Syria Displaced

Dispatch #12: Returning Kurds to Turkey?

By Laura Dean
Tuesday, March 29, 2016, 10:12 AM

IDOMENI, Greece—Water-logged, mud-sodden, hungry and tired, and waiting on the Greece-Macedonia border are 11,000 of the people whose fate the European Union and Turkey decided recently at their refugee meeting. Many sold everything they had—houses, land, jewelry, mobile phones—to make the dangerous crossing from Turkey to Greece in hopes of finding a safer life. Everyone I’ve spoken to at Idomeni camp is devastated by the EU-Turkey accord. While it does not require that they be sent back to Turkey (as most arriving in Greece after March 20 will be), those already in Greece have been left in a maddening limbo.

EU governments, including Greece, have encouraged those at Idomeni to move to better-equipped, military-run camps, even though those do not yet have the space to accommodate everyone, and to either seek asylum in Greece or to apply for an EU program that will redistribute them across participating nations. Most people at Idomeni refuse to do this, as it would mean not being able to reunite with their husbands or children or siblings who are already in Europe. Of those who remain at the border, some stay in an attempt to keep pressure on both the Greek and Macedonian governments, some in hopes that their luck will change and the border will open, and others because they don’t know where else to go.

On the eve of the EU-Turkey decision, one group at Idomeni waited with particular trepidation.

“This is the Kurdish quarter,” joked Um Sabry, 33, from Afrin, Syria, gesturing to a cluster of tents along one side of the train track. Though numbers are difficult to come by, many of the refugees I’ve spoken with in the Idomeni camp are Kurdish.

Syrian and Iraqi Kurds voiced fears about being sent back to Turkey, a country with a Kurdish minority of its own that has a fractious relationship with the central government.

Some of these fears may be well founded. In the Kurdish areas in the southeast of Turkey, the government is locked in an armed struggle with militant Kurdish groups. While these refugees, as things turn out, will not have to go to Turkey, others very likely will. And they very likely share the sentiments these Kurdish refugees voiced when they thought Turkey lay in their futures.

“I’d rather go back to Syria than to Turkey,” says Um Sabry. “You see the problems of Kurds in Turkey? There is more security for Kurds in Syria.... You see the slaughter in the Kurdish areas [of Turkey]? It’s total destruction.” Fighting between government troops and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK) in southeastern Turkey has intensified in recent months. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced and hundreds have been killed in the fighting.

“It has become like Syria; we all watch the videos on the Internet,” says a 50-year-old Kurdish shop owner from Aleppo who declined to give his name.

“We don't want to go back to Turkey because Turkey is the biggest enemy of the Kurds,” adds Um Sabry’s son.

His mother asks: “When we were in Afrin and Rojava, how many shells fell on us from the Turkish side?”

When they were still in Syria, frightening rumors reached them about the fate of Syrian Kurds inside Turkey.

“My relatives in Kilis and Gaziantep say the [Turkish police] send Kurdish young men back at the Bab el Hawa crossing [into Syria] to Jabhat el Nusra,” Um Sabry says.

“We’d rather die here than go back to Turkey,” says Mustafa Khalil, a 38-year-old Kurdish man from Aleppo. He fears if he and his family go to Turkey, “our future would be like those boys”—he too has heard of Kurds being handed over to Jabhat el-Nusra and the Islamic State.

As they fled Syria last month, he and his family were warned to avoid areas controlled by Jabhat el Nusra: “We were living in Aleppo. We wanted to go to Azaz [to leave from there] but people said you can’t because Jabhat el Nusra will take you, so we went to Afrin [a Kurdish area] instead.”

Are Turkish troops really turning over Syrian Kurds to the Nusra Front? Rights groups say it is unlikely.

“We certainly have documented many pushbacks by Turkey of Syrians, and some deportations of detained Syrians back to Syria,” says Peter Bouckaert, Emergencies Director at Human Rights Watch. However he says it is unlikely that the Turks have handed anyone over to ISIS or to Nusra, adding that, “there have been cases where Daesh controlled the immediate border area and Turkey blocked people from crossing” at the time of the battle of Kobane.

