Demographic Status and its Impacts on Kurdish Nationalism

By Kajal Rahmani, PhD

Kurdish National Congress Annual Conference, Calgary, Canada, April 30, 2011

Thanks to KNC-NA especially its president and board of directors for this invitation. I am honored to be here today and happy to share my thoughts with my fellow Kurds and friends of   Kurds.

What is Demography?

Demography is the study of the characteristics of human populations, such as size, growth, density, distribution, and vital statistics. Why do we need demographic information? In the last century many countries in the world have adopted development strategies to use as the core guideline for their governmental program.  The developmental program fits their demographic, socio-economic, educational, health and cultural 

Why Population Matters?

Population as a main aspect of development must be considered to pursue the trends of transformation and modernization and design the development planning.  “The real wealth of a nation is its people; and the purpose of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative life” (Human Development report, 1990).  

This is an indication of how important it is for any nation especially for Kurdish Nation and its leaders to pay attention to population, socio–economic and educational development in their region and may understand the development paradigm that may reveal impacts of characteristics such as ethnicity, religion, and gender on quality of life and may lead to sources of discrimination against certain groups.

Unfortunately, in case of Kurds there is no reliable estimate available because population information is not to the interest of the governments occupying the area—Iran (Eastern Kurdistan) and Turkey (Southeast Anatolia).  Therefore, there might be discrepancies in the information gathered by different sources.  I relied partly on the UND report, and CIA Fact Book of the two countries for basic information and mainly on my research assistants in the area and other local sources on Kurds. Today, I will go briefly over demographic shifts in Kurdish populated areas with their vast implications. Then I will discuss the projection for future.  

Demographic Statistics and its Shift in Iran 

The strategy of the Iranian governments to shift the Kurdish population, from the era of Monarchy to the present time has been based on three tactics: 1) Forced migration or uprooting of Kurdish population, 2) Modification of population, 3) Divide and rule –instigation of hatred against Kurds


Based on CIA Fact Book Report the total population of Iran is 77,891,220 (July 2011 est.) but only 7% of the 77891220 of the total population of Iran are Kurds 5,452,385.  While in the same report the number of Kurdish speaking community is 9% of the total population or 7.01 millions. As we see there is no transparency of how 7% Kurds speak 9% Kurdish language?

Population Shift based on economic migration:

Based on report from KKT (Soran Kurdish Community of Tehran), there are about 2 million Kurds living in Tehran and vicinities—such as Karaj, Rudhen, Varamin, Hashtgerd and several other western part districts. Based on the same report, from the 12 million inhabitants of Tehran District one out of every 6 persons is Kurd.  So, I am not sure if these Kurds are included in the above overall UN estimate of the population. Also, I am certain that Kurds living in Mahabad,

Bukan and other town and cities with majority Kurdish speaking which are called Western

Azerbaijan were not included, as well as well as Kurds living in Khorasan Province and Northwestern Iran and the 2.5 million population of Kurds living in Kermanshah and its districts are not included in the study.

Mass -Migration and Displacement

Collective uprooting and displacement of Kurdish families by previous regimes of Iran is combined with mass economic migration at present time.  In general, the pattern of migration is from rural areas to Kurdish cities and from cities such as Senah, to Tehran’s suburbs. 

Rural migration to cities stems from destruction of farming and farmlands.  These migrant families end up living at the outskirts of Sanandaj as marginal groups living in shanty houses built with no permit and without any health and safety standard.

The first group of emigrants from Sanandaj and other major cities of Kurdistan Province to Tehran district are well to-do Kurdish families; they emigrate in search of better services that that are only available in Tehran. As it was in the past, this group is mainly among landowners and elite class, they sell their lands to developers and bring their wealth to Tehran.

The second groups of emigrants are university students; they are less than one percent who move to Tehran in search of opportunity for a better education. I must add that there are several universities including a private Islamic university in Kurdistan.  However, they are not affordable and the quality of education offered at Tehran universities is not available in Kurdistan.

These students are the cream of the crops –meaning they have been able to compete at the national level college entrance exams which are entirely in Persian language and not based on fairness to the Kurdish ethnic Culture and language.  The majority of these students do not return to their hometown after graduation.  They stay in Tehran where potential to find professional employment in private sectors is much higher.

