Reports of fighting in northern Iraq have increased concern that thousands of refugees in the region may begin moving toward the Turkish border in search of shelter. With this in mind, the United Nation's refugee agency and other humanitarian organizations are finalizing preparations on the Turkish-Iraqi border. RFE/RL's correspondent reports from the Turkish border town of Silopi.
Silopi, 24 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, together with the International Red Crescent, is continuing work to prepare for a possible inflow of refugees fleeing military action in northern Iraq. Today, eight trucks loaded with portable beds, blankets, food, and warm clothing arrived at tent camps set up at the Habur border point on the Turkish-Iraqi border.
Francis Teoh is head of the UNHCR's Silopi office. He said so far, no one from northern Iraq has approached the Turkish border in search of shelter. But as the war in Iraq progresses northward, Teoh said, the situation may change. "Well, we certainly hope that we don't have to use [the supplies]. Like everywhere else where there is potential conflict, the UNHCR has always been planning for contingency," Teoh said.
Teoh said that as of today, tents camps on the Turkish-Iraqi border are ready to shelter more than 100,000 refugees. "Our contingency for Turkey is 80,000 refugees inside Turkey, 56,000 asylum seekers at the border. So for Turkey our preparedness is 130,000 people," Teoh said.
Teoh said that the UNHCR is prepared to shelter up to 600,000 refugees in the region. Depending on the situation on the Turkish-Iraqi border, the group may send its stocks to the Iranian or Syrian border, if a greater number of refugees flow there.
Turkish officials are worried that if the war intensifies in northern Iraq, hundreds of thousands of refugees may rush to the Turkish border, creating a potentially destabilizing situation. Ankara has cited this possibility as one of the most compelling reasons for sending Turkish troops into northern Iraq, a proposal the United States opposes.
Namik Tan, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official who works in the border area, said that for Turkey, the priority is to keep potential refugees on the Iraqi side, as close to their homes as possible. "Our purpose is, if refugees come, to keep them in the camps set up on the other side of the border, to shelter, feed and clothe them. And if the number will be too massive, only then will we first check their identity and then allow them into camps on the Turkish side. Because sometimes among them may be terrorists and other undesirable people," Tan said.
Tan also said that so far there are no refugees on the Turkish-Iraqi border. But he added that a few Iraqi Kurds crossed into Turkey several weeks ago and are staying with their relatives.
Many people in border towns like Silopi have relatives on the other side of the border and are worried for their safety. Fourteen-year-old Ebru says most of his mother's relatives live in northern Iraq and his family is very concerned for their safety.
"My mother has relatives on the other side. Before the closure of the border [in 2001], they were visiting us quite often. But we lost contact with them. A few days ago, my uncle called and said that they had left their home and had gone to mountains to survive the war," Ebru said.
So far, Silopi residents believe the U.S.-led war will remain a distant conflict, far from the homes of their relatives in northern Iraq. But today's arrival of the trucks loaded down with supplies for a potential inflow of refugees may leave them worried that they, too, will soon feel the direct impact of the war.