and collective participation have been mentioned in research in regards to use of virtual communities (Bäck et al., 2011). However, in the case of young people with a diasporic background, the use of the internet and social media goes beyond ‘networked individualism’ (Wellman, 2001) but it associates more about the empowering and mobilizing collective diasporic identities and communities which could be described as networked diasporic consciousness. My interviews showed that young people with diasporic background use the internet constantly to participate in civil engagement and political movements within their settlement countries and across the national boundaries and borders.

Diasporic communities follow political developments in the homeland closely, especially those involving tragic ethno-national conflict. The Kurdish diaspora, as the product of war, displacement and migration, has made the question of Kurdistan a transnational political issue through their transnationalized political engagement and movement as well as media production and internet activism. Civan, a young British-Kurdish editor of one of the most cited Kurdish websites Kurdishquestion.com, makes this clear:

We are able to share with the international communities what is happening in Kurdistan through twitter and other social media. We share news item before the BBC hear about it…Through our articles, posts and articles we translate from Kurdish, we give our own version of events which history has proven to be the true version of events. Because we are the one resisting the atrocity. Because we do not have a state and embassies, we mobilize our grassroots through twitter and challenge the countries committing a crime against our people. We tweet to Barack Obama, the UN General Secretary and journalists. …We’ve provided the sources for journalists about the history, struggle of the Kurdish people. We write articles and give interviews about the ongoing political issues. We tapped in. Many journalists know that they can have access to the information and certain political actors in the region through us. Before twitter and other social media this was impossible. The Kurds have received more recognition in 2-3 years than they did the last previous years through the political development in the region and our internet and political mobilizations (Civan, male, 28, London, Feb 2016)

The media, the internet and the mediated experiences they produce create a new form of relationship among Kurds across nation-state borders. These virtual communities transmit a virtual media culture, national struggle, nationalistic symbols, and images of political belonging and affiliations to ‘our homeland’ and ‘our nation’ that have been disseminated to this transnational audience, particularly since 1994 when Kurdish satellite TV started broadcasting from the diaspora. The Kurdish TV channels have created a counter to the nationalistic discourses of countries occupying Kurdistan by broadcasting in Kurdish, providing news and discussion from a Kurdish perspective and with its focus on self-determination and Kurdish culture and language is far removed from Turkish, Iranian and Syrian coercive power. The reconstruction of Kurdish identity, history and language by Kurdish media has challenged the denial policies of these countries (Keles 2015a). While these TV stations provide information in line with their political positions and ideologies, the most liberating and powerful conversation tool, the internet and its applications, has become part of everyday life of the Kurdish diaspora since the mid 1990s.

New media encompasses a wide variety of web-related communication technologies, such as blogs, wikis, online social networking, virtual worlds, podcasts, computer mediated social networking in addition to Facebook, Twitter and so on. As the editor of Kurdishquestion.com states, the new media compresses time and space connecting Kurds who now inhabit different political and geographical spaces. These virtual social structures have created new conversations between those Kurds who live in the diaspora and those Kurds who live in the homeland and have enabled them to sustain a sense of community across and beyond localities through their political mobilization and virtual activism. This means that ‘the relationship between identity groups and nation-states is no longer confined within one established imagined community’ (Keles and Syrett 2016:16) and new communications technology has enabled the Kurds to ‘redefine themselves and challenge dominant states’ (Romano 2002:128). New media enable Kurdish activists not only to consume information provided for them but at the same time to produce user-generated media content and disseminate knowledge by using the internet and its applications to communicate, collaborate and converge around various images, texts and symbols about themselves, their community and homeland. They use their human capital and e-skills to produce cultural, linguistic and political content as bloggers, video producers, author of articles and individual opinion makers in virtual networks. Aspects such as visual layout and design effects are closely related to the identity politics of the Kurds by way of references to geographical, territorial and cultural aspects of Kurdistan and the Kurds that include the Kurdish struggle, the Kurdish national colours (red, green and yellow), the map of greater Kurdistan, the Kurdish flag, and Kurdish cities and natural world.

Using the data referred to above I now turn to a more detailed examination of the interplay between diaspora and social capital and the internet with a figure to show the interconnection between individuals and associations in diaspora communities as well as with connections between diasporas and institutions in their country of settlement and homeland (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Diasporic consciousness and networks. Network ties between community organisations, individuals, diasporic economic spaces and the homeland.