The third group of Kurdish emigrants is the army of surplus laborers from Kurdistan province.  Lack of major industry, low and no investment from private sector, no support from government sector, and destruction of farm lands, have left Kurdistan province with unusual surplus of labor.  

Reports on Kurdish migrant workers indicate that these laborers go to Tehran in search of making a living.  Majority of them find work at construction sites.  More than ninety percents of construction workers in Tehran are Kurds. They are usually singles and are not raised to live in urban environment.  Often they return home with urban behavioral problems and diseases.

Other migrant workers move as families and stay close to their fellow Kurds in vicinity of Tehran. Based on the season, they work from spring to winter at different places such as produce and fruit markets, chicken farms, brick making factories and frozen food companies outside Tehran. Eighty percent of these workers are girls and women of ranging in age from ten to fifty years. School age children of these families cannot attend school because of the long hours of work during the day.  Some families leave their children behind with their relatives in Kurdistan.  Consequences of this economic migration are structural destruction of thousands of Kurdish families.


This policy has been in practice for many decades by denying the linguistic rights and destruction of Kurdish historical and cultural rights.

Modification of Kurdish population

The government of Iran uses deliberate methods to modify Kurdish populations-one such technique is to buy lands in Senah, and other Kurdish cities that are 90 % Kurds and settle Shia Persian Families there.  Based on local sources Iranian Revolutionary Guard has bought lands in Senah city and settled Persian Shia families from Tehran, Shiraz, and Esfahan to Sanandaj.  

Based on the same source, it is believed that this special plan has been put in place to change the demographic composition in Urmia City. In order to deepen the conflict between Shia

Azerbaijani and Sunni Kurds, families are brought from Tabriz to settle in Urmia (Firat Agency, May 22, 2010) 

Another form of modification is to reduce Kurdish population, by using different method of contraception for women in Kurdish rural communities.  They end up with sterilization of women at the very young age. **

Based on our research the Islamic Republic of Iran has applied double standards to the population planning. And it has two statistics one for International consumption/ UND department and one for their internal consumption. Based on UND report on Iran the basic demographic challenges for the country include reproductive health services and family planning–low fertility level has been met. Report to the UND indicates that the Family planning meaning 2 children per family has been successful in Iran. On the other hand the internal advisories from Qom order Mullahs to encourage their Persian Shia followers to increase their population through propaganda and preaching from the pulpit.

Sheikh Mehdi Daneshmand, an Iranian Shiite hardliner is warning his audience about the growing power and population of the Sunnis in two provinces of Baluchistan and Kurdistan.  He expresses his anxiety due to the decline of Shia Islam in Iran and the major problem the Shia community is facing.

He says, “The slogan of less children and better life, which is encouraging Shia women to bring less children is a ploy against the Shia population–Sunnis on the borders of Iran, are receiving funds from Saudi Arabia, to get married and bring twins to increase their populations, while stupid Shia women are encouraged to tight their tubes to stop pregnancy and decrease their population”. At the end of his preaching he suggests “That the government should discourage Sunnis from having children by denying the birth certificate to the third child of every Sunni family.”

Other form of population increase in Persian communities is forcing singles to enter marriage pool and encouraging Sigha (temporary marriage.) among young women. Today in Iran among office workers there is enormous pressure on unmarried women and men for marriage.  An internal memo from the Pars Special Economic Energy Zone in Iran dated May 19, 2008, ordered unmarried colleagues to fulfill their promises to marry and follow the Prophet

Mohammad’s order that, “man tazwaj faqat haras nesfe Dinah” …, “alnekahah sonati faman wah ghabah en sonnati laisah mani” meaning anyone who is married has safeguarded half of his faith…marriage is my tradition and anybody who does not follow my tradition is not with me.” Then the memo warned employees “to marry by August, 23, 2008 otherwise, they would be referred to their superiors for dismissal.

Impacts of the Demographic Shift Policy on Kurds


The UN Special report on the Right of Adequate Housing refers to “regions historically occupied by Kurds…, seem to suffer from disproportional inadequacy of services as water, electricity and unsatisfactory reconstruction efforts.” ISNA 3 September 2005. 

