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Iraq refugees 'terrified to be sent back'

Thousands of displaced Iraqis have taken refuge in Turkey, but many fear Ankara will force them back across the border.

Last updated: 15 Aug 2014 08:09
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Silopi refugee camp, Turkey - After a four-day trek through the barren, sun-blasted terrain of northern Iraq, Murad Kasim Rashow shook with anger as he remembered the family members he left behind.

Newly arrived at a makeshift refugee camp in Silopi, a remote border town in Turkey's southeast, he grieved for his two aunts who have been missing since armed fighters from the Islamic State group overran their hometown of Sinjar one week ago.

"I fear the worst. Every family now has its tale of loss or death," said Rashow, a 37-year-old former translator for the US army. "There is no way we can imagine returning there."

Check out our complete coverage of the crisis in Iraq

Rashow is one of tens of thousands of Yazidis - ethnic Kurds who practise a distinct religion - who have fled northern Iraq amid the advance of fighters from the Islamic State group, formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

The Islamic State offensive left thousands of Yazidis trapped and starving on Iraq's desolate Sinjar mountain, while tens of thousands of Iraqis have fled to the country's Kurdish region in the northeast.

Approximately 1,600 refugees have managed to cross into Turkey, according to officials in Silopi, and local authorities have rushed to provide foodstuffs and basic medical aid to the displaced. Thousands more wait on the border, unable to cross without passports and in need of aid, refugees in the Silopi camp told Al Jazeera, adding that they paid smugglers an average of $500 per person for safe passage into Turkey.

Turkey is a big country and it's done a fantastic job looking after Syrians. But the country has hit its limit, and points of friction between refugees and the local population are growing.

- Hugh Pope, International Crisis Group's Turkey director

Rashow's sister and brother-in-law were caught by the Turkish military while crossing two days ago, he said. After being given food and water, they were returned to Iraq. "We have no documents. We're terrified to be sent back too," said the father of seven.


IN PICTURES: The Kurdish frontline in Iraq


With more than 500,000 Iraqis displaced by fighting between the Iraqi army and Islamic State group fighters, Turkey has sought to limit the flow of refugees across its borders. Turkey once promoted an 'open door policy' for those fleeing Syria's civil war, but that conflict has flooded Turkish cities and aid camps with close to one million Syrian refugees

"Turkey is a big country and it's done a fantastic job looking after Syrians," said the International Crisis Group's Turkey director, Hugh Pope. "But the country has hit its limit, and points of friction between refugees and the local population are growing," he said, citing a recent spike in attacks on Syrians across Turkey's south.

As the costs and social tensions associated with refugees grow, Ankara will seek to prevent a new wave of refugees from Iraq, Pope added.

In border towns like Ovacik, a five-minute drive from the Silopi refugee camp, Turkey's containment plan is under way. Here, refugees emerge daily from the reedy, clay-red waters of a nearby river, rushing to farmer's homes in search of water and food. But the tiny farming hamlet is straddled by military guard posts, and soldiers swiftly detain most refugees arriving here.

Turkish villagers told Al Jazeera that most Iraqi refugees have been sent back across the border. "We look after them, we give them food and try to replace their worn-out shoes," said Sabri, a 43-year-old Ovacik resident who didn't give Al Jazeera his last name. "The military almost always arrives to take them back."

Sabri's 19-year-old son, Bedirhan, showed Al Jazeera a video on his phone in which soldiers arrived at their house to detain a group of more than 30 refugees. In the video, an elderly woman pleaded in Kurdish that her family remain in Turkey. In another video, the refugees appeared to be escorted back to the border by soldiers, while hisses and boos of Ovacik's villagers can be heard in the background.

Earlier this month, Turkish officials announced plans to build a 20,000-person refugee camp in the city of Dohuk, in Iraq's Kurdish region, for displaced members of Iraq's Turkmen minority.

Fatih Ozer, director of Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), a branch of the Turkish prime minister's office, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that Ankara also planned to help the United Nations establish a 16,000-person camp for Yazidi refugees near the city of Zakho, just a few kilometres from the Iraq-Turkey border. "Our work will help alleviate suffering where it's the worst," Ozer said.

We look after [the Iraqi refugees], we give them food and try to replace their worn-out shoes. The military almost always arrives to take them back.

- Sabri, 43, resident of Ovacik

"This is an extremely generous offers from Ankara, though the cost will be quite high," said the ICG's Pope. "And if the aim is to keep refugees out, it's hard to see that working. The border is vast and the rugged terrain is hard to monitor."


RELATED: Iraq's Kurds demand expanded US operation


On a recent night at the Silopi refugee camp, the lights of an excavator cut through the darkness while volunteers set up tents for a new group of arriving families. "So many more will come. There is simply no way we can go back," said Barakat Alyas, a 21-year-old camp resident.

Turkish residents nearby have warmly received the Yazidis: City officials told Al Jazeera they brought tents from neighbouring cities to house new arrivals, while locals donated food to meet the 700-person camp's growing needs. An Iraqi-Swedish doctor, on vacation in Istanbul two weeks ago, also travelled to Silopi in order to provide free medical care.

But those measures are not long-term solutions, said Emine Esmer, Silopi's co-mayor and a member of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). Esmer said that AFAD, Ankara's aid agency, has not yet responded to the city's requests for humanitarian aid. "They have left us to take care of this situation without a dollar in aid. We will manage, but obviously this is not sustainable," Esmer said.

An AFAD spokesman told Al Jazeera that the government was looking into ways to provide Silopi with aid, but said its camps in Iraq were currently the main priority.

Meanwhile, many of the Iraqi refugees hope to receive better care - and ultimately asylum - from Europe and the United States. "A decade ago, America came to Iraq and promised it would help build a new country," said Rashow. "We still want America and the world to keep their promise and help the Iraqi people."

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