Building and empowering community and networks in diaspora

The role of the Kurdish diaspora is shown here to be particularly important in generating a diasporic consciousness through the use of multiple communication technologies, virtual social networks and local associations to build and empower their community. This includes building bonding ties and notions of solidarity among the Kurdish diaspora, especially between young people who are involved in both online and offline activities such as the establishment of Kurdish community centres and associations, by providing relevant information on education, the labour market, housing, immigration and business. In addition to this they also develop and sustain a sense of belonging by reproducing their Kurdish culture, and allowing for the sharing of common experiences.  Putnam (1993) would argue that these physically-based activities and structures make it possible to coordinate resources available within the community to a membership and create a sense of belonging, trust and shared values which can facilitate economic and social interactions among certain groups leading to a form of social capital. In this process, the internet and its applications also connect the community, especially young British Kurdish people to local Kurdish activities in London and other British cities where the Kurds have settled. Many people receive news on social gatherings, festivals, cultural and political events, and business-related activities in which they wish to participate through social media or phone messages which lead to face-to-face relationships in physical spaces such as diasporic spaces (see figure 1) e.g. community organizations and association as well as business premises and (in)formal networks. During my various research projects, I noticed that local Kurdish organizations and networks in the UK are well connected through their websites or social media pages where they advertise their political and social events and services for Kurdish migrants and the wider society. This helps them to bring people into physical contact for social gatherings, demonstrations, cultural events and academic seminars and other offline activities. However, the websites and social media are not limited to the UK but have a global platform. Their internet-based activism and services create a conversation between those living in the diaspora and those in the homeland. Kurdish community organizations provide information not only about their transnationalized political activism but also about cultural events, work opportunities, issues of immigration and the politics of migration, citizenship, access to health care, education, legal rights, information on studying in the UK, applying for a UK visa from Turkey and Iraq, as well as capacity building for particular groups such as women or young people in the UK and Kurdistan. For example, while women’s organizations such the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organization website provides information on capacity building and advocacy for women in the UK and in Kurdistan, Kurdish student organizations in British universities and the Kurdish Professional Network (KPN) Facebook pages have become a hub for many Kurds from different geographical spaces to ask for information about educational, internship and job opportunities in the UK. Some of the young people I interviewed via Skype spoke about their interactive participation in community-leading job opportunities or getting effective advice on studying and choosing a relevant occupation. As a young female respondent states:

If you are active online you have an overview of your community and you will be informed about jobs available within the community, but also you will notice their needs. This will give you an idea that you can use your language skills and study something that you can find jobs related to housing, counselling, law, education and financial issues. The KPN activities are very helpful in this context (Nevin, female, 22, Student, London, Nov 2015)

The online networks not only have cultural and political outcomes but also economic ones as a young British-Kurd observes:

Recently I saw a job advertisement on a Kurdish lawyer’s Facebook. He has a law firm and I sent it to a friend of mine and he got the job (Civan, 28, London, Feb 2016)

It is clear that social media contributes to a strong sense of belonging and bonding social capital among young British-Kurdish people in the UK.

Seeking ethnic recognition and representation in the UK

This deterritorialized connection and strong and/or weak ties between Kurdish individuals and communities in Europe build online bridging and bonding social capital, social trust through political participation and activities, as well as the sharing of business ideas and potential collaboration across nation-state borders. In this way internet and internet-based applications (Web 2.0) act as online bonding and bridging mechanisms (Ellison et al. 2007) and have an impact not only on the migration process, digital and non-digital mobility and transnational activism but also strengthen the mental and emotional capital of migrants (d’Haenens et al 2007). For instance, the research[5] conducted on undocumented Kurdish young people shows that digital social capital (information circulated on the internet, Kurdish social media and virtual connections between young people and their relatives in the UK) influenced people’s decisions about leaving their homeland, choice of routes and destinations, the cost of the long journey, and minimizing risk during the journey. This corresponds to the findings of Dekker and Engbersen (2013) who argue that digital social capital facilitates migration. The internet is also a central facilitator for organizing and promoting collective actions (Chu and Tang, 2005) and is used by the Kurdish diaspora to organize various campaigns for ethnic, linguistic and political rights and around visibility issues. Visibility is particularly important for Kurds because they have been described as an “invisible community” due to the way that stateless people are often registered according their nationality rather than ethnic affiliation in countries of settlement. This means that the Kurds are registered as “Turkish”, “Iraqi”, “Syrian” or “Iranian” resulting in their Kurdish culture and language being hidden in the public sphere (Keles, 2015a). However, in recent years, there have been an increasing online mobilization by the Kurdish community to be recognized, for example by taking part in the UK 2011 Census; asking the UK authorities to introduce a Kurdish language GCSE; and urging the British Government to recognize the chemical gas attack by Saddam’s regime against the Kurdish city of Halabja in 1988 as genocide. Certainly this is an attempt to make their cultural and ethnic capital visible and benefit from it in a British multicultural context. This internet activism is used as a “bridge” to connect Kurds, encouraging their political participation, civic engagement and incorporation in the wider UK society. Moreover, the social media shapes young Kurdish political and cultural behavior and activities.  In this regard, the political and social participation of diasporas could be described as a “cause-oriented political activism” (Norris, 2009: 641). Many young people state that if they uncover any “hostile policy” towards the “Kurdish political movement” and “Kurdish people” in Kurdistan, Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries, they create spontaneous virtual political movements and call for public protests in the front of Downing Street. For example, when they called upon the international community to show solidarity with the Yezidis in the Sinjar region of Kurdistan- Iraq and with the Kurds in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) who were attacked by ISIS in 2015.

