Riders On The Storm

The 33-year-old doctor took off his blue overcoat to answer a visitor's question. Why had he fled northern Iraq, paying smugglers $2,000 to take him through Turkey to "somewhere in Europe"? He rolled up the sleeve of his plaid shirt. Why had he and about 900 other Kurds squeezed into the hold of a derelict freighter called the East Sea, only to be abandoned off the southern coast of France when it ran aground? Dr. Ihsan Ibrahim held out his withered arm. A ragged scar wound its way over the shrunken biceps and under his shoulder. In Iraq, he said, he was attacked one night and stabbed several times because he'd been agitating against Saddam Hussein. "If I hadn't made this trip," said Ibrahim, "I would be dead now."

In the gravel parking lot of a holding center at Frejus, not far from the fashionable resorts of the Cote d'Azur, many of the refugees from the East Sea seemed lost last week. The French government finally gave them permission to apply for political asylum. But many were unsure where they would go--or even where they were. Experts on immigration see the castaways of the East Sea as a sign of crises to come. They may well foreshadow a flood of Kurdish refugees from Iraq (more than 3.5 million live in northern Iraq) if sanctions are lifted and the protection of U.S. and British warplanes is taken away. Last year Iraqi Kurds were the largest group of refugees petitioning for asylum in Germany. Last month the Italian government inaugurated a center to handle Iraqi Kurdish refugees, who have been pouring into southern Italy since 1996. "The Kurdish 'problem' is a European problem," says Kendall Nezan, head of the Kurdish Institute in Paris.

These independent-minded people, with their long history of rebellions and suffering, are no longer contained by martial law in Turkey, the assassination of their leaders in Iran or nearly genocidal repression in Iraq. Of the world's 20 million to 25 million Kurds, in fact, an estimated 1 million already live in the European Union. In Germany there are about 500,000, descended from the guest workers who came on Turkish passports in the 1960s. But the number from Iraq is growing quickly, with large concentrations in Sweden, the Netherlands and Britain, as well as Germany. About 150,000 have come to Europe in the last decade, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees--more than 30,000 a year since 1996. Most have been granted asylum.

Kurds have begun to integrate into the social and economic fabric of several European cities. By one estimate, there are 3,000 Kurdish sandwich shops in the Paris area alone. The Kurdish-born singer Dilba is a pop star in Sweden, while the actress Amira Casa is featured in several French comedies. Kurds have also shown increasing political clout. Falaknas Uca, a 24-year-old Kurdish German, was elected to the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 1999. Yet Kurdish nationalism is growing among the second generation in Europe, not subsiding. Uca sits on the committee that oversees Europe's relations with Turkey. "If Turkey wants to be part of Europe, it can't deny Kurds their basic human rights," she says. When Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured by the Turks in 1998, it was European cities that erupted in violence. Mass protests filled the streets; buildings were occupied; some young Kurds even burned themselves alive.

For the moment, European leaders have found it impossible to agree on general immigration guidelines, much less the particular problems of the Kurds. "Each country thinks that its neighbor is the one that will be affected," says Nezan of the Kurdish Institute. A senior European Commission official reluctantly agrees. "There's lots of talking, but not many decisions." Yet events looming in Iraq could force the Europeans to formulate new policies frantically, much the way Bosnian and Kosovar immigration inspired European calls for intervention in the Balkans. The confusion that marks policy now, in fact, is not unlike the con-fusion surrounding the breakup of Yugoslavia. Every move is fraught with the risk of deepening an unwanted involvement, yet current European efforts to scale back the confrontation with Saddam may intensify the exodus.

The mountainous "safe haven" in northern Iraq was cobbled together in the first place to avert a refugee crisis after the gulf war, when 1 million Kurds fled toward the Turkish border. They were afraid Saddam would use chemical weapons against them, as he had many times in the late 1980s. The only way to keep the Kurds in Iraq was to guarantee their protection. Since a U.N.-administered "oil for food" program was put in place in 1996 as part of the sanctions regime, the Kurds of northern Iraq have come to depend on it for survival, even prosperity. They receive billions of dollars out of Saddam's reach.

But international support for the sanctions regime is all but gone. The Bush administration is reconsidering it. And Paris is leading European efforts to end it. Two weeks ago, after U.S. and British planes bombed antiaircraft installations near Baghdad, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said the strikes were "illegal" because the U.N. had not signed off. He studiously avoided reference to the refugees of the East Sea who were, even then, huddling in the receiving center at Frejus. But if the no-fly zone and the sanctions were to be lifted, warns Erhard Franz of the German Orient Institute in Hamburg, "there'd be a tremendous wave of refugees into neighboring countries and into Europe. Without the allies in northern Iraq, Europe would have a huge problem."

Facing a future that promises destitution at best, annihilation at worst, many of Iraq's Kurds already feel they have no choice but to leave. As a result, the underground railroad to the West is flourishing. In the northern Iraq city of Arbil passports with European visas are openly sold in the bazaar. One vendor, who calls himself Adnan, says he used to be a painter. Now he peddles travel documents--and one-way package trips to Europe. The most expensive costs more than $7,000 per person, including a plane ticket from Jordan. The cheapest, at about $2,000, has refugees traveling hidden in trucks and the holds of ships. For the poor, conditions are grim. Last October six young Iraqi Kurds smothered to death in the back of a truck in southern Italy. The driver dumped their corpses by the side of the road and drove away. "As far as I'm concerned," says Adnan, "I wouldn't send my little brother to Europe like that. It's too risky."

But many of the 910 people crammed into the hold of the East Sea said that no risk was greater than the one they ran in Iraq. They came from the edges of the "safe haven," near the Saddam-controlled city of Mosul. Ahmed Khalo, 45, says his brother was killed by Saddam's agents: "They wanted us to collaborate with them." Ali Hassan, 46, knew he would have to leave after his house was searched by Saddam's security men. His neighbor was arrested by the same agents and was never seen again.

Ibrahim's friends, one 25-year-old "just disappeared," he said. Another was called away, supposedly to do his "military service." Ibrahim thinks he was assassinated, but he dared not investigate. "As soon as you ask about someone who disappeared, you disappear too," he says. After Ibrahim was stabbed and left for dead, he believed the only way to survive was to leave.

"Somewhere in Europe" he'll be safe. But sometime soon Europe itself will have to find effective ways to help the Kurds in their homelands. If not, many more East Seas will be coming to the West.