A largely ignored byproduct of the Iranian revolution and the Gulf war has been the large influx of refugees into Turkey. The economic benefits of Turkish neutrality during the Gulf war led Ankara to downplay the problem, but the recent arrival of Kurdish refugees has strained regional ties and clouded Turkish hopes for lucrative post-war reconstruction deals. The large Iranian refugee population of a million or more is also causing worries, as struggles among Iranian political groups spill over into Turkey.

Many of the Kurdish refugees who fled Iraqi troops and chemical attacks are now unwelcome in Turkey and in Iran, their wartime ally. High-level talks between Iran and Turkey failed to reach an accord on their fate. Both Ankara and Tehran cite a lack of resources to cope with the oncoming winter, but it is clear that both governments are also wary of the potential security threat posed by the Iraqi Kurds, with their decades of experience in armed rebellion. In Turkey, the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK) continues a waning but persistent guerrilla war; Iranian Kurdistan remains the one area of the Islamic Republic where anti-regime forces have some strength. In mid-October 1988, Iranian Kurdish guerrillas launched a series of attacks against military targets resulting in dozens of Iranian casualties.

Turkey’s initial decision to allow the Kurds to enter had been taken with an eye toward improving the government’s image in the West. Turkish public opinion, moreover, unmistakably favored such a move. Turkish newspapers had reported Iraqi atrocities throughout the summer and gave extensive coverage to the big attacks in late August. The government of Prime Minister Turgut Özal, facing yet another electoral referendum and maneuvering for acceptance into the European Economic Community by the next decade, felt compelled to respond. Still, Ankara warned the disarmed Kurdish guerrillas to refrain from any political or military activity on Turkish soil. Masoud Barzani, leader of Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, was invited to transit Turkey on his way to Iran, but other Kurdish leaders and groups were decidedly unwelcome. Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), whose movement has been more hospitable to PKK guerrillas, was barred from seeking refuge; by contrast, Barzani’s KDP several years ago expelled PKK fighters from Iraqi territory under their control. The Özal government also hoped that granting refuge to Barzani’s forces would make it more difficult for the PKK to increase its support or escalate its military operations.

These measures failed to sway opponents within Turkey’s military and right-wing circles who loudly spoke against adding to Turkey’s problems in the eastern, largely Kurdish provinces. The “Holy Alliance” of neo-fascist and Islamist components of Özal’s ruling Motherland Party sharply condemned the decision. One of its leading members, Mustafa Tasar, charged that “this decision could lead to big problems in the future. On the very day that the refugees were allowed in, [Kurdish] MP Nurettin Yilmaz made a speech in Parliament referring to the Kurdish people…. We do not recognize such a nation.” Critical statements by retired generals expressed the feelings of colleagues on active duty. What proved really worrisome to Ankara, however, was that while Turkey’s gesture elicited what it considered to be a lukewarm response in the West, the Kurds drew waves of sympathetic press coverage. Such sympathy, officials feared, might spill over to include the Kurds in Turkey.

For its part, Baghdad was clearly annoyed with Turkey’s behavior. Ankara did not want to give Iraq any excuse to renege on any of its $2 billion in wartime debts to Turkey, or to jeopardize the commercial hopes of Turkish companies. These considerations, rather than “medical evidence,” seem to lie behind the Özal government’s announcement of September 14 that no proof had been found of the use of poison gas among the refugees. This was in any case a meaningless statement, since clearly identifiable victims would not have survived the arduous journey into Turkey.

The problems connected with the Iraqi debt were subsequently resolved through joint talks in Baghdad. Still, with groups such as Physicians for Human Rights and Amnesty International holding press conferences in Ankara or releasing reports condemning Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, Turkey’s ties with Iraq remain cooler than in earlier years.

The changing atmosphere in Ankara put the Kurds in an all too familiar quandary, as Turkish officials developed a two-track policy. Four major camps were set up. Suüstü and Uzunsirt camps, at Yüksekova, were kept under very tight control; only the most basic amenities were provided, in hopes of inducing the refugees there to take advantage of Iran’s initial announcement that it would accept all refugees from Iraq. But Tehran balked when it lost control over the influx in October, as Turkey transported some 14,000 refugees across the border. This was in addition to 10,000 refugees bussed to Iran in the first days after their flight from the Iraqis.

Cumhuriyet reports that currently some 50,000 Kurds remain in Turkey, out of an original 64,000. According to other Turkish press reports, a further 2,000 refugees have returned to Iraq to take advantage of Baghdad’s amnesty. Ankara initially planned to accept the permanent settlement of 30,000 Kurds; now it seems Turkey will host a considerably higher number. The government plans to transfer the refugees in small and controllable numbers to new camps in the Mediterranean region and elsewhere, away from Turkey’s own Kurds. Those originally slated for transfer to Iran will have to be settled in permanent camps, since the Yüksekova camps are patently ill equipped to deal with winter conditions. Some 8,000 have already been moved to permanent concrete structures originally built for earthquake victims in Muş, one of Turkey’s few eastern provinces which is relatively quiet and not under the harsh “extraordinary measures” governing much of the region.

Invisible Iranians

When Western correspondents visited the remote Turkish province of Hakkari to cover the Kurdish exodus from Iraq, they “discovered” hundreds of Iranians living in small hostels there. This has been an almost “invisible” population transfer, though Iranians fleeing the Islamic Republic are second only to the Afghans in terms of the sheer number of refugees created during the 1980s. These Iranians remain virtually ignored by the international community. The Interior Ministry in Ankara claims they number some 800,000, while the foreign ministry places the number at around 1 million, including legal residents such as 10,000 university students and their dependents.