Communicating with the Homeland: Connectivity, Circularity, Continuity and Familiarity

Diaspora studies emphasize that one crucial element of the diaspora is to dream of a real or imaginary homeland. Displaced people reside outside of their homeland but claim a legitimate political aspiration for it, and therefore the homeland is an important reference with regard to individual and collective identity (Jacobsen, 2002). Geographically dispersed communities have benefited immensely from the opportunities provided by communication technologies to revive their identity in the settlement countries and contribute to the belonging and connectivity of diasporas with their homeland. The strong sense of belonging and attachment to the homeland is manifested in the transnational political activities of diasporas, particularly stateless diasporas such as the Kurds who lack a ‘home’ nation-state. Their shared experience, emotional bond, trust and feeling of obligation and political aspiration are embedded in strong ethnic ties that are used through multiple online and offline channels. The conversations in their virtual communities of the Kurdish diaspora, especially among young people, are not so much about sharing common memories and experiences but more about the process of nation-building, political and social developments in the homeland and sharing their visions of the future and huge desire to contribute to this political and economic development.

My research on young British-Kurdish people and their media practices shows that the internet has become an institution for them where they can develop and disseminate their language, culture and sense of belonging but also build and accumulate human, cultural and social capital. A number of second-generation respondents stated that their families were unable to transmit the Kurdish language to their children. Baran, a second-generation Kurd who works in a bank, explained that instead he learnt Kurdish from online resources on the internet, Kurdish satellite TV and community centres. In this sense, the internet provides new opportunities to gain human capital which can be advantageous in terms of employability and civic participation in the community, in particular for those who look for job opportunities in the UK and in their homeland. Baran adds that his Kurdish language skill, learned via the internet, has helped him to communicate with his Kurdish customers at a British Bank in North London.

The internet is also used to inform migrants about ongoing issues in the homeland. A significant number of Kurdish interviewees like Helin (below) read Kurdish newspapers on the internet to keep them informed.

I feel that I need to follow Kurdish newspapers or satellite TV in order to inform me about the political situation in Kurdistan and Turkey (…) If I go there I do not feel that I have not been there for a while. I am able to participate in debate and because I follow British society and political life, I am able to add another value and dimension to the debate there (Helin, female, 29, Solicitor, Sept 2009, London).

This connectivity with the homeland is also important for those who wish to return to Kurdistan. For example, one of my interview partners who used to follow ‘the ongoing issues’ in Kurdistan moved back there and opened an English language school. Others have gained employment with NGOs working with women or refugees in Kurdistan-Iraq. Social media is also used to reach fellow ethnics within different EU countries and share potential opportunities. But also personal narratives, images and memories are constantly posted to have a social and political status and ties within the locality and throughout the borders. Attachment to an ethnic and territorial identity could be the story of the family in the context of Kurdish national struggle, in addition to the contribution that they make to the community in the UK or homeland. Individual success is also widely circulated as a form of self-presentation.

The internet and return migration

The relationships, civic and ethnic engagement and individual and collective participation have become more and more delocalized in the age of globalization and new transnational public sphere have been emerged over time and space. Young people’s participation in virtual public spaces has increased in recent years including young migrants and their dependents in settlement countries. This has encouraged young people to engage with cross-national conversations, political movements, attachment, dialogue, and solidarity within and across national borders.   Communication technologies, in particular social networks, influence the pathways of young people. My research on Kurdish returnees shows how virtual networks facilitate communication, exchange of information and diaspora participation in various social, political and economic contexts in the homeland; an example of which can be seen in the Kurdistan Careers Conference[6] in 2012. This conference was mainly launched via the internet and organized by British born Kurds from Kurdistan- Iraq and was aimed at encouraging young people born and educated in the diaspora with human and organizational capital to work in Kurdistan for the Kurdish government or private companies. The research shows that the role of virtual communities in shaping transnational flows of capital, commodities, labour, knowledge and enterprise activity has increased in recent years. These virtual networks, along with family and political ties, are an effective means of producing social capital, contributing to the decision made by highly skilled European Kurds to move to Kurdistan, whilst enabling them to keep their social ties with their friends and families back in the UK. As Sirwan states the internet can help the returnees to have access to employment opportunities at foreign and private companies, operating Kurdistan.

“I think the internet apart from Facebook has been quite helpful to find job opportunities – young professionals for example especially second generation or the younger first generation. I know many people who have returned from America to Kurdistan, from UK and Europe to Kurdistan and these are young professionals with good degrees from Europe and America, most of them have found these opportunities through the internet. But most of these job opportunities have been international private companies based on my own” (Shwan, male, 32, Lecturer at a University in Kurdistan).

