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José Miguel DIAS ROCHA

The Kurdish diaspora in Europe has been one of the main efficient helpers in drawing attention to the problems the Kurds have been facing in what they see as the “Kurdistan”, which is located inside the borders of four different countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. According to Martin van Bruinessen, a Dutch expert on Kurdish studies, “it was the exile that transformed Kurdistan from a vaguely defined geographical entity into a political idea”[1].

Acting transnationally across the continent, the Kurdish diaspora “has become the financial, intellectual, political, and social driving force of Kurdish nationalism”[2] too.

There are no reliable, recent statistics on the number of Kurdish people in Europe. The Kurdish Institute of Paris[3] notes that some estimates suggest that about 1.5 to 1.7 million Kurds live in the diaspora community in Europe. The most important host country is by far Germany, in which almost one million Kurds are living. France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, Sweden and the United Kingdom also have a significant Kurdish community. The same institute claims that 75% of the Kurds currently in Europe are Turks. Another estimate, made in 2007, found that among the European Kurdish community there are 250,000 from Iraq, 50,000 from Iran and 15,000 from Syria[4]. However, these estimations are considered neither totally reliable nor accurate (it is believed that the actual number of Kurds is fairly higher): there are no official statistics and many Kurds are undocumented immigrants.

Some authors divide Kurdish migration to Europe into three phases[5]. The first, from the 1950s, consisted essentially of students and intellectuals. During the 1960s and 1970s, it was a labor migration flow. After, during the 1980s and the 1990s, they were mainly asylum seekers, due to the Kurdish armed resistance in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.

A thing that one should have in mind is that the Kurdish diaspora in Europe is not a “monolithic body”. The truth is many “groups within the Kurdish Diaspora defend differing ideas, opt for divergent solutions to the Kurdish issue in Turkey, and advocate disparate strategies in Europe”[6]. Those (not only but also) ideological and religious differences are really important and shape the lens through which they see the problems their community face. Yet those disparate points of view are not enough to prevent those groups from voicing their opinion together when they believe that it is desirable/necessary.

Another common thing is the attention that is paid by the Kurdish diaspora to their culture, considered as the bedrock of their community[7]. In general, its members have maintained strong ties with their homeland by establishing economic, political and social connections and networks. There are regular gatherings to commemorate events like Newroz (the Kurdish New Year) or the “Halabja massacre” (a chemical attack in Iraq, in 1988, during the war Iraq-Iran). Besides, cultural, political and social events/festivals are continually taking place as ways to bring together the Kurdish diaspora. Simultaneously, the internet and social media have created a whole new world of opportunities for this process in which “the first generation (…) retain their attachment and feelings of solidarity to relatives” and, at the same time, “they also transfer cultural values and traditions to the next generation”.

A recent study says that a large portion of the Kurdish second generation living in Germany and Switzerland feel quite connected to their parents’ Kurdish origins, showing a weak sense of belonging to their host countries and/or Europe[8]. As a matter of fact, to some researchers the second generation Kurds (born and educated in Europe), along with the Kurdish political refugees and media, have developed a stronger “Kurdishness” sense of belonging compared to that of their parents (essentially coming from rural areas and with low level of education) – and they were mainly responsible for politicization of their parents[9]. Be that as it may, as told before, when referring to the Kurdish diaspora in Europe one can hardly generalize: for instance, in Sweden the percentage of Kurds (principally among those of the second generation) who can speak fluent Kurdish is much higher than in Germany[10].

Since the Kurdish diaspora is regarded as a highly politicized one, it is important to understand which political movements within the community are the most important. The dominant one, especially in Germany, is undoubtedly the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK, a terrorist group to the European Union, Turkey and the U.S.), which in the last decades has waged a war for self-rule in Turkey. The organization, founded in late 1978, “has the largest recruitment rate within the Kurdish diaspora and it (…) has significant mass support”[11]. The German intelligence services roughly calculate there are about 14,000 active supporters of the PKK in the country as the group is widely seen by Kurds as the best in terms of giving a voice to the Kurds[12], and German authorities have been increasing over the last years the number of investigations into people suspected of being supporters of the PKK[13]. In Kurdish demonstrations in Europe is common to hear slogans demanding the release of Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK leader, and have banners with his portrait, which are outlawed in Germany. The diaspora has also been an important source of revenue (via voluntary contributions, but also extortion and protection money) and recruits for PKK and its armed conflicts[14].

