DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Migrants seeking a better life in Iraq? It sounds bizarre but thousands of Turkish Kurds are finding jobs and trade opportunities across the border that are largely absent at home.
While Turkish warplanes bomb Kurdish PKK rebel targets in northern Iraq, Turkish businessmen and workers are busy making money in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Iraqi Kurds are coming to Turkey both for business and relaxation.
Firms based in Turkey’s impoverished, mainly Kurdish southeast region also work as intermediaries between Western companies and the Iraqi Kurds.
“Iraq contributes seriously to employment in Diyarbakir. Our youths get the chance to find jobs there, in construction, in restaurants and the clothing industry,” said Seyhmus Akbas, chairman of southeast Turkish business forum DOGUNSIFED.
Diyarbakir, with about 1 million inhabitants, is the largest city of southeast Turkey but its economy has long been hostage to separatist violence as security forces battle militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
The conflict, which dates back to 1984 and has killed nearly 40,000 people, scares off investors and helps keep unemployment at a staggering 60 percent of the local population against 9 percent nationwide, officials say.
Six people, mostly students, were killed in a bomb blast in the centre of Diyarbakir last week. Authorities have blamed the separatist PKK for the explosion and the group has signaled PKK members acting independently may have been to blame.
Per capita income in southeast Turkey is just one third of the national average. Half its residents hold a state “green card” which entitles the very poor to free health care and help in buying food and fuel oil.
Little wonder, then, that Turkish Kurds have been keen to share in the economic boom in energy-rich Iraqi Kurdistan.
Construction sites in northern Iraq pay workers as much as $2,000 a month. Similar work in southeast Turkey pays just 400 lira ($345).
Turkish construction firms, active across the Middle East, Russia and central Asia, are eager to share in northern Iraq’s infrastructure projects, estimated to be worth $20 billion over the next 20 years.
Contracts won by Turkish construction firms in Iraq in 2007 topped $4 billion. Turkey’s total exports to Iraq neared $3 billion and included capital goods such as electronics as well as consumer goods and food.
Turkish truck-drivers, many from southeastern Turkey, bring back crude oil, far cheaper in northern Iraq, to sell inside Turkey. Iraq also pumps crude oil to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast via the Kirkuk-Yumurtalik pipeline.
Close cultural links and a common language help Turkey’s Kurds find jobs in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Western companies look for partners in Turkey’s southeast to do business in northern Iraq because of the common language and culture. There are at least 20 such intermediary companies in Diyarbakir alone,” said Mursel Tuncay, chairman of the Diyarbakir-based Murkan Group of Companies.
Tuncay said Iraqi Kurdish businessmen also prefer doing business with Turkey because of its open economy.
“They come here to work, strike deals and have fun in Istanbul. They cannot do this in Iran or Syria. They see Turkey as their gateway to the world,” Tuncay said.
Some local businessmen fear the Turkish army’s bombing campaign against PKK targets over the past month could hurt business. “You watch northern Iraq bombed live on TV. This breaks our hearts as human beings,” Akbas said, who described Iraqi Kurds as cousins of the Turkish Kurds.
Businessmen in the southeast have urged the Turkish government to develop closer political ties with Iraqi Kurds, but Ankara prefers to deal directly with Baghdad.
Turkey is anxious to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, fearing this could fan separatism among its own large Kurdish population and also destabilize the broader region.
“Turkey should assume the role of a father (to Iraqi Kurds). They are not a threat. We are the biggest country in the Middle East and their population is small compared to us,” said the head of Diyarbakir’s commodities exchange, Fahrettin Akyil.
“It is a very rich region. Its possibilities should be utilized effectively. Terrorism and northern Iraq should be kept quite separate. If we do not go there, businessmen of other nations will go and fill the vacuum,” said Akbas.
But trade with northern Iraq can be risky. Several Turkish truck drivers have been killed in the past few years. Turkish businessmen face other risks too.
“Northern Iraq does not have an established authority. Many of our friends incurred losses there because they were not paid for the goods they delivered,” Akyil said.
(Editing by Gareth Jones and Robert Woodward)
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