The foreign companies operating in Kurdistan prefer highly skilled “Euro-Kurds” because these returnees have knowledge about Kurdistan but also speak English and have British or other EU country’s citizenship which makes it possible for them to travel and attend company meetings in Europe and elsewhere.

The testimonies of young people show that some of them already have existing networks through family and political connections. However, the internet and its applications help them extend these networks through virtual communities, strengthen the individual and collective ties with authorities, politicians and private companies, memberships to various organisations and increase inclusion into wider society.  In this context, some research participants state that the internet helps them maintain and sustain their pre-migration networks which help them to have a general overview about the political and economic development in Kurdistan. 

I have a large family here that I do keep in touch with them on a regular basis even though the internet was a good source for news my actual fact about what was really happening in Kurdistan and what the situation came from people I was talking to on a regular basis…. So it is easy of course to get in touch with people through the internet, rather than spontaneously face to face, so it does help to some extent it all depends on the circumstances really (Behrem, male, 32, works for a foreign oil company in Sulaimania, Kurdistan)

This new virtual, deterritorialized conversation between diasporic individuals and local people contributes to building (digital) social networks that constitute resources and opportunities for diasporas and play a central role in social and geographical mobility. As Heja states that it has contributed to new cultural practices and conversations between those who move and those who stay.

The conversation that I had with people through the social media who had moved there or would move there, or were living there already and also of course the conversation, I had with my mother through the internet that contributed to the decision I made to return to Kurdistan. I would be able to follow the events there what was going on and I see also who was already based there. People I knew and people from a distance and so on (Heja, male, 29, works for a foreign oil company, interviewed in London during his visit to his friends and relatives)

The virtual networks facilitate “weak ties” among individuals’ communication transnationally. On one hand this may prevent unequal power relationships among differently socialized individuals in a certain degree and empower young people to develop their individualism and autonomy, on the other hand, it contributes to the collective identity, belonging and link with various institutions and given social groups across borders and boundaries of nation states. The internet provides them a new space to interact with the potential employers without going through their family or political connections and without feeling loyal to certain political group or persons.

Some of returnees create their own networks through inviting the Kurdish politicians via the email and social media to give a talk at the British universities where they study. This strategy is used to develop close connections with Kurdish political figures before moving to Kurdistan for a relevant position. For example, Karwan studies International Relations at one of the top British universities. He, and his Kurdish friends, have set up a Kurdish Society in order to “use it as a means to enhance some political connections”. He goes further to explain how the new social media can create a platform for young people with less privileged families or a tribal background.

“I have managed to invite … politician. He is coming to speak at our … university in November. I am trying to establish my connections even more furthermore but that is all in spite of me not having any family connections. I can justify it by saying it’s all me. It’s not my inherited connections from my family. It’s all my social network, my networking. It’s all my own work, nothing to do with my family whenever. If you meet someone in Kurdistan, its Kurdish tradition to ask: “who is your dad”? “Who is your father”?  I say my father is a farmer. You don’t know him.  It’s written on his ID that he is a farmer. I say to them “I want you to know me you don’t need to know my dad”. As soon as you say a name, it influences their judgement of you” (Karwan,22, studying IR)

However, many young people have also mentioned that it is very important to be physically back to Kurdistan, in particular for building networks and getting a job in public sector. In this sense the internet may not help build local connections for job opportunities because as Roni states that email enquiries do not get replies:

“our people inside Kurdistan still don’t consider as their daily duty to check ministries’ email and reply the emails on the daily basis. (Roni, male, 53, representative of a political party to the UK)

In addition, most of jobs in the public sector are not advertised and young people can only get access to these jobs through private, family and political connections. It is very hard for people without these political connections to get a job in public sector. And even those who do have political and family connection with the Kurdish government departments may not be also able to get job in public sectors if they don’t have the relevant qualifications. One key respondent in Erbil told me that the public sector is already overcrowded and was generally used more in previous years to provide jobs for those who are affiliated with certain political parties than it is to provide services to people. However, in recent years, the government is also very keen to employ those who have the most relevant qualifications and skills.

Returnees’ networks

The internet and its applications facilitate ‘discussion and mobilization around local issues’ (Hampton & Wellman 2003, p. 277). Moreover, Lee (2009) and Steinfield et al. (2008) found that the internet makes for stronger relationships, bonding and bridging social capital and ‘getting connected in the real worlds’ to enable participation in cultural, political and social life (Bauernschuster et al 2014: 75).  The European Kurds from different countries have their own deterritorialized conversation and virtual networks where they share information, experience as well as job opportunities. Similar to Rojda, many Euro-Kurds have created new virtual networks amongst themselves where they develop a sense of “us” from Europe living in Kurdistan.

“I received job offers from those were Kurds from Europe and they work both in the public sector and for the government. I would see of course local Kurds online maybe on different social media channels, Twitter or Facebook. Well mostly Twitter. Facebook is a bit more limited. It’s only your friends there if you wish. But I am mainly in contact with European Kurds living in Kurdistan. (Rojda, 27, Femal, works in education sector in Kurdistan).

