Thousands of Yazidis who fled to Turkey after Islamic State militants overran Sinjar in northern Iraq in August 2014 are trying to reach Europe, where they say they want to seek asylum.
There are around 15,000 displaced Yazidis in Turkey, who live in three main refugee camps in Nusaybin, Diyarbakir, and Midyat, all predominantly Kurdish towns in the southeastern Mardin province, according to Murad Ismael of Yazda, an NGO that works to support displaced Yazidis.
Almost two weeks ago, around 3,000 Yazidis tried to travel on foot or by bus from the camps to the Turkey-Bulgaria border, hoping to cross into Bulgaria and possibly then on to other EU countries. But the Turkish authorities would not let them cross and brought them back to the refugee camps, where they are being made to remain, Ismael told RFE/RL on July 7.
'They All Want To Go To Bulgaria'
Layla Mustafa, 18, was in her final year of high school when IS militants overran Sinjar, forcing her family to flee. Like thousands of other members of the Yazidi religious minority, she and her family fled Iraq and ended up in Turkey.
Late in the evening on June 26, the Mustafas joined a convoy of around 30 busloads of Yazidis who set out for the Turkey-Bulgaria border. Around 3,000 Yazidis had amassed near the border, according to a Yazidi eyewitness, Jameel Qassem, but none of them were allowed to cross.
Yazidis who were on the buses say the Turkish police mistreated them.
Mustafa told RFI that the police stopped the bus she was on before it reached the border.
"In Istanbul, the police came and took us back to a public transport garage. Late at night they came and roughly woke us up; they mistreated us and beat us with sticks," she said.
The Turkish authorities took Mustafa and her group to a refugee camp in Nusaybin, a largely Kurdish town in Mardin province.
"But the camp there had even been abandoned by the animals," she said.
Eventually, Mustafa and her family were driven to another camp in Diyarbakir, another mostly Kurdish city. Around 4,000 Yazidis live in the camp.
"They all wanted to go to Bulgaria," Mustafa said. "There is no place for them here."
'Nobody Has Asked About Us'
Conditions in the Turkish camps are among the main reasons that Yazidis in Turkey want to go to Bulgaria or elsewhere in Europe.
"The refugees said to me that they feel like ‘caged animals’ in the camps, their situation is still bad and they don't want to stay another winter there," said Hayri Demir, editor in chief of Ezidi Press, a Germany-based website that covers Yazidis.
Sheikh Kheri Awdi, a Yazidi who teaches the religion at the Diyarbakr camp and who also tried and failed to get to Bulgaria, told RFI that Yazidi refugees in Turkey feel abandoned.
"We’ve been here for a year, and there is nobody who cares about us or about our religion," Awdi said. "Nobody has asked about us; none of the Islamic countries, or the Christian countries."
But though he complained about the way Yazidi refugees had been treated in Turkey -- "They put us in tents unfit for humans," he said – Awdi does not want to return to Iraq, because of the IS threat.
"I have two daughters, one is 12 and the other is 11 years old," Awdi said. "I don’t want to go back to Sinjar where anyone can come and take my daughters from me."
Ultimately, Awdi said, he wanted "to go to a country that respects my religious beliefs."
But even if Turkey did allow Yazidis to cross the border into Bulgaria, it is unlikely that Bulgaria would let them stay.
Ezidi Press's Demir told RFE/RL that the UN refugee agency UNHCR and the Bulgarian embassy "said there's no chance because [the Yazidis] haven't passports."
More Refugees Are Coming
Despite the difficult conditions for refugees in Turkey, "frightening numbers" of Yazidis are crossing illegally into Turkey from Iraqi Kurdistan, officials say.
IS's continued control over Yazidi homelands and the harsh living conditions and rampant unemployment in Iraqi Kurdistan are pushing Yazidis to leave in the hope of finding a better life in Europe.
"We estimate that between 3,000 and 5,000 [Yazidis] are leaving their homeland every month," Hadi Dobani, the Director of Yazidi Affairs in Duhok in Iraq's Kurdistan region, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on July 1.
Dobani said that he has called on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and U.S.-led coalition forces to push IS out of Yazidi areas of northern Iraq.
The KRG should also improve employment opportunities and conditions in the Yazidi camps, he said.
Although Dobani called on displaced Yazidis to be patient and wait, those living in camps for displaced people in Iraq told RFI that they would rather leave for Turkey even though they are aware of the difficulties they face there.
"Because of IS, there is no work, no funds, no salary, and no way to provide for our needs," said Dakheel Safar, a Yazidi refugee who said he has tried to reach Turkey twice.
Another Yazidi, Abu Dilair, said he wants to leave because the current conditions in Iraqi Kurdistan are too unsafe.
"Emigration is very difficult, especially at the Turkish-Bulgarian border, not to mention the huge sums of money demanded by the smugglers who are basically gangs," said Abu Dilair. "But our unsafe conditions brought on by the IS attacks have led us to make this decision."
Community In Trauma
With thousands of Yazidi refugees already in Turkey and thousands more pouring in every month, the Yazda NGO's Ismael said more must be done to help them.
The Yazidi community has called on the EU to take in Yazidi refugees from Turkey has asylum seekers or temporary refugees until the situation in Iraq improves, Ismael said.
"It is a dire situation. The whole Yazidi community is in trauma," he told RFE/RL. "We need the international community to not turn a blind eye on our plight and take up the responsibility."