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Turkey braces itself for refugees from Iraq war

By Ayla Jean Yackley
ANKARA (Reuters) - Abdulvahap has stocked his home in southeastern Turkey with extra blankets and food and says this time he will be ready to help some of the refugees who could flee across the border if war breaks out in Iraq.

The 35-year-old shopkeeper in the border town of Silopi said he and others were stunned in 1991 when more than 500,000 Iraqi Kurds spilled into Turkey in a matter of days to escape Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's reprisals during the Kurdish uprising that followed the Gulf War.

Turkish officials say they too are better equipped for a possible humanitarian crisis in the event of a U.S.-led war.

Authorities in Turkey were humiliated in 1991 by television images of hundreds of thousands of exhausted, hungry Kurds struggling through snowy mountain passes to reach Turkey where almost no facilities or provisions awaited them.

More than 1,000 Iraqi Kurds died during the exodus.

"It was heartbreaking. People slept out in the cold. The state could not provide for them, so we opened our houses, gave them whatever we had," Abdulvahap said.

"People are worried this could happen again. They are keeping extra supplies on hand, but we believe the state is ready for the migrants. There are camps, there is more order."

Turkish relief workers have stockpiled enough food, medical supplies, tents and heating equipment at the border to care for 30,000 people, said Ertan Gonen, head of the Turkish Red Crescent. "If there is an unexpectedly large flow of refugees, we can raise stocks for up to 200,000 people," he added.

Estimating the size of the potential crisis is difficult, aid workers say. It would depend on factors such as the length of any war, which areas U.S.-led forces bombed and whether Saddam uses the unconventional weapons he is accused of having.

"We have the experience of 1991, but each humanitarian crisis has its own dynamics," said Metin Corabatir of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Turkey.

"We are faced with a scarcity of funds so we are only able to keep our preparations at a minimal level," he said, adding that the UNHCR has already spent $19 million in borrowed monies.

The UNHCR has said up to 600,000 people could escape across Iraq's borders during any war, with about half heading for Iran. Turkey is seen absorbing mainly Kurds from northern Iraq, while Jordan and Syria could take in others.


The thrust of Turkey's blueprint for handling any wave of refugees is to keep fleeing Iraqis at camps set up by the military inside northern Iraq, the largely autonomous region run beyond Baghdad's control by Iraqi Kurds since the Gulf War.

"Our army wants to stop the flow of refugees there," Gonen said. "There is the security standpoint. Second, it is possible to benefit from the electricity, water, sewage systems there. And it makes it easier for people to return to their homes."

Northern Iraq appears far better suited to handling refugees than it was in 1991. During 12 years of protection by U.S. warplanes patrolling a "no-fly" zone over the region, the Kurdish government has boosted infrastructure. U.N. agencies and non-governmental organisations have long been active there.

"If there are population movements, we don't believe it would be a mass exodus like in 1991," said Safeen Dizayee, the Ankara representative of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

"Our concern is we might see people from the Baghdad-controlled lands come to the Kurdish region, and our planning is in line with that," he added.

Iraqi Kurdish officials are also worried about Turkish plans to send troops in large numbers into the north, fearing it could encourage other regional powers to seize portions of Iraq.

The Turkish army already garrisons several thousand soldiers in northern Iraq to pursue some 3,000 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) separatists based there after their withdrawal from Turkey following the 1999 arrest of PKK commander Abdullah Ocalan.

More than 30,000 people have been killed in Turkey since 1984 when the PKK launched an armed campaign for an ethnic homeland in the mainly Kurdish southeast. Relative peace has been restored to the area since Ocalan's capture.

Each refugee moving into Turkey must submit to registration, aimed in part at filtering out PKK rebels who may try to sneak in under the cover of asylum, officials say.

UNHCR chief Ruud Lubbers has urged Iraq's neighbours to keep borders open to refugees and has called for "maintaining the civilian and humanitarian character of refugee hosting areas".

Officials say the United States has given the go-ahead to the military's plans for the buffer zone inside Iraq where 20-odd refugee camps would be set up along the border. Six camps could be erected inside Turkey to handle any overflow.


Turkey fears an influx of Iraqi Kurds in the southeast could boost feelings of solidarity among its Kurds, many of whom share tribal or blood ties with those on the other side of the border.

"It seems the Turkish authorities drew different lessons from the 1991 crisis," said one observer on condition of anonymity. "There is a confusion that the economic losses and security problems were because of those refugees.

"The authorities are looking at this potential refugee crisis as a security threat, and their plans are based on this."

Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO and a close U.S. ally, is expected to open its bases and other facilities to U.S. troops for a possible secondary "northern front" from Turkey to relieve a possible main invasion force into Iraq's south.

Turkish generals want broad freedom to act in northern Iraq to protect a Turkish-speaking minority and prevent any moves by Kurds to form an independent state out of the chaos of a war.

Despite efforts to stem the flow, fugitives of war will only rest where they feel safe, an aid worker said.

"The refugees will be the ones who decide how far they will go," the aid worker said. "If they feel secure at the (Turkish military's) camps they will stay there...No one wants a repeat of the crisis following the Gulf War."

Still, Abdulvahap said he was ready for the worst.

"Those days in 1991 were a time of great sadness. We hope we are better prepared 12 years on. If it becomes another disaster, we will still have the shirts off our backs to give."


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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