The returnee networks are not only used for seeking job, civic and political engagement, but it is used for self-presentation and share of personal experiences and relationship as well as belonging, inclusion and exclusion in their new home. For example, a female returnees posted on Facebook the following statement

In England I was constantly asked: “Where are you from? No but, where are you really from?” I’d then always say I’m from Kurdistan even though that didn’t mean much too many of those asking and I’d have to explain where Kurdistan is.

And here I am, finally in Kurdistan. The land I used to call my home and where now they constantly say: “You’re not from here, are you?!” (Roza, female, 24, works in education sector in Kurdistan)

The returnees virtual network includes Kurdish and non-Kurdish friends as well as organizations in the UK which provides an important emotional contribution to these individual’s well-being as well as keeping open options to come back to the UK if they wish. A number of them state that they feel like a Xarici (an outsider or foreigner) in Kurdistan, but their continuing virtual connection provides a combination of mobility, communication and autonomy should they seek alternative job opportunities in the UK and elsewhere. In this way, the communication and information within the UK’s Kurdish virtual communities contributes to digital social capital within the UK and beyond.

The political environment and the background of young people influence their online activism. While the majority of British-Kurdish young people act as an advocacy group in diaspora, focusing on homeland politics in their online and offline activism and social networks in the UK, the British Kurdish young people living in Kurdistan concentrate in internal and external online activism. Their online activism is multifaceted and related to their individual and collective political behaviors within the Kurdish political and social context. Moreover, the internet provides them opportunities to influence policies but also to criticize the political parties and government policies through blogs, social media and even web-based media

Family ties and connections

The internet might help a certain group access available jobs. It appears that the pre-migration networks and family ties with political parties and private companies play a crucial role in accessing the job market in Kurdistan. Moreover, the class and tribal aspects are also very important in turning the human and social capital into economic capital, as Shah sates that

The patron system in Kurdistan relies on family and family connections alone. The source of that social mobility and the nepotism that is so ripe in the country, that’s not withstanding of other ways of being employed. There are people who have the skills and have the human capital really who deserve those jobs in public sector (Shaho, male, 35, works for the KRG).

Families support the returnees and help them to find a proper job” (Rebaz, 33, male, work for an oil company).

Personal and Political connections with the political parties

Access to the job market in the public sector is only possible through face to face connection and close connection with political parties and figures. In this context, it seems the internet may facilitate less opportunity.

In Kurdistan, usually father or relative have connections or influence in the political parties. Their children start working with the political parties in diaspora and build network and connection before coming to Kurdistan (Key respondent in Erbil)

However, the lack of transparency of the job market causes a huge frustration among some returnees. For example, Alan, who works for an international Bank as a senior business adviser states that he returned to Kurdistan to “link Kurdistan with international credit institutions” but later come back to the UK because:

Employment is based on merit in the world. Merit is made up of skills your knowledge, qualification etc.  But there it’s the polar opposite it’s who you know rather than what you know.  That’s not to say the UK does not have nepotism but it is much more skewed to a meritocratic system.

Many returnees complain that only those who have political connection and loyalty to the KDP and PUK, they will get a position for which they are not qualified to carry out. However, a senior representative of a political party told me that:

First of all, if young people are graduated here and got a master degree, it does not mean that he or she will get a job in Kurdistan when he/she arrives there. We need qualified people. I usually ask them about their skill. If it’s business or if it’s engineering or medicine whatever, I meet the person and try to understand if this person is able to do the job that we will provide him or her. After that I ask them to send me their CV definitely. I am not recommending anyone without a good CV. Before recommending her or him, I have to review her or his CV for the relevant job. When I review the CV after that I send a letter to the relevant person or department in Kurdistan and say “look at this CV and he or she is good in this sector if you have any job in this sector please help him or her”. As elsewhere it is not easy to get a job in public sector in Kurdistan (Roni, male, Representative of a Kurdish party to the UK)

JANROJ: If he or she has not any affiliation to your party, does she or he will have any chance to get access to the job market in Kurdistan?

Of course he or she can get a job. But in reality if he is not in my party and he is not in any other party and he is coming to me for asking for potential job opportunities in Kurdistan, then she or he will get a chance. As I’ve mentioned that I look at their qualification. But if they are from x party, they will not come to me. They will go to the political party that they are affiliated. Even if I know that the person who comes to me for job opportunity and he or she is member of another party, but he/she is good at what he/she is doing, let say he or she is a good doctor, I will send him to the relevant person in Kurdistan and say that he/she is not from our party but he/she is very qualified doctor and we need such people. What I am saying is that the skill and professional side is important for us (Roni, male, Representative of a Kurdish party to the UK).

Section seven: Challenges
Expectation and expectation

Return migration may not always end up with peace, joy and happiness as some research indicate that  returnees face many difficulties and problems in their idealized and imagined homeland, including exclusion, cultural conflict and lack of communication with local colleagues, xenophobic attitude of local people and competitions for limited available good jobs, suspicious about the returnees that they may have lack of commitment to the homeland (Kenney et al, 2013), being there for benefiting from the resources that they did not contribute at the beginning.   These prejudices prevent the returnees to use their full potential in their new homeland (Gaw, 2000).  Research have found that the construction of existing ethnic/national and cultural identifications and social structures and norms have exclusory characteristics against returnees (Oda 2010). Most often the ethnic identity of returnees and their loyalty, attachment to the country/homeland have been questioned and often they have been considered as not any more “native” or “from us” but “outsiders”.  The multilayer tensions are not only related to the relation between “locals” and returnees, but also the state discursive policies run through the institution in categorizing and excluding the returnees as case of the Japanese Brazilian return migration to Japan (Tsuda 2003; Oda 2010) make clear that although they have officially been accepted Japanese but in reality they are seen as Brazilian in Japan.

Living in diaspora and growing up with the narratives of homeland, the young people I interviewed expected that they will be better off in Kurdistan and will be welcomed by the authorities and local people.  In comparison with Iraq and with other regional countries, young people state that they are surprised with the huge progress that the KRG has done, in particular those young people who visit Kurdistan regularly. Most of the interviewed young people state that they have “confidence in the security arrangements of the KRG”.  “The flourishing of civil society”, “multi -party system”, “media”, “rights for minorities”, “fights against ISIS”, “opening the doors for refugees in Kurdistan”, “the successful foreign policy”, “the work of women organisations has done for equality between men and women in Kurdistan” are mentioned very positively. Some of young people state that they did not expect a red carpet moving for them upon arrived and do not expect anything from Kurdish authorities or their expectations were met. There is a broader understanding of the “political and economic crisis” that “Kurdistan is still going through a difficult time”. Therefore, they do not have a high expectation from KRG. And they criticize those young people who are not happy about the process of Kurdistan as “being out of touch from the reality of Kurdistan” and “expecting the comfort which they have in the UK”.   However, every migration contains a certain degree of conflict with exclusive socio-cultural structures, political and legal system. The socio-political and economic structures, cities and people have changed also over time. When diasporas return to their idealized homeland, many of them confront with the realities that they have not counted in their narratives, dreams and expectations. The “returnees” may play a crucial role in post-conflict reconstruction, however as we know from the literature every return migration entails cultural, political and economic disappointments and conflict in the imagined homeland.   In the case of the return of the geographically displaced people, many of them look for the images that they had in their memories and a country that they have glorified, idealized and imagined in the diaspora. Moreover, many young people who were born away from the homeland but grown up with the stories of the previous generation   about Kurdish struggle in the Middle East, they struggle to be part of the real Kurdistan which is different from the homeland that was described and imagined in diaspora.

Unfilled expectations

There is a significant number of young people who returned to Kurdistan with high expectations such as occupational and personal recognition by the Kurdish authorities in her/his imagined, glorified homeland. However, they complaint about “corruption”, “nepotism”, “bribery” as well as “mismanagement of the institutions”.  Alan goes further and highlights the growing gap between rich and poor as well as lack of social justice in Kurdistan.

“there are some people who have no any qualification but member of a party or a family, they have access to all the resources. While people suffering under poverty in particular Halabja region, a small minority group has unimagined wealth and high life standard. The gap between rich and poor become so visible that leads to demonstrations here” (Alan, male, works of a media company in Kurdistan).

Others have a strong feeling of “disappointment, disenchantment and disillusionment” due to corruption and the barriers that prevented them from contributing to higher education in Kurdistan.

After I gained my master degree from X University. I went back Kurdistan and got job in X University. I was very enthusiastic and patriotic, very ambitious to do something for my country- Kurdistan. As soon as I was hit with the great level of corruption. I was greatly disappointed and I came back to England. So this time I did my PhD at X University and tried to convince me that Kurdistan needs me and I have to back I have to do something. So I went back again to X University and started teaching…but unfortunately due the corruption again, the core academic intellect of my students, the unprofessional of my colleagues, university lectures and professors, again led to a great sense of disappointment, disenchantment and disillusionment. I came back to the UK. Many academics, professionals returned from the United States, Europe went back Kurdistan with a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of patriotism, just hit a brick wall got very disappointed and returned back to Europe and America. This is something you should focus on in your research. It should be highlighted (Dara, male, 33, works for a university in the UK)

Invisible conflict?

The competition for the available jobs between the local people creates a feeling that European Kurds are not welcome. Because many local workers may feel “frightened to lose their jobs” and replaced by those who have been educated in Europe and may be more knowledgeable than the local workers. There is an understanding among returnees for the convers of locally educated people, but they also mention that they should not be “discriminated” in the job market in Kurdistan and jobs should be given those who have ability, knowledge and required skills.