Western diplomats and Turkish experts agree that the true figure is considerably higher. Istanbul University professor Erol Manisali estimates that it may be as high as 1.5 million. Many Turks believe that the government figures relate at best only to those who entered Turkey legally and then stayed after their permits expired, ignoring the thousands who cross the long mountainous border to enter illegally and disappear into large cities or find haven among kinspeople in Turkey. Iranian Kurds with relatives on the Turkish side of the border blend with relative ease into the fabric of everyday life, and Iranians with family connections in Turkey, many of them Turkish-speaking, also fare comparatively better in making the transition.

For most, however, the situation is difficult. Turkey does not demand visas of Iranians, but strict controls within Iran, especially for those of military age and the politically suspect, force many refugees to entrust themselves to smugglers charging fees ranging from $1,000 to $10,000. The consequences of getting caught on the Iranian side of the border depend on whether one runs into regular army patrols or units of the Revolutionary Guards. The latter reportedly dispense swift justice, especially to young men. On the other side, Turkish patrols forcibly repatriate many after pro forma trials for illegal entry. Others languish for months in Van and other eastern cities under police surveillance as their money dwindles. The government has generally disregarded appeals by Turkish lawyers’ organizations that illegal entrants have the right to demand extradition to third countries with the terse reply that no other country is willing to accept them.

An extradition treaty between Turkey and Iran as well as a series of agreements between the governorates of Van and Azerbaijan have worsened the situation of refugees, especially in the border regions. In 1985 Amnesty International, citing 94 cases, contacted the Turkish government asking that it put an end to forced repatriations. This and subsequent actions seem to have had little effect. On July 29, 1988, some 58 Iranian refugees were sent back to Iran against their will. According to Iranians who sought refuge at the Van offices of the Social Democratic Populist Party (SDPP), the refugees were almost immediately executed. Denying that forced repatriation had occurred despite confirmation by border guards, the governor of Van province berated SDPP officials for trying to save Iranian “extremists.” The Turkish press has reported that an agreement covering border trade between the two countries includes a provision for payments for refugees returned to Iran, ostensibly as compensation for expenses incurred in repatriating them.

The great majority of Iranian refugees live in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir; smaller numbers reside in refugee centers throughout Turkey. Though Turkey has signed the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees and its 1967 protocol, Ankara, citing economic considerations, added a reservation concerning refugees from outside Europe. This means that, aside from providing safe haven, Turkey is under no obligation to provide for refugee welfare. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) in 1987 managed to grant refugee status to only 4,000 Iranians out of some 100,000 applicants. This status guarantees their legal stay in Turkey, but only provides some $100 a month while they wait for a third country to accept them.

Most Iranians see Turkey as a stepping stone to the West, but Western legations have come up with less than 4,000 visas over the last three years. The US, with over 20,000 applicants, provided only 1,200 visas in 1987. The chances of this bottleneck being resolved any time soon are remote.

Not all Iranians are impoverished, however, and Turkey has derived some economic benefit from the influx of refugees. There are at least 88 Iranian-owned foreign ventures in the country; the actual number is camouflaged by the use of Turkish frontmen to circumvent legal barriers. Iranian assets within Turkey are estimated at several billion dollars and the community spends some $500 million annually. But Manisali concedes that the economic benefits of the community are now being outweighed by the pressures put on the already inadequate social services of large urban centers, where unemployment hovers around 18 percent. There have also been a number of politically motivated assassinations. In late October 1988, Turkish police detained four Iranians, foiling an attempt to smuggle a member of the Mojahedin-e Khalq into Iran in the trunk of their car. The October murder of a Saudi diplomat, apparently in retaliation for the hanging of four pro-Iranian militants in Saudi Arabia, has also heightened Turkish anxieties.

There is a highly visible minority within the refugee community for whom crime has become one way out of a desperate situation. Smuggling of everything from birth control pills, now unavailable in Iran, to other medicines, consumer goods and gold is one side of this story. More sinister is the growing trade in Iranian and Afghan heroin destined for Europe via Turkey. Gangs of Iranians and Turks prey on the refugees, selling them bogus papers and forcing some into prostitution and others to work as drug couriers.

For most Turks, the refugee problem remains a marginal issue and public pressure strong enough to ease their plight seems unlikely. Western governments, unwilling to provide a haven for the Iranians, continue to hide behind the fig leaf that Turkey’s refusal to grant official refugee status makes it difficult for them to provide assistance. They are unlikely to raise the issue with the Turkish government except on such matters as Turkey’s laxness in allowing Iranians to fly to East Berlin, whence many emerged in West Berlin demanding asylum. Such doors are now shut tightly. Even the UNHCR, which in September 1988 investigated the plight of the Iraqi Kurds in Turkey, appears to have taken a passive role regarding Iranians with applications who have waited a year or more for an answer, which usually turns out to be negative.

Sources: Cumhuriyet, September 4, October 16, 18, 1988; Nokta, May 31, 1987, January 10, October 23, 1988; 2000’e Doğru, August 7, 1988; Financial Times, May 23, 1988; Middle East Economic Digest, September 16, 30, November 11, 1988; Economist, October 22, 1988; Le Monde, October 12, 1988; Le Matin, December 8, 1987; Yeni Gündem, September 27, 1987.

How to cite this article:

Ömer Karasapan "Gulf War Refugees in Turkey," Middle East Report 156 ( ).
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