Impact of new US visa rules on the Kurdistan Region

Orthopaedic and trauma surgeon Professor Deiary Kader has recruited many scrubs, nurses, physiotherapists, and surgeons into the Newcastle-Gateshead Medical Volunteers.

They use a week of their own holidays to do back-to-back operations for Kurds who have often waited decades for new knees and hips. They have put scores of Kurds back on their own two feet.

Dozens of NHS professionals from Newcastle have visited the Kurdistan Region over many years to perform life-changing operations but that may be unintentionally jeopardised by new American visa rules.

The American authorities have this year introduced a new rule that foreign citizens who have visited Iraq since 2011 are no longer automatically eligible for visa free travel stateside. The rule also applies to Iran, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.

Those who have visited these countries can seek exemption if they show their visits were for governments, humanitarian bodies, the media, and legitimate business purposes. Some will probably buy a ten year visa but both require an interview. The cost of the visa and travelling to London and back counts for low paid workers.

The new rule was passed by Congress, although the measure troubles the US Administration, which seems to have decided not to veto it during election year.

Professor Kader said: “The problem is not only inconvenience but that it could also discourage people from going to Kurdistan. Let’s say you’re a nurse who wants to lend a hand but you don’t have to go to Kurdistan. You work out that going will make it harder to holiday or honeymoon in America and it could chill the desire to go to Kurdistan.”

But, he added, “Kurdistan is a solid ally of America and the West and doing us a massive service in fighting the so-called Islamic State – Daesh. The Kurds want Westerners to take holidays there (small numbers for now), and play many vital useful roles from boosting health care, teaching in one of their many universities, or winning business contracts.”

British parliamentarians from across the political spectrum have tabled a Commons motion pointing out these pitfalls and appealing to Washington to review and repeal the new rule.

The Kurdistan Region has, with Western airstrikes and military assistance, secured its borders against Daesh. It also seems to be turning the corner on the huge economic crisis caused by the Daesh assault and an influx of nearly two million refugees and displaced people. It is also seeking to live within its revenues, which have been reduced by plunging oil prices.

The Kurdistan Regional Government is increasing human capacity in its universities and governance as well as unlocking the potential in the private sector but this requires an influx of external expertise and investment.

Professor Kader comments: “Anything that blocks or complicates foreign involvement will make that Kurdish and Western goal harder. It seems as if the American left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”

Friends of the Kurdistan Region say that America scrapping the new visa rule would indicate a new understanding and urgency in helping the Kurds stand on their own two feet without one hand needlessly tied behind their backs.

Gary Kent

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