“I do truly believe that if there is a local talent here someone can occupy a job they should have that job. Just because someone is coming back from Europe they should not be given priority but then again it should not be discriminated against. It has to be taken into consideration that this person has left everything over there to come back and work and live in Kurdistan so it depends on how that person what jobs they will take” (Aras, male, scientist, works for a foreign oil company)

 It is not an easy task for the authorities from post-conflict regions where, on one hand, the government needs highly skilled workers to deal with post-construction process. On the other hand, governments from the post-conflict countries need to fulfil the expectation of the local people. However, it should be noted that as Dara states that the feeling of “disappointment, disenchantment and disillusionment” among returnees will lead to re-emigration and a “brain drain” from Kurdistan to other countries.

Everyone who returns from Europe and America especially qualified people like myself with degrees and skills and competence, they are immediately seen as a threat, not by the political parties, not by the leadership but by the ordinary people of offices and departments, in companies, at universities. So basically they do everything in their power to make life hell for the returnees. There is no encouragement. There is no support rather the opposite they do everything to make life difficult and eventually leads for these people to move back to Europe and America and obviously that impacts Kurdistan. Because these people aren’t able to contribute. I know many people academics, very qualified people who went back to Kurdistan who eventually got disappointed and returned back to Europe and America. (Dara, male, 33, works for a university in the UK)

However other returnees and Kurdish policy makers at the workshop in Erbil stated that European Kurds are sometimes “arrogant” and some of them may think that they are “the be -all and end-all”. Indeed, the local people are also qualified for any job like them and added that European Kurdish should not think that they are better than the local people.


The political establishment and local people may not welcome the diasporas (Shuval 2007) for political and economic reasons those who left the homeland during difficult time and come back to enjoy the political and economic advances. The returnees may be perceived as a personal threat to the local political and economic actors over the political interests, statues, competition for existing job in the labour market and cultural conflict. In such cases the returnees are seen as outsider (Munz and Ohliger 1998).  Some of Kurdish returnees stated that they felt that they are not accepted as “native” or “pure” Kurds but an “impure” Kurds”. A number of them state that they have been considered as Xarici’ or Europi (an outsider or foreigner) in Kurdistan:

I feel like I have an identity crisis in the sense that I am Kurdish here but I am British there [in the UK].  It is an ambivalent experience. The irony is that in the UK, we have been seen as             migrants, Middle Eastern or foreigners, here we are perceived as Xarici or not real or             pure Kurds —“us” and “other”, simultaneously British but also not real British (Rojda, female, 27, works in education sector in Kurdistan).

They see us as a threat- I think that has also impacted the way we are perceived and we are sort of seen as people who are not sincere about living in Kurdistan, because we have a foreign passport. They consider us as non-proper citizens. So apart from the threat factor there is a perception as well. They are very jealous of the Xarici people because we have that freedom to travel (Gona, female, 35, works for a local council in the UK).

Language plays a crucial role in adaptation, integration and settlement and working lives. While young people who spent their childhood and half of their teenage life in Kurdistan, they seem to be more integrated and will stay in Kurdistan permanently. However young people who grow up or are born in diaspora, they struggle with the language barrier in Kurdistan. They state that they experience a huge isolation in Kurdistan. Azad, who was born in London, states that he went to Kurdistan because of his family wish, but he could not able to interact with his people and adds that:

I was totally isolated in my room, chatting with my friends in London on Facebook. I have learnt some Kurdish but I’ve noticed that I missed my friends in London. So I decided to come back (Azad, male, student, 20, London).

There are other issues such as electricity cuts, slow internet and lack of entertainment, cultural activities as well as strong religious conservativism, in particular in Erbil and Germiyan region. As Giran states:

In every corner of Kurdish cities, you will see a mosque. There are more mosques than schools in Kurdistan but the cultural centers, cinemas, concert hall, libraries are almost absent from the life of people in Kurdistan (Giran, 25, male, works in the hospitality sector).


Key implications and policy recommendations

International approaches to Diasporas and Returnees:

  • Many countries including Australia, Chile, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Lithuania, New Zealand, Scotland and Turkey have developed different approaches such as overseas support, philanthropy, returnee policy and business networks vis-à-vis their diaspora populations.
  • Lithuania and Jamaica have developed programmes to encourage their diaspora to return to homeland
  • Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Greece and Armenia have worked more specifically to create a diaspora business networks that can contribute to economic grow of their country.
  • Some other countries have chosen multiple policies, encompassing overseas political and economic support, philanthropy, remittances and business links e.g. India, Scotland, Turkey, Ireland etc.
  • The policies and programmes of these countries run through institutions. Different countries have established specific ministries or departments to deal with their diasporas and develop policies and programmes for them; India: Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs; Armenia: Ministry of Diaspora; Jamaica: Diaspora and Consular Affairs Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade; or multiple agencies encompassing a specific ministry or department e.g. Chile (the Direction of Chilean Communities Abroad or DICOEX, which is strongly supported by export oriented governmental department called ProChile), Lithuania (Department of National Minorities and Lithuanians Living Abroad).  Business oriented countries have chosen different paths. For example Australian “Advance” and New Zealand’s “KEA”, an independent NGO working closely with their diaspora to expend the business opportunities of their countries through their highly skilled and connected diasporas; Scottish and Irish authorities have worked hard to attract their diasporic business network to invest in Ireland and Scotland. Simultaneously, Irish government has provided basic funding to re-energise its diaspora.

