Visas and self-determination for the Kurds raised in the Commons

Kurdistan figured prominently in this month’s oral questions in the Commons to the Foreign Secretary and his ministerial team. The salience of any one issue is largely a matter of luck given that the questions are chosen by lottery – picked out the hat.

But it was good to see a significant exchange on some key issues all prompted by a question from the Conservative MP and APPG vice- chairman Robert Halfon.

Halfon joined the recent delegation to Kurdistan, his sixth visit with me, and whilst the rest of us travelled to Baghdad for the day he stayed to meet academics and students at the University of Slemani and then at the University of Kurdistan-Hewler.

He was keen to do this because he was an Education minister and is now the Chairman of the powerful scrutiny committee on education.

In his diary of the delegation he recorded that the best part of his visit to the university in Slemani was sitting in a lecture hall with students but added that it was both profoundly uplifting and thoroughly depressing.

He found it depressing because students “are upset about our Prime Minster, recently using the expression ‘Kurdish Terrorists’. Theresa May was talking about the proscribed terrorist group the PKK, but that does not cut the mustard with the students. They complain that we call ISIS ‘ISIS’ – not ‘Arab Terrorists’.”

Furthermore, he heard that “the students love Britain, learn about Britain, but question after question is: why is the visa system so complicated, and why can they not travel to Britain to study? I promise to raise this with the Home Office and Foreign Office, but I can’t help thinking just how damaging it is having students as part of the migration target. Here is a pro-western, pro-British nation, tolerant of all religions and backgrounds, whose view of our country is being negatively coloured by the behaviour of the visa bureaucracy, alongside a perception of a hostile environment from GB to foreign students. Very sad indeed.”

He found much the same at UKH and asked himself : “What is wrong with Britain? Why are we not doing more to support the Kurds? Why is it so hard to study at British Universities? I do my best to bat for Britain, but I feel I am on a sticky wicket.”

True to his promise, he used the first opportunity to raise the visa issue in the Commons where he asked the Middle East minister, Alistair Burt the following: “With the all-party group on Kurdistan, I recently visited Sulaimani University and Kurdistan University. Their students love Britain and want to study in Britain, yet are being held back by visa bureaucracy. Given that Kurdistan is in the frontline against ISIL and is a beacon of stability, can my right hon. Friend do more to unwind the bureaucracy so that more Kurdistan students can study in our country?

Alistair Burt replied that “The Government’s position is to say repeatedly that we want the brightest and best students to be able to come to the United Kingdom. Our policy in Irbil is to encourage exactly the same. I will look at the question my right hon. Friend raises, because we want to ensure that students in the Kurdish region, who I have also met, are able to come to the UK.”

The APPG, which will shortly publish a report on its delegation, will pursue the visa issue which it discussed with the Consulate-General in Erbil and the British Embassy in Baghdad.

Other MPs then weighed in. Labour’s Bridget Phillipson asked about Iraq respecting international human rights standards, especially with regards to the rights of women in Iraq? Burt insisted that the UK stresses “that a country is not complete unless women are playing a foremost part both in ministerial and civic society life.”

Burt diplomatically batted away a probing question from Labour’s Seema Malhotra asking him to assess the influence of Russia in the negotiations between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi Government, given the significant investment by the Russian firm Rosneft in Kurdistan’s regional oil pipeline.

Burt opined that “It is true to say that, in the formation of the new Iraqi Government, there are many interests from countries in the region. What is essential is that the new Iraqi Government demonstrate their independence and determination to run Iraq without external interference, and stand up for the needs of all their communities to make sure that the disaster that befell Iraq in the past, when other communities were not properly represented, does not happen again.”

Sir Desmond Swayne, a veteran Conservative MP, who used to be an aide to Prime Minister David Cameron and a minister at the Department for International Development, then popped up with a pithy but profound question: “In what way is the demand for full freedom and self-determination among the Iraqi people, particularly the people of Kurdistan, illegitimate?”

Burt gave a quintessentially diplomatic reply that “Questions of the constitutional structure of Iraq are not for the United Kingdom. There is regular dialogue between different sections of the community in Iraq about the proper constitutional processes and structures that will help all parts of the community to develop effectively and strongly. It is essential that the new Government recognise the needs of all sections of Iraqi society.”

Nonetheless, the right question was posed and it is one that friends of Kurdistan should seek to provide answers for in future exchanges. My own first stab at it is that the Iraqi constitution should be respected, that it defines Iraq as a free union and that, combined with various international declarations on self-determination, make the quest for statehood legitimate.

Who knows, a variant on the Swayne question may arise in future Commons questions with any luck but are definitely on the agenda.

Gary Kent

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