After Flight, Iraqi Kurds Languish in Turkey

WORD travels fast when a foreign visitor comes to this tent camp for Iraqi Kurds. Dozens approach within minutes, clutching crumpled airmail envelopes. Each is a plea to a foreign government - any government - to take the refugees out of southeast Turkey where, at this and two other camps, 36,000 dwell.

But in the year since Turkey first accepted 60,000 Iraqi Kurds fleeing an assault by the Iraqi army, which some Kurds claimed involved chemical weapons, few countries have accepted any as political refugees.

Refugees point out they are grateful for Turkey's initial generosity, but say it is time their position as ``temporary asylum seekers'' was changed or, minimally, living conditions bettered and those in the tents moved to permanent housing. Temperatures can reach minus 58 degrees in the winter and 122 degrees in the summer at Kiziltepe.

``This is death for us here. When we first came, we thought we would be here a short time and then go elsewhere. But it has been almost a year now, and if we have to stay even one more month, our blood will turn to water and we will go crazy,'' says Fawzia Kradir.

Conditions are better at the Diyarbakir and Mus camps, which have permanent housing. But the Iraqi Kurds are prohibited from traveling outside the camps freely, working, or establishing schools for the some 16,000 children among them.

Refugees say their plight here is compounded by Turkey's policy toward its own Kurds, making it difficult for the government to take any steps that would effectively recognize a Kurdish identity or language.

According to the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, the Turkish government is not obliged to grant Iraqi Kurds political refugee status, a move which would allow the refugees to qualify for permanent residency. Foreign Ministry officials say there are no plans currently to offer such status.

UN officials say the Turkish government has done all it can financially for the refugees, spending $35 million this past year to house, clothe, and feed them.

But in private, refugees and local human rights officials say the Turkish government provides little more than the bare minimum in order to encourage the refugees to seek asylum elsewhere. Iraq recently renewed its amnesty for returning Kurds, but refugees say the few that have returned are being persecuted.

``The fact is, we are grateful for what Turkey has done by taking us in,'' says Ekrem Mayi, a refugee in Diyarbakir. ``But now we must think of our future. Here we have no future.''

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