Washington Post Facebook is the new travel guide for Iraqis headed to Europe 9/17
Washington Post Facebook is the new travel guide for Iraqis headed to Europe
9/17/2015 0 Comments
Facebook posts appeared in his feed. There were photos, maps and then entire groups devoted to Iraqis escaping for safer shores. Aljanabi, nearly 30 and unhappy with life in Baghdad, used the new networks to meet others eager to leave. Now he is in Serbia, waiting with fellow travelers to continue their journey to Western Europe. Facing a grinding war with the Islamic State and a stagnant economy at home, tens of thousands of Iraqis have joined the tide of mostly Syrian refugees now spilling across Europe’s borders. And many, like Aljanabi, have turned to Facebook to do it. “Staying in Iraq would have been like a slow death,” Aljanabi said. “But when I went online, I found all the information and prepared to leave.” Inspired by the flood of images of Syrians arriving to Germany’s cheering crowds, Iraqis have used the social network to crowdsource their own voyages to the continent — sharing tips, maps and contacts in public and private groups now established across the site. They have recruited travel companions, connected with smugglers, documented their travel and urged others to flee.
Iraqi officials and analysts say the online connections have encouraged more people to make what is a treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. According to the United Nations mission in Iraq, more than 50,000 Iraqis have fled the country for Europe in the past three months.
“Thank God, I have reached Germany. Do not forget to pray for me,” Anwar al-Sary, an Iraqi from the city of Basra, posted underneath a video he uploaded to Facebook this month. The Web site, Sary said, enabled his escape from a life of hardship, connecting him with “beautiful people along the way.”
“Thank you to the man who invented Facebook,” he wrote, adding a hashtag to the name #Mark for Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Iraqis have been fleeing their country in large numbers for years, after the U.S. invasion in 2003 kicked off more than a decade of violence. When U.S. troops withdrew in 2011, more than a million Iraqis had already left.
Then, when Islamic State militants seized wide swaths of the country in 2014, the country suffered another wave of chaos and displacement. More than 17,000 civilians have been killed in the violence since January 2014, according to U.N. figures. Another 3 million people are currently displaced inside the country.
The crisis has put a severe strain on Iraqi infrastructure and resources, and Iraq’s labor minister said in March that the country’s unemployment rate is more than 25 percent.
“They are leaving because of the war with the Islamic State, because they are desperate for work, because of the hardship of being displaced,” said Asghar al-Mussawi, spokesman for Iraq’s Ministry of Migration and Displacement.
In Iraq, a country of 34 million people, just 9 percent of the population uses the Internet on a daily basis — one of the lowest user rates in the region. But more than 2 million of those users have Facebook accounts, and at least 27 million Iraqis use mobile phones, according to investment consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Even with poor access to Internet, Iraqis are finding a way to get online and plot their escape.
“Right now, most of the [internally displaced] are spending their time on computers to find the best way to leave,” said Saa’ib Khidr, an activist from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority in northern Iraq. The Islamic State specifically targeted Iraqi Yazidis for persecution and ran many of them off their ancestral land in the north.
“They are gathering all the money they have to find another homeland,” Khidr said of displaced Yazidis, many of whom still live in makeshift camps. “They don’t feel welcome in Iraq.”
But while some are fleeing persecution, others, like Musab al-Sheikh seem to be searching for better economic opportunities.
“I am a civil engineer and about to graduate,” Sheikh posted on a Facebook group for aspiring Iraqi migrants on Sep. 17. The group has more than 195,000 members.
“Can someone tell me how much it would cost to get to Germany?” he said. “And if anyone has the number of an experienced smuggler, I would be very grateful. Please leave it in the comments below.”
Within minutes, group members posted dozens of comments, including advice on the German job market and a batch of phone numbers for human traffickers. Ali will take you to Hungary from Serbia, one list of numbers said. But Abdul Rahman, the list said, he smuggles from Budapest to Berlin.
Pack light, the users urged. And bring between $3,000 and $4,500.
Abu Zahra is an Iraqi smuggler in Turkey and says all of his clients come to him through Facebook. Each person pays about $1,000 for the trip.
“My number is posted on the Facebook groups, and more and more people come to me,” he said.
“I have the numbers of so many smugglers — too many,” said Ali al-Bahadily, a Baghdad resident who is preparing to leave the country with his wife and kids. Bahadily and his wife say they spend almost every day scouring Facebook groups for information and tips.
“Because there is so much information online, many people are leaving — they are like ants,” said Bahadily, who was threatened by an armed gang in his Baghdad neighborhood. “But we don’t know who to believe. Will this smuggler put us in a bad boat? Or will this one just take our money? We are worried about the route, about what will happen.”
Bahadily and his wife have cause for concern. Nearly 3,000 people have lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe this year, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Um Fatima hasn’t heard from her husband since he left Greece for Serbia earlier this month. While he made the trip to Europe, she stayed behind in Baghdad.
“I am worried,” she posted to “The Group Helping Iraqis Travel to Europe,” asking if anyone had any information. The group has more than 3,000 members.
“If he made it to Greece, he will be fine,” one group member assured her. “The sea is the most dangerous part.”
Haider al-Farouq says his family doesn’t want him to travel to Europe, but he has already used Facebook to recruit six Iraqi men to accompany him on the trip.
“I’m 25 and I have no job, no hope, future,” he said, adding that they plan to leave before the end of the month. But because his family is so worried, Farouq says he will post social media updates along the way.
“Of course I will document it [the journey],” Farouq said. “On Instagram and Facebook.”
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report from Baghdad