By David Markovich
February 6, 1997

August 18, 1992, marked the commencement of a Turkish government military offensive in Sirnak. All media access to the region was restricted for several days and Turkish military sources said that its forces had acted to repel a Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) attack against the town. Independent investigators subsequently showed this claim to be unfounded. They reported that the PKK had not attacked the town and had not returned fire against government forces. Hundreds of people suspected as being PKK collaborators were detained by government military forces. Many were ill-treated and tortured, and a number were killed whilst under detention. Following the government attack, resulting in the near total destruction of the town, Sirnak was evacuated and it remains largely uninhabited.

The indiscriminate destruction of entire Kurdish villages appears to be part of a master plan undertaken by Turkish security forces to combat the PKK. Numerous villages have faced a plight similar to Sirnak and the inhabitants of razed villages have frequently found shelter in UN refugee camps. Atrush, situated 45 miles from Iraq’s Turkish border, is one such camp. The camp’s inhabitants, some 14,000 Kurds – largely women, children and old men, face the prospect of once again losing their homes.

On December 21, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees decided to disband Atrush camp. The High Commissioner, Mrs. Sadako Ogata stated that the refugees would be informed of Turkish government assurances that they would be “welcomed” back: to be provided with food, shelter and financial support until resettlement became a possibility. Given Turkey’s track record of augmenting (at the very least) the current refugee problem, it is difficult to imagine that the refugees would find such promises credible.

The camp was originally scheduled to be closed within a month of the December 21 announcement date. Mrs. Ogata said that the refugees would be given the opportunity to remain at transit sites in Muqibla and Balqus for a period of one month though clarification of future arrangements was not offered. Given that very few of the refugees, only four families, have agreed to leave Atrush camp, UNHCR is now pursuing alternative courses of action.

The High Commissioner has categorically stated that the refugees would not be forcibly repatriated to Turkey, and that, “for the time being”, the UN would not be “taking down the flag” from Atrush camp. Such assurances must be applauded. Nonetheless, in light of last year’s UN endorsed repatriation of Hutu refugees from countries neighboring Rwanda, and considering the cessation of UN food and fuel deliveries, UNHCR assurances must be critically assessed and pressure must be maintained on the UN to ensure the safety of the Kurdish refugees. Any action by the UN which would compel the Kurdish refugees to be placed under the protection of the Turkish government, or for that matter the Iraqi government, would almost certainly threaten the well-being of the refugees.

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