The message of PKK in Europe started being spread on a large scale after the 1980 Turkish coup d’état after which several young and highly politicized Kurds, some of them members of the PKK, escaped to European countries because of the military government’s actions toward Kurdish population. Some consider that “the very oppressive military regime provided the circumstances in which a frame of violent action against Kurdish suppression found its resonance among the population”[15]. But that is not the only reason. The PKK’s campaigns were able to give a sense of belonging and self-respect especially among the second generation Kurds (providing them a Kurdish nationalist feeling), who experienced a constant feeling of exclusion, discrimination and (consequently) lack of integration in their European host countries. The influence of the PKK in Germany is also felt when some developments in Turkish politics spark violence between Kurdish and Turkish people.

Yet the PKK is far from being unanimous amidst the Kurds in Europe. In truth, “the PKK used violence against other Kurdish movements” and threatened their members[16]. The leaders of some of those organizations accuse the PKK of criminalizing the whole Kurdish movement and believe that for the German authorities perceives the Kurdistan Workers’ Party is the only representative of the Kurds[17]. A famous Kurdish group in Europe that advocates non-violent methods to promote their causes is KOMKAR, the Federation of Kurdish Associations – the first federation being assembling several Kurdish worker’s associations created in the continent. Despite having an appreciable number of members/supporters and being portrayed as an organization of the “good”/moderate Kurds, it was dubbed by Bahar Başer, a leading researcher on Kurdish studies,  “the unheard voice in the Kurdish diaspora” for not being able of mobilizing (and therefore influencing) the Kurds: one of the reasons is that its activities are not rarely seen as élite-initiatives[18].

When it comes to the other highly politicized Kurdish diaspora community (Kurds from Iraq)[19] – many having to escape from the war Iraq-Iran –, they tend to focus on the state-building inside the Iraqi Kurdistan region, which enjoys a considerable regional autonomy. Kurds in Europe have been an extremely important help in order to develop the region, mainly after Saddam Hussein was ousted[20]. Not surprisingly, in the 2017 Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum more than 40,000 Kurds in Europe voted for independence, while only about 80 voted to remain as part of Irak[21].

The war in Syria must be referred too, of course, since the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – which is the American spearhead in the fight against Daesh in Syria, but at the same time, to Turkey is the same organization as PKK – is a major player in the Syrian conflict. There have been many members of Kurdish communities in Europe who joined the YPG forces and several fundraising campaigns to support the group’s operations (helped by the PKK) and the Syrian Kurdish population took place[22].

Last but not least, the Iranian PJAK – Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, which has fought for self-determination for Kurds, “waging an asymmetric campaign that combines guerrilla-style insurgency operations with terrorist attacks targeting Iranian security forces” – also strongly benefits from the Kurdish diaspora in Europe[23]. The latter provides financial, political and material help to the group together with an organized network of organizations that lobby on behalf of them.

A main concern of the Kurdish diaspora is to think about ways to influence decision-making authorities in their own countries and all over Europe. Those include organizing petitions and campaigns; organizing violent/nonviolent mass demonstrations, and sit-ins; and hunger strikes and self-immolation[24]. In addition, numerous Kurds have entered in local, regional, national and/or supranational political institutions; some Kurdish academicians have acquired visibility and reached important positions in European academia. There is a very diverse Kurdish diasporic media, which along with Kurdish music and cinema (and even social media) draws lots of attention inside the community and allows the preservation of its culture. In addition, there are a large number of seminars organized by the diaspora in order to discuss and find solutions for the problems faced by the Kurds – in this case, institutes like the Kurdish Institute of Paris play a major role.

Usually the most visible act is the annual demonstration in Strasbourg, France: this year, it happened in February and was the moment for thousands of Kurds to “call for the release of jailed PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan [sic] and protest against Turkey’s military offensive in Syria”[25]. In addition, in this march the Kurds demand the legalization of the PKK as a political party. Another evidence of the importance of the Kurdish issue in European politics and of its transnationality is that every year the European Parliament (EP) holds a conference, organized by the EU Turkey Civic Commission in cooperation with some left-wing political groups, called “The European Union, Turkey, the Middle East and the Kurds” in which some Kurdish leaders, coming from their homeland and the diaspora, exchange ideas with some members of the parliament (MEPs). In the EP there is also a group, constituted by 33 MEPs, whose name is “European Friends of Kurdistan in the EU Parliament”.

To conclude, one can say that the Kurdish diaspora has been extremely shrewd in raising awareness for the Kurdish issue and in transnationalizing it throughout Europe. At the same time, it has been a main supporter of the Kurds living in their homeland (the “Kurdistan”, as they call it) taking advantage of the thorough network of organizations and institutions it has created to provide them all kind of help, as we’ve seen in this article.


