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THE US worked with Turkey, Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the UN to close Makhmour Refugee Camp in northern Iraq and send its residents — Kurds who fled south east Turkey in the 1990s — back to their country of origin, despite few improvements in the conditions that forced them to leave, leaked diplomatic cables show.
Makhmour Camp was established in the mid-1990s by Kurdish refugees who had escaped a violent campaign of village demolitions that forced as many as three million people from their homes. During that time, the US provided military support to Turkey, contributing significantly to the conditions that led to this mass displacement.
The camp still exists and is now home to about 13,000 people. It continues to face threats from regional powers — from regular Turkish airstrikes, to an embargo implemented by the KRG that has lasted over six months and led to multiple deaths. Its residents were recognised as refugees by the UN in 2011, giving them certain domestic and international legal protections.
Yet this basic acceptance of the rights of thousands of displaced people almost never happened. Starting in 2003, just months after the US invasion of Iraq began, American officials showed an interest in closing the camp and repatriating its residents — a goal Turkey claimed was necessary for its security.
The plan never took into account the conditions that internally displaced Kurds whose villages had been destroyed faced in Turkey, or the general atmosphere of discrimination and persecution that Kurds in the country faced at the time.
The Turkish state has for decades used forced displacement and demographic change as a tool of policy to crush Kurdish resistance and promote assimilation.
By destroying Kurdish communities and forcing the survivors to move towards Turkish-majority areas, the state is able to exert greater control over these populations — down to the language they speak and their very identity. The goals of such policies have been reflected in law, statements and practice for as long as the modern Turkish state has existed.
The 1938 Dersim Massacre, where 40,000 mostly Alevi Kurds were killed, was a chilling early example of the lengths to which Turkish authorities would go to ensure a politically subservient and ethnically homogenous populace.
Reports from local sources described atrocities as including the use of chemical weapons, civilians being herded into caves and burned alive and women jumping off cliffs into the rivers to avoid being captured and raped.
The primary legal justification for this crime was the 1934 Settlement Law — which permitted the state to move populations to different areas as they saw fit in order to assimilate them into “Turkishness.”
Sukru Kaya, the Interior Minister at that time, said that the law was intended to “create a country speaking with one language, thinking in the same way and sharing the same sentiment.” One scholar has referred to it as not solely discrimination, but “the legal framework for a policy of ethnocide.”
These horrific incidents would not be the last time that Turkish authorities would use forced demographic change against Kurds who refused assimilation.
In the late 1980s, several Kurdish provinces were placed under emergency rule. This time, the justification was the state’s war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a left-wing Kurdish national liberation movement that in 1984 began an armed struggle for the creation of an independent Kurdish state.
The far-right military government that took power in 1980 had legally banned the Kurdish language, shut down news outlets and political parties, instituted widespread arbitrary detentions, and enforced disappearances and torture to suppress all dissent.
Under these conditions, Kurdish society quickly began to support the PKK’s armed resistance. But rather than address the underlying causes of the conflict, the Turkish government responded with escalating violence.
A state-appointed emergency governor was given widespread powers to enable forced displacements in Kurdish provinces.
Article 2 of Decree 285, issued in 1987, stated that the governor could “order the temporary or permanent evacuation of villages, winter stations (for livestock) flocks and arable fields… and order the resettlement or unification of inhabitants of such places.”
Article 1 of Decree 430, issued in 1990, allowed the governor to remove people from regions under emergency rule altogether.
These provisions were used indiscriminately. During this time, as many as 4,000 Kurdish villages were evacuated and destroyed. Survivors describe being rounded up in village centres and told that they had hours to choose between leaving with what they could carry or being killed.
Like their counterparts in the 1930s, Turkish officials freely admitted the goal of their campaign: the removal of a contiguous Kurdish population from their historic lands altogether and their resettlement in places where they could easily be supervised and controlled. A 1993 memo from President Turgut Ozal to prime minister Suleyman Demirel stated that:
“Starting with the most troubled zones, villages and hamlets in the mountains of the region [should] be gradually evacuated … [and] resettled in the Western parts of the country according to a careful plan … Security forces should immediately move in and establish complete control in such areas … To prevent the locals’ return to the region, the building of a large number of dams in appropriate places is an alternative.”
