Joshua Meservey writes: In 2012, Syrians fleeing their country’s brutal civil war began arriving in significant numbers in Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous enclave of ethnic Kurds in the north of the country. Two years later, ISIS vaulted out of northern Syria and swept across swathes of Iraq, scattering millions of Iraqis. Many of them, in addition to fleeing to Europe, made their way to the Kurdistan region and the protection of its military forces, the peshmerga, which have, for now at least, turned back ISIS’s attempts to overrun northern Iraq’s last sanctuary.
In contrast to many countries, the Kurdistan region has not hesitated to accept large flows of displaced people. Part of this is because nearly all of the Syrians who fled to Kurdistan are ethnic Kurds themselves. So too are members of several religious minorities sheltering in Kurdistan, such as the Kaka’i and the Yazidi, who faced annihilation last year at the hands of ISIS before escaping to Kurdistan.
However, the Kurds have also welcomed non-Kurds fleeing ISIS. Arab Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the latter considered heretics by ISIS, have found protection in the territory, as have the Turkmen, Shabaks, and Assyrian Christians, who have been virtually cleansed from their ancestral home in the Nineveh Plains region.
The cost of caring for so many dispossessed people is straining Kurdistan’s modest resources. Its estimated 2013 GDP was $25 billion, compared to Europe’s 2014 GDP that was more than $16 trillion. Its oil-dependent finances were already being squeezed due to plunging global oil prices, and there is the cost of fighting a war along a more than 600-mile front. The regional government also accuses the Iraqi government of withholding for more than a year its federal budget share, which Baghdad had already slashed in February 2014. The Kurdistan region, with a native population of only 5.4 million, now hosts more than a million refugees — many of whom require shelter, food, and medical care. [Continue reading…]