José Miguel DIAS ROCHA – Erasmus Volunteer of SASAM
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[1] Martin van Bruinessen, 2000 (as cited in Ann-Catrin Emanuelson, Bahar Başer and Mari Toivanen – “(In)visible spaces and tactics of transnational engagement: A multi-dimensional approach to the Kurdish diaspora”. Kurdish Studies. Vol. 3, Number 2, pp. 128-150. October 2015:130).

[2] Ercan-Argun 2003: 125 (as cited in Bahar Başer – “The Kurdish diaspora in Europe: identity formation and political activism”. Boğaziçi University-TÜSİAD Foreign Policy Forum Research Report, 2013:20).

[3] Institut Kurde de Paris – “Kurdish Diaspora”. 12/20/2016.

[4] Natali, 2007:198 (as cited in Ann-Catrin Emanuelson, Bahar Baser and Mari Toivanen – “(In)visible spaces and tactics of transnational engagement: A multi-dimensional approach to the Kurdish diaspora”. Kurdish Studies. Vol. 3, Number 2, pp. 128-150. October 2015:133).

[5] Jowan Mahmod – “Kurdish Diaspora Online: From Imagined Community to Managing Communities”. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016:80.

[6] Bahar Başer – “The Kurdish diaspora in Europe: identity formation and political activism”. Boğaziçi University-TÜSİAD Foreign Policy Forum Research Report, 2013:25.

[7] Ibid., 1:138.

[8] Jens Schneider, Tineke Fokkema, Raquel Matias, Snežana Stojčić, Dušan Ugrina and Constanza Vera-Larrucea – “Identities: Urban belonging and intercultural relations”. In Maurice Crul, Jens Schneider, Frans Lelie (eds.) – “The European Second Generation Compared: Does the Integration Context Matter?”. Amsterdam University Press, 2012:307.

[9] Janroj Yilmaz Keles – “Media, Diaspora and Conflict: Nationalism and Identity Amongst Turkish and Kurdish Migrants in Europe”. I.B.Tauris, 2015.

[10] Ibid., 6:15.

[11] Bahar Başer – Diaspora politics and Germany’s Kurdish question. University of Kent Diasporas and Security CARC Working Papers, 2014:2.

[12] Reuters – “Germany fears return of Turkish-Kurdish violence on its soil”. 04/13/2016.

[13] A News – “Germany intensifies investigations into PKK supporters”. 01/17/2018.

[14] Fiona B. Adamson – “Mechanism of diaspora mobilization and the transnationalization of civil war”. In Jeffrey T. Checkel (ed.) – “Transnational Dynamics of Civil War”. Cambridge University Press, 2013: 81-84.

[15] Laura Meijer – “The turn to violence in the Kurdish-Turkish conflict”. The Maastricht Journal of Liberal Arts. Vol. 6, pp. 37-47. 2015:45.

[16] Bahar Başer – “Diasporas and Homeland Conflicts: A Comparative Perspective”. Routledge, 2016:72.

[17] Ibid. 16, 245.

[18] Bahar Başer – “KOMKAR: The Unheard Voice in the Kurdish Diaspora”. In Anastasia Christou and Elizabeth Mavroudi – “Dismantling Diasporas. Rethinking the Geographies of Diasporic Identity, Connection and Development”. Ashgate, 2015:113-125.

[19] According to Natali, 2007:201 (as cited in Ann-Catrin Emanuelson, Bahar Başer and Mari Toivanen – “(In)visible spaces and tactics of transnational engagement: A multi-dimensional approach to the Kurdish diaspora”. Kurdish Studies. Vol. 3, Number 2, pp. 128-150. October 2015:133).

[20] Bahar Başer – “Homeland Calling: Kurdish Diaspora and State-building in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in the Post-Saddam Era”. Middle East Critique. Vol. 27, pp. 77-94. December 2017.

[21] The Atlantic – “An Ominous Future for Kurdistan’s Minorities”. 09/25/2017.

[22] Harriet Allsop and Robert Lowe – “The Curious Question of the PYD-PKK Relationship”. In Gareth Stansfield and Mohammed Shareef – “The Kurdish Question Revisited”. Oxford University Press, 2017.

[23] Chris Zambelis – “The Factors Behind Rebellion in Iranian Kurdistan”. CTC Sentinel. Vol. 4, Issue 3, pp. 18-21. 2011.

[24] Ibid. 6, 41-53.

[25] The – “Thousands of Kurds stage protest march in France”. 02/18/2018.

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