Kurdish Refugees Pose Political as Well as Humanitarian Problem

By Kohen, Sami | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 1991 | Go to article overview

Kurdish Refugees Pose Political as Well as Humanitarian Problem


Kohen, Sami, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


The problem of Kurdish refugees, both in its political and humanitarian dimensions, has turned the world's spotlight on Turkey. Heartbreaking scenes of the human tragedies among the refugees who fled from Saddam Hussain's forces shocked people all over the planet. The difficulties that this second major exodus of Iraqi Kurds in less than three years created for Turkey, however, are also matters of immediate concern here.

At this writing, about half a million Kurds are now on Turkish soil, and about 350,000 more are on the Iraqi side of the border. This is a heavy burden on Turkey's shoulders. It took days, and a lot of effort by President Turgut Ozal, to convince US President Bush to move on the critical situation in Northern Iraq and mobilize American resources to share the burden. Turkey did not hesitate to open its borders, airports and ports to the US and other allies -- including their military forces -- and to provide them with all logistical support to carry out humanitarian tasks.

The Bulk of the Responsibility

Although progress has been made, Turkey still carries the bulk of the relief responsibility for the half million refugees in Turkish territory. The cost of the assistance to the Turkish government has been $2.5 million daily. This covers the cost of aid provided by official sources only, and excludes the huge amount of relief supplied by private organizations and individuals.

When the first wave of tens of thousands of refugees reached the border, Turkish authorities were frankly reluctant to admit them into Turkey. The borders were "officially" closed. But "practically" they were opened, as barefoot and hungry refugees, including pregnant women, babies and small children, old people and invalids, massed along the border in a mountainous, rugged region which has no sign of a formal frontier.

The Turks have a humanitarian tradition of opening their arms to oppressed people seeking refuge in their country. Only three years ago, 65,000 Kurds, fleeing what they said were poison gas attacks by Saddam's forces, escaped into Turkey. Material aid from outside Turkey was very limited, and other countries admitted fewer than 500 refugees. Today 28,000 of these refugees are still living in Turkey. (The others either went to Iran or returned to their homes in Iraq.)

Turkey's record as a haven for people fleeing persecution dates back to the 15th century. In 1492, the Turks (then the Ottoman Empire) opened their doors to the Jews from Spain, whom King Ferdinand had decided to expel, along with the Muslims of Spain. The Jews settled throughout the empire and became loyal subjects of the Ottoman rulers.

A Bitter Disappointment

Proud of this ancient tradition of extending help to those in need, Turks have been bitterly disappointed in Western media coverage of the inevitable problems of absorbing such an influx in the poorest area of the country. From the beginning the Turkish authorities have faced difficulties in maintaining order in camps, where refugees rushed trucks carrying relief supplies, and then fought among themselves over the supplies after they were distributed.

Turkey suspected, correctly as it turned out, that some TV stations would be more zealous in showing the Turkish soldiers using clubs or firing into the air in attempts to keep order during distribution of food, than in depicting the efforts deployed by the Turkish authorities to get such aid to those remote places. …

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