Combined with the above unfavorable situation, majority of population — over 63.1 percent who are under 25 years of age, are facing unusual surplus of labor and unemployment, highly inflated prices of housing and living expenses, unaffordable family life style, with lack of adequate places of recreation and entertainment. Overall rate of unemployment in Iran (based on CIA Fact Book report is 14%) and inflation rate is 11.6% in Iran which ranks 204 among countries in the world( the same report).

These socioeconomic disparities could lead to more frustration of huge youth population, crime and destruction of Kurdish generations to come, which could be a recruiting ground for extremists in Kurdistan.

Frustration and despair among youth group has created a breathing ground for use of drugs which is becoming a social epidemic in Kurdistan.  Some Kurds believe that the government is deliberately contributing to this epidemic; one opposition group calls this tragic situation “Enfale Spi” or white Enfal– meaning annihilation of Kurds through drugs.  The situation is so drastic that there is a neighborhood in Sanandaj nicknamed “Se Rahe Zahedan” meaning Zahedan threeway the Afghan city famous for producing opium and drugs.

Finally another indication of economic frustration is the border crossing from Iran to Kurdistan Region of Iraq for importing goods and businesses and migration to Kurdistan Region of Iraq in search of a living.   I must add that during my trips to the area, I have seen many Kurdish families on the border villages who are risking their life to cross the border. 

The forced migration of Kurds do not end at the border, rather troops from the Islamic Republic chase Kurds further by crossing the Iraqi border.   Every once awhile we see report of these Kurds being hanged or shot under the guise of smugglers and even their horses are not spared from killing.Photo

Turkey Population:

Overall statistics from the whole country was difficult to have. Different sources vary especially when it is related to estimates on minorities and Kurds. I had accurate figures for 21 Kurdish provinces of South East Anatolia. 

The metropolitan mayor of Diyarbakir Mr. Osman Beydemir and his office have done great work – by compiling statistics of the trend of development in their provinces, comparative analysis in their inequalities with the western part of Turkey –and provide list of their shortcomings and suggestions. 

 Based on CIA Fact Book Total population of Turkey is 78,78,548 (July 2011 est.) of which Turks are 70-75%(55,150,000-59,000,000), Kurds are 18%(14,181000) and 7-12% are other minorities. Of course this estimate is disputable. The same report in 2005 estimates Kurds as 20% of the total population. Giving the fertility rate of Kurd at least twice as much as Turks, then the statistics must shift to higher number for Kurds rather than Turks in 2010.

For study of disparities and inequities of development in Turkey, I rely on the study on 21 Kurdish provinces compiled by the Meyer of Diyarbakir[1]

In addition to the 14 million above also we see that Kurds have established themselves in all areas of Turkey. Istanbul, for example, is the largest city with 12 million with a large Kurdish population of more than 2 million and in central Turkey there are 3-5million of Kurdish origin.

The policy of the Turkish government in regards with Kurds have been the same as Iranian Governments.—Forced Migration, Assimilation, Destruction of the environment and Denial of equal access to wealth of the country and d Human rights.

Forced Migration:

To mention the whole history of forced migration of Kurds in Turkey will be a lengthy dissertation.  But to mention  a few,  our research on 40,000 Ezdi Kurds in Armenia, revealed that almost all of them either their parents or themselves had escaped to Armenia from Ottoman and present Turkey’s persecution.  I have collected many personal stories—one by one about how they rescued themselves.  In Georgia, there are 20,000 Kurds, and many thousands in Osetia and in Russia all were forced to leave Turkey. In Europe there are hundreds of thousands Kurds who are either escaped from execution or migrated in search of living.

Forced migration of Kurds in Turkey intensified during 1980’s, during the war between        PKK– the Kurdish Worker’s Party and the Turkish state. 

Assimilation and modification process began—when the Turkish state deported thousands of Kurds from eastern to western part of Turkey and located Thousand of Turks from West to Eastern part of Turkey to make assimilation process go faster.

After Turkey took Cyprus the Turkish state also sent thousands of Kurds from the Southeast to Cyprus.  There Kurds became third class citizens.

In addition to all the problems above, Diyarbakir province is suffering from anomaly of sudden population growth.  It has been faced by overflow of people who have been displaced from their rural settlements as a result of forced migration during 1990s. As some surveys show, the population of Diyarbakir was doubled within 5-10 years.  A large majority of these migrant Kurds today are living in some neighborhoods at the center and outskirts of Diyarbakir. And some have migrated to Istanbul and central Turkey.

