On Tuesday, 17 November 2015, a high-level five-person Austrian parliamentary delegation visited Erbil to witness first-hand the challenges posed by the refugee crisis and the ongoing war with ISIS for the people of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq as well as to evaluate methods of increased Austrian support. The MPs were received by both the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Mr Nechirvan Barzani and Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani. The trip also included exchanges with various other high-ranking officials, members of the Kurdistan Parliament, Archbishop Bashar Warda, and a personal visit to the Christian IDP camp. Their tour was concluded with their assurance to advocate for more Austrian support for the Kurdistan Region.
The high-level delegation was made up of representatives from the four main political parties in Austria. Among them were Mr. Andreas Schieder, Chairman of the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) parliamentary group, Dr Reinhold Lopatka, Chairman of the Austrian Peoples Party (ÖVP) parliamentary group, Mr. Gernot Darmann, Deputy Chairman of the Freedom Party Austria (FPÖ), Ms Berivan Aslan, Green Party MP, Mr Lukas Mussi, Deputy Chief of Protocol for the International Relations Department of the Austrian Parliament. The KRG Representative to Austria, Dr Mustafa Ramazan, accompanied the delegates during their two-day visit.
Crises in Kurdistan
In their meetings, the delegates were briefed on the recent advances of the Peshmerga forces against ISIS in Sinjar and surrounding areas. Since the attacks by ISIS in June 2014, the number of refugees and IDPs to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has increased exponentially. Kurdistan now offers shelter and services to 1.8 million refugees and IDPS. Mr Schieder emphasized that international support for the refugees will have to be intensified to cope with the situation. Dr Lopatka noted that with a population of 5.1 million, the Kurdistan Region is one of the areas in the Middle East predominantly affected by the crisis. During their meeting with Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, Dr Lopatka further commended the Kurds in their handling of the situation, stating “The Kurds are fighting ISIS on behalf of the free world. They deserve our full and unyielding solidarity in this fight.”
During all meetings, Kurdish officials underscored the strains of the economic and humanitarian crisis on the local population and the KRG. The Deputy Prime Minister of the KRG, Mr. Qubad Talabani, emphasized that the resources of the KRG are extremely overstretched and stated that the KRG is fighting a battle on three-fronts: the war with ISIS, the humanitarian crisis, and the ensuing economic crisis which is aggravated by declining oil prices. Mr. Talabani further noted that the economic crisis exacerbates any possible resolution of the others, He stressed that without support from the international community, the Kurdistan Region, from its end, will not be able to contain the crises. Ms Aslan and Mr Darmann agreed, adding that the Kurds need more direct support to solve all problems at their root. Kurdish officials thanked the international community for their continued military support and Austria in particular for its humanitarian aid.
Despite the recent victories against ISIS in Sinjar, the battle is not over. Minister Falah Mustafa, Head of the Department of Foreign Relations (DFR) stressed that if ISIS is to be defeated, there needs to be genuine regional and international cooperation as well as increased commitment from the Counter-ISIS Coalition. He reiterated that the solution to this problem cannot be solved by militarily means alone; instead, the issue was multidimensional, requiring a thorough consideration of the political, economic, ideological, as well as educational elements.
Parliamentarian exchange & rebuilding Sinjar
During their stay, the Austrian delegation were also hosted by the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Dr Jaffar Eminki at the Kurdistan Parliament where they met with high-level representatives of the parliamentary factions and minority groups. In addition to discussing the humanitarian crisis, both sides exchanged views on ways to intensify relations between Austria and Kurdistan on all levels as well as promote increased bilateral parliamentary visits. On that note, Mr Schieder, on behalf of the delegation, thanked the Kurdistan Parliament for its hospitality and extended an invitation to the Kurdistan MPs to visit Austria.
In a meeting with the KRG Interior Minister Karim Sinjari, the urgent requirements of the Peshmerga forces and that of the liberated areas were discussed. The town of Sinjar has been completely destroyed as a result of the occupation by ISIS, and Peshmerga forces are currently working to clear the area from mines and IEDs. However, given the large scale of destruction and devastation, this will require an extensive amount of time. All Kurdish officials underscored the high cost to rebuild Sinjar and resettle the Yezidi community into their original homes. The interior minister urged the Austrian government to work for increased international support to rebuild Sinjar.
Visit of Christian IDP camp
Following an informative meeting with Archbishop Bashar Warda on the plight of the Christian community in Iraq, the Austrian delegates visited the “Ashti 2” IDP camp. The shelter is home to over 5000 Christian people who fled Mosul and surrounding areas for the safety of Erbil after ISIS indiscriminately attacked them last summer. The Austrian parliamentarians agreed that the refugee crisis is indeed a global crisis that requires a global response. In that regard, they assured Kurdish authorities that they will advocate increasing Austrian support directly to the Kurdistan Region.
Austrian media coverage of the delegation visit: