Turkey braces for refugee flood

450,000 Iraqi Kurdish refugees flooded Turkey in 1991. Another Gulf war may spur a second exodus.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

There were all sorts of reasons to run.

It was March 1991 when the announcement came: Saddam Hussein's army would descend on northern Iraq to fight against Kurdish guerrillas, and local leaders warned civilians to get out of harm's way.

Then there was the rumor that Mr. Hussein would drop a chemical weapon on Sulaymaniyah, as he had three years earlier on the Kurds of Halabja.

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That's when Miran and his family tumbled into the car and headed for the mountainous border with Iran, a 10-minute drive that took seven hours inside the crush of refugees trying to escape. They spent two weeks out in the open, struggling to stay warm, and scrambling for water to make formula milk to keep Miran's baby sister alive.

"People were dying, crying, shouting, mothers looking for their children and brothers for their brothers," recalls Miran, an Iraqi Kurd who lives in Ankara. He asks that his last name not be used out of fear for the safety of his family, who still live in northern Iraq.

"We thought it was the end of the world. When you lock that door and leave, you don't know if you're ever going to see your home again."

That was in the messy aftermath of the Gulf War, when Kurds who rose up against the Iraqi regime were met with the helicopter gunships and ground troops of an angry Hussein. Today, the map of Iraq is significantly different, as is the kind of war the Bush administration would like to wage against the Iraqi regime. But Turks, Kurds, aid agencies, and neighboring countries fear that such a war could spark another refugee crisis - one that would reopen a whole host of related political and economic problems.

Many Kurds say another war in Iraq will be a new humanitarian disaster. For Turks, the possibility of an influx of Iraqi Kurdish refugees raises other concerns, from the high cost of aiding desperate people to the political risks of allowing thousands of Kurds into restive southeastern Turkey. Iran and Syria harbor similar unease about the effects on their own Kurdish populations.

Indeed, anxiety over an unpredictable outcome of a US-led war against Iraq is a key concern that binds Turkey with some of the countries it invited to the antiwar conference it hosted in Istanbul late last week, including Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt.

Yesterday, the US sent a State Department delegation to discuss plans for dealing with refugees and other humanitarian issues that might arise from a war against Iraq. "It's an issue that's definitely on our screen, and of course it is a concern," says a US official. "We recognize that it's one of Turkey's concerns about an operation, and it has been part of the military discussions as well."

When Turkish officials look back more than a decade to the first Gulf War, they recall some 450,000 Iraqi Kurdish refugees who climbed over snow-capped mountains to cross into Turkey. Another 1.3 million went to Iran. In Turkey, just 20,000 tents were on hand, say officials from UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), and the Turkish government found itself scrambling to shelter and feed far more people than it anticipated. Equally important, among those refugees were thousands of militants from the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), who Turkey says sneaked across the border and jacked up the violence between Kurdish separatists and Turkish forces. A recent re-emergence of fighting in the mostly Kurdish southeast raises fresh concerns here that Turkey has not seen the end of Kurdish separatist warfare.

"If there will be a stream of refugees again, we will stop them before they come to Turkey," says A. Cemil Serhadli, the governor of Diyarbakir, the main city in southeastern Turkey. If the Kurds can't be contained and housed within Iraq itself, "then a second round of camps will be constructed in border towns of Turkey." As a last resort, he says, Diyarbakir will serve as a transit point for refugees.

UN officials from Geneva, meanwhile, have arrived in Turkey and are searching for locations for Iraqi refugees. Turkish media have reported that government and humanitarian officials here have plans to erect camps at 13 sites in Iraq and five in Turkey, citing a document that was formulated and signed by Turkey's former prime minister, Bulent Ecevit. Turkey will prepare for the possibility of accommodating up to 276,000 refugees, the document said.

Although Turkish officials say they cannot estimate how much caring for refugees would cost, the potential need to deal with a refugee crisis has figured into ongoing discussions with US officials over the Pentagon's request to use Turkish facilities in a war.

Were Turkey to prevent refugees on the run from entering its borders, however, it could come under international criticism. "Our position is that the border should remain open for those seeking asylum," says Metin Corabatir, the UNHCR representative in Ankara. "The right to seek asylum is a fundamental human right, outlined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights," and reiterated in the 1951 convention on the status of refugees.

"If there is a refugee crisis, without the permission of any government it is the right of UNHCR to have access to an endangered populations," Mr. Corabatir says. "In order to do that, we are now positioning food and non-food items." Red Crescent officials in southeastern Turkey say that they are also stocking up on tents and food, promising that - should another refugee crisis occur - they will be better prepared this time.

But some say that there will no reason for the Kurds to flee. In an invasion of the sort that US officials envision Hussein's armed forces would be neutralized so quickly that he would not be able to strike northern Iraq.

"There will be no mass exodus like we witnessed in 1991," says Safeen Dizayee, the Ankara representative of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of the two main parties now in control of northern Iraq. "Today, there is a good Kurdish administration in the region. There are 80,000 Kurdish troops who can put up a good line of defense," he adds.

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