The KRG needs to

  • develop a good governance to develop transparent, accountable and competent institutions of government oriented to its diaspora and returnee population.
  • establish a specific ministry or department to engage with its huge diasporas living in Europe, America and the Middle East and develop policies and programmes for them to benefit from their skills, economic and political opportunities and connections.
  • develop a holistic policy to engage with, and support highly skilled returnees. British-Kurdish highly skilled young people in Europe link their development aspirations to their return plans and believe that Kurdish society can benefit from their expertise. However, the results of this study show that returnees face a number of obstacles within the local system once they are back in Kurdistan.
  • improve its communication about its policies for the highly skilled people who would like to return to Kurdistan. A majority of highly skilled young people have little knowledge of existing initiatives by the Kurdish Government to encourage the return migration.
  • The return of skilled Kurds may increase if there is a belief that the KRG can provide an enabling economic environment with adequate career and settlement prospects.
  • widen participation in shaping the institutions and encourage highly skilled professionals to participate in re-structuring and reforming the institutions in Kurdistan. Highly skilled Kurds find it difficult to involve themselves in institutional mechanisms and management because the management of the KRG institutions are often limited to selected groups and there is a dearth of participatory and inclusive approaches.
  • develop policies to attract the Kurdish diaspora to invest and transfer knowledge and expertise to Kurdistan
  • establish a jobcentre and a transparent job recruiting process
  • regulate the labour market and workers’ rights
  • develop positive action policies for women, religious and ethnic groups in the labour market by adopting equal opportunity policies / gender equality in the labour market.
  • encourage diaspora for entrepreneurial activities in Kurdistan and remove the barriers for entrepreneurs from diaspora.
  • improve the infrastructure including healthcare, schools (multi-lingual, updating the school curriculum), investing in communication and housing sectors.

Need for further Research

The analysis in the study is subject to certain limitations. Because this study is a pilot research and was carried out under a variety of methodological constraints such as limited duration, limited number of professions and a limited sample size from profession and location. Therefore, this study cannot claim that the sample is representative of the entire highly skilled returnees from the UK to Kurdistan. Longitudinal studies with large and diverse samples of skilled Kurdish returnees from the UK, Germany, Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark, France, Australia, the United States, and Canada need to be undertaken to examine the return motivations of highly skilled young people and the impact of the returnees on the existing structures and sectors in Kurdistan-Iraq.

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[1] In this report, the term “diasporas” is used to describe the political and social collectives of individuals/ social groups who have been dispersed forcibly from their original homeland to other countries where they have developed a diasporic consciousness and social and ethnic unity over time and space and maintain a strong links to their homeland for a possible return at some point

[2] Gibson and McKenzie (2011) claimed that in comparison with those who have not postgraduate degree, the majority of migrations from New Zeeland, Papua New Guinea and Tongo with PhD degree had remained in their destination countries.

[3] It should be noted that the return migration of Kurds from Kurdistan Regions in Turkey, Iran and Syria is too risky due to the policies of Turkey and Iran toward the Kurds and war in Syria.

[4] It should be noted that the return migration of Kurds from Kurdistan Regions in Turkey, Iran and Syria is too risky due to the policies of Turkey and Iran toward the Kurds and war in Syria.

[5] This research was undertaken by Dr Janroj Keles, Dr Eugenia Markova, Dr Rebwar Fattah, Shann Deen and Razaw Salihy for the IOM (2013). I would like to thank them for giving me permission to use the data in this report.

[6] http://kurdistancareers.com

Author’s details

Dr Janroj Yilmaz Keles received his Ph.D. in Sociology and Communications from Brunel University. Since 2013, he has been working as a Research Fellow at the Department of Leadership, Work and Organisations, Middlesex University, is a research fellow at Middlesex University, working on ethno-national conflicts, migration, media, representation identity and statelessness. Previously he worked as a Lecturer, teaching sociology and media studies at Faculty of Applied Social Sciences, London Metropolitan University and an Associate Lecturer at Department of Media and Cultural Studies at Birkbeck. He has widely published in peer reviewed journals. He is also the author of the book titled Media, Diaspora and Conflict: Nationalism and Identity amongst Turkish and Kurdish Migrants in Europe.  Further information can be found at http://www.mdx.ac.uk/about-us/our-people/staff-directory/keles-janroj Contact: Email: J.Keles@mdx.ac.uk