Based on a survey on 5 communities in Baglar City by BaglarCity municipality[2]-during war between Kurdish rebels and the State, these former villagers had to choose between being village guards or leave their villages.[3]  In many cases, the states did not give them sufficient time to gather their essential basic materials for migration, provided no transportation or guidance means on the way to their destination.  On the ground that villagers provided logistical support to the PKK or their refusal of recruitment as village guards, civil security forces or units like JITEM forcibly vacated villages, some of which were also burned down.  

Impacts of demographic shifts:


In general in almost all socio-economic indicators, Eastern and Southeastern provinces occupy the lowest rank among all of Turkey’s 81 provinces.  This shows that underdevelopment is uniquely widespread and dominant in these provinces.[4]More than half of the regional population is below poverty level. As of 2008, Eastern and South eastern Anatolia shelter 46% of the 9.4 million Green card owners in Turkey (an indication of poverty)5    

Unemployment in non agricultural sector is much higher than other regions of Turkey.  During 2002-2006 the 21 major cities that held 16 % of population attracted only 4.4% of the total subsidized investments.  

Bulk of the resources transferred to the region has been allocated to defense and security which does not respond to the livelihood and employment expectations of the region’s population.  The Region’s share of the central budget for local administration is only 8.5 %.

Per capita use of the electricity can be used as another indicator of development, while the  limited public spending are mostly on energy, it has not responded to public demand for employment and enterprise prospect.  As of 2006 the 21 cities in the region have used only 6.8

percent of the energy produced, including hydraulic and other resources in the region.

Infant Mortality:

As an indicator of lack of access to health care and Neo-Natal advisory, infant mortality is 40 per one thousand live birth in Southeast Turkey while the rate of infant mortality in Western part is 4 per thousand.

Consequences of these forced migrations could be topic of dissertation, but I briefly give a list of major problems.

The 21 provinces with 16% of the population not only they do not receive their fair share of public spending, but also treated as the “other” items of budget distribution for local administration.…dish_Genus.pdf

In general all Kurdish populated areas are the most underdeveloped and deprived provinces in three countries of Iran, Turkey and Syria


Kurds as refugees have remained Kurds and revitalized their culture more.  This is a fact that depriving a population from equal access to education and resources of the land can perpetuate their culture and language and their identity become stronger.

During the time the villagers were in their village based on the necessity of their life style and need for labor, these families were able to afford to have a big family.  As a matter of fact, the discrimination policy against Kurds had backfired on Turkish state.  As the high rate of illiteracy and lack of access to health care and health education correlates with the high fertility level.   

We can say that the Kurds’ birth rate was almost four times larger than the Turks and other minorities in the country. This process continued for a very long time and according to research statistics, it shows that Kurds have already formed a great majority of the whole south and east since 1990 and today there are about 2-5 million people in central Turkey.

In a later study, each Kurdish woman had 6.2 children, while Turkish women had 2.7 children. Based on some modern statistics I found Kurdish women have 4.5 children and Turkish women had already gone over two children per family latch.  This high rate of fertility will change only if, and when the Kurdish population has equal access to their resources equal access to education and health care.

The high birthrate of the Kurds, which is twice that of the Turks, will give more and more areas to their future nation-state. Some scholars believe that it is better for Turkey to give Kurds their state before they demographically take over half of Turkey for themselves. Mr. Erdogan should wake up and smell the coffee, the aroma of awakening in the Middle East has reached Turkey and it is time to let Kurds have their own state and live with Turks in peace.

Related images

Hassankyef, a majestic beauty needs to be saved

[1] Eastern and South eastern  Anatolia; Socio-economic  Problems & Recommended Solutions: by Union of SouthEastern Anatolian Region Municipalities; printed by Gun printing House, Istanbul, Turkey 2009

[2] Forced Migration, by Baglar City Municipalities

[3] Village guard were Kurdish villagers who chose to cooperate with the Turkish troops and deny food and shelter to their fellow Kurds. 

[4] . South and Southeastern Anatolia Socio-economic Problems & Recommended Solutions,  research by  Diyarbakir Municipalities4 Green Card is given to those who have no social security and his/her share of family income is below one third of minimum wage, excluded social  security premium; and it is an indicator to determine poverty.

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