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Turkey prepares for a refugee influx from Iraq

About the authors
Arthur C. Helton was a Senior Fellow for Refugee Studies and Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations. He died following a bombing in Baghdad where he was doing research.
Gil Loescher wrote a column for oD with Arthur Helton on refugees. He was gravely wounded in the attack on the UN in Iraq in 2003 and Arthur was killed.

- The Turkish government has been preparing for months for a refugee exodus from northern Iraq, and has already set up 18 refugee camps

- The Turkish Red Crescent will be in charge of the relief operation

- Turkey has massed a large force on the Turkish side of the frontier, and has made clear that it will deploy 40,000 to 80,000 troops up to 170 miles (270km) into northern Iraq if Kurdish forces attempt to seize oil-rich Kirkuk.

Recently, news reports have focused on US-Turkish wrangling over financial compensation and negotiations regarding permission to station some 62,000 US troops on Turkish soil for the opening of a northern front against Iraq. Little attention, however, has been given to Ankara’s plans on how to deal with a possible refugee crisis in northern Iraq.

For the past several months, Turkey has been fixated on the possibility of a repeat of the refugee crisis it had to deal with in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. Exactly twelve years ago, in March 1991, some 2 million Iraqi Kurds, fleeing Iraqi suppression of widespread revolt in northern Iraq, escaped to the Turkish border and into Iran. At the time this posed a particularly grave prospect for Turkey which feared that a mass influx of Kurdish refugees would have an inflammatory effect on Turkey’s own twelve million restive Kurds and could fuel political instability. In response, Turkey closed its border.

When television viewers around the world saw the desperate plight of Kurdish women and children struggling through the snow towards treacherous mountain passes along the Iraqi-Turkish border, western leaders felt pressure to take international action. Allied forces were subsequently deployed to northern Iraq to carve out “safe areas” for Kurds, protect relief shipments and evacuate and relocate civilians from the mountains.

In an effort to avoid a repetition of this series of events in the current conflict with Iraq, the Turkish government has been preparing for months for a possible refugee exodus from northern Iraq. Turkey’s main line of defence will be to station its troops in northern Iraq to deter such movements from Turkish territory by channelling mass flows of Iraqis fleeing the conflict into camps. Its plan is to set up 18 refugee camps or “collection centres” to hold displaced persons; 13 will be located inside northern Iraq from the 36th parallel to the Turkish border, and 5 will be inside Turkey very close to the border.

The government plans to hold around 276,000 refugees in camps. The majority will be kept inside Iraq, but there are contingency plans to admit 80,000 to the camps inside Turkey, with the possibility of opening another camp to accommodate an additional 20,000 refugees. The government’s announced aims are to eventually send the refugees either back to Iraq or to third countries.

The Turkish Red Crescent (TRC), a quasi-governmental organisation, will be in charge of the relief operation and will be the channel for most refugee assistance. The TRC, which was given mixed reviews after the 1991 crisis, has since developed a crisis centre after the 1999 earthquake in Ankara's Etimesgut district to prepare for natural disasters and humanitarian emergencies. The Social Services and Child Protection Agency, a government agency, will provide basic social services with the assistance of UNHCR in Turkey.

Since January, the Turkish Red Crescent Society with support from UNHCR has provided training on refugee camp management to deputy governors from the south-east border region of Turkey. The deputy governors will be responsible for administering the camps. The military will provide external camp security and the local Turkish police will be in charge of internal security inside the camps. The military has also trained several hundred armed village guards for possible service in northern Iraq or in the refugee camps on the border. Village guards are mainly Kurdish paramilitaries armed and paid by the Turkish government to fight the PKK, the Turkish Kurdish guerrillas.

For most of the past decade, the main strategic imperative of the armed forces has been to crush Kurdish separatism in Turkey, including periodic incursions into northern Iraq in pursuit of PKK fighters. In its long campaign against the Kurds, the military has reportedly frequently violated human rights and humanitarian law.

The Turks fear that Iraq’s Kurds, after a decade of de facto self-government in northern Iraq, will try to win their autonomy within a post-Saddam Iraq, and that this might re-ignite the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. To forestall this possibility, Turkey has massed a large force on the Turkish side of the frontier with northern Iraq, and has made clear that it will deploy 40,000 to 80,000 troops up to 170 miles into northern Iraq if Kurdish forces attempt to seize oil-rich Kirkuk.

Given these overriding political and strategic considerations, UNHCR and others have urged respect for the right of Iraqis to cross the border and seek protection as refugees in Turkey. Human rights groups have also expressed concerns about whether international human rights and humanitarian norms will be observed in camps in Turkey and northern Iraq.

Among the difficulties in ensuring protection for Kurdish refugees is the extremely limited roles played by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Turkey. Indigenous NGOs are not permitted to function freely. They cannot directly access foreign funds for their refugee programmes. A restrictive environment also exists for international NGOs. In addition, the administrative and judicial remedies for abused refugees are very limited. Nor are the press and media likely to have unfettered access to refugee camps or be able to monitor Turkish military operations.

As we approach the advent of war on Iraq, it is evident that the conflict in northern Iraq may be every bit as messy and complicated as the attack on Baghdad and central and southern Iraq. Turkey’s military activities relating to civilians in northern Iraq and along its south-eastern frontier with Iraq, particularly its treatment of asylum seekers, will likely be viewed as an indicator of the success of the broader conflict.

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