“Kurds who oppose armed opposition groups often use Nusra as a blanket term to refer to all rebels,” says Noah Bonsey, senior analyst on Syria for the International Crisis Group.

Those with ties, or perceived ties, to the PKK or other Kurdish militant or political groups, however, could be targeted by the Turkish authorities. A young Kurdish Syrian man in Idomeni reported being held with another young man for three days and being beaten and repeatedly questioned about whether or not they had ties to the PKK. The other young man, he said, sustained longterm damage to his ear from the beatings.

As for the day-to-day experience of non-political Kurdish Syrian refugees in Turkey, life may not be so different from that of non-Kurdish Syrian refugees. Fears about violence and particular targeting may be slightly exaggerated. Kurds make up 18 percent of the Turkish population. The life of any Syrian refugee in Turkey these days is not easy: Syrian refugees require travel permits to move from place to place inside Turkey and often suffer exploitation in the workplace; until recently they were not permitted to work legally at all. Some live in camps in difficult conditions and a language barrier and a much higher cost of living than in Syria add to the strain.

Um Sabry and her family spent six months in Turkey last year. They could not make ends meet there, and eventually had to move back to Syria. “If you go to the doctor, they take all of your money. There are no schools because I can’t pay and I’d be hungry and wouldn’t be able to pay for rent, I’d be on the street.”

On a social level, some Syrian Kurds said they felt their difference. In Turkey, Um Sabry says she felt that she and her family were discriminated against for being Kurdish.

“When we were in Turkey, we felt that life was harder for Kurds, we felt different, though they said we weren’t; it was harder to get assistance from charity organizations…. Many Turks don't like Kurds, the Kurds they have already they don’t like.” Though her ethnicity is not written on her Syrian ID card, people can tell by the city she is from. “It’s written on our ID that we are from Afrin, Afrin is all Kurds.”

Khalil says that he feels close cultural ties to the Kurds in Turkey. “There were relationships of marriage and of land on either side” of the Syrian-Turkish border, he says. Um Sabry says she feels differently after an experience she had the first time she tried to get on a boat when she and her family nearly drowned. They were far from the shore but still in sight of land and a wave came. “The boat broke underneath us and my daughter was up to her neck in water.” She says she could see the Turkish coast guard watching from above. “But the driver was very smart—he was 18—and drove us back to shore.”

When she arrived on shore, one of the coastguards came and spoke to her. In her memory, the conversation went something like this:

Do you speak Turkish?

No.

Kurdish?

Yes.

Didn’t you see us when we were about to drown?

(In Kurdish) We saw you from above. We were waiting for you and your children to drown and for the fish to eat your eyes and for your hearts to burn so you would learn not to get on these boats anymore.

I said, “it’s better for the fish to eat my children’s eyes than for them to stay in Turkey and have people like you drink their blood.”

“[Turkey] take[s] money in the name of Syrian refugees but puts it in their [own] pockets,” her son adds.

Many families here say that Kurds in particular have nowhere else to go. “The Kurds have no state and the country they were living in was destroyed. Where should they go? Who will protect them?” Says Khalil. For Arab Syrians, he says, the situation is a bit different. “Any Arab country can welcome them. There are 22 Arab countries, three or four are at war, but where should the Kurds go? We have nowhere to go but Europe.”

Khalil is traveling with three families—a collection of relatives and “friends from the road.”

“We will accept any decision except to go back to Turkey,” he says, “with all the hardship we’ve seen here it’s better than Syria and Turkey.”

For people here, for the moment, being sent back to Turkey is not something they have to worry about. But for Syrian Kurds who crossed into Turkey but didn’t make it to Europe before the March 20 deadline, these are fears they must live with.

A woman across from Khalil with short dyed-blonde hair stares into the fire and says nothing. She moves her bare feet a little closer to the flames.