To this day, the vast majority of villages have not been rebuilt and about one million people remain internally displaced 20 years after they first fled their homes. Human-rights organisations have criticised the limited measures that Turkish authorities have taken to respond to the devastation they caused.
The US played a key role in enabling these crimes. As the campaign of village demolitions escalated, the US sold more weapons to Turkey than it had in the previous three decades combined.
The State Department reportedly said at the time that the Turkish military was approximately 80 per cent dependent on American equipment. According to the Federation of American Scientists, from 1992 to 1998 Turkey received an average of $800 million in American weaponry per year.
As the situation gained more international attention, the US actively sought to downplay its role in facilitating atrocities. The sole report issued by the US government on the issue actively minimised the impact of weaponry that originated in the US and failed to reach the conclusion that the US was significantly enabling abuses.
Human-rights organisations quickly recognised and condemned this cover-up. Human Rights Watch warned that the report in question was “marred by a series of systematic flaws and contradictions which facilitate the policy of continued military sales to Turkey.”
“Despite being ordered by the US Congress to conduct a serious investigation into Turkish misuse of US-supplied weapons, the State Department made little use of the US government’s vast resources and knowledge of Turkish military activities,” it continued.
With this context, it is unsurprising that the US would secretly join Turkey in continuing to target Kurds in Makhmour.
The earliest mentions of Makhmour in publicly available diplomatic cables comes in September 2003, just after the US invasion of Iraq. In this cable, US Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman recognised the conditions that prevented Makhmour residents from returning, noting that “powerful elements of the State, particularly the security services, do not want displaced Kurds to return to the southeast, where they assume Kurdish identity is strongest.”
Despite this, in the same cable he suggested US support for the idea that they return anyway: “The UNHCR [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] rep in Ankara argues for close co-operation among the GOT [Turkey], USG [US] and UNHCR to inform Makhmour refugees of improving conditions in southeast Turkey and to ensure returnees receive adequate support.”
Another 2003 cable detailed the extent of UN support. “UNHCR is eager to work with the GOT and CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] to assist in the voluntary return to Turkey of refugees from the Makhmour camp in northern Iraq,” Edelman noted.
A deal to do just that would soon be underway. In October 2003, US, Turkish, Iraqi and UN officials met to discuss a prospective agreement on repatriation. Turkish officials were clear on the intentions of the plan.
An official with the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs told US officials that “our objective is to dissolve that camp and to maximise the number of Turkish citizens who return.” US officials noted in another cable that: “The GOT has one main goal in this process: the camp must close.”
The deal that came out of these talks was announced publicly in early 2004. It never went through — a testament to the reality of the conditions that Makhmour’s people were being asked to accept and the fact that it was made to satisfy Turkish policy objectives rather than basic humanitarian concerns.
US officials, however, believed it had failed because they had not given Turkey enough support on their demands regarding the camp’s closure.
Edelman wrote: “The deal fell through… because the Turks insisted that Secretary Powell sign a letter of guarantee” regarding Turkish counter-terrorism priorities. The same cable suggested that, as a more feasible gesture of goodwill to Turkey, the US pressure Iraq’s new “democracy” to shut down a legal Kurdish political party.
Despite clear humanitarian obstacles, the US continued to promote the closure of Makhmour Camp as a counter-terrorism “deliverable.” The policy went all the way up to the highest levels of American diplomacy.
In a 2006 cable, US secretary of state Condoleeza Rice told a US diplomatic delegation meeting with the UN to discuss Iraq simply that “that the camp must be closed.”
In 2007, the US military even assisted Iraqi forces in an armed raid on Makhmour — a move that it ironically claimed would support a “humanitarian process that could result in the voluntary return of refugees to Turkey or their resettlement.”
Taken together, this information paints a disturbing picture: the US provided military and diplomatic support to a systematic Turkish campaign of forced displacement in Kurdish regions.
It then prioritised Turkish effort to return civilians who escaped this violence to an environment where they would face serious human-rights abuses. The plan to close Makhmour and repatriate its residents was illegitimate, morally distasteful and in violation of several basic provisions of international law.
First, forcing refugees to return to a place where they still have a well-founded fear of persecution goes against the principle of non-refoulement — which states that: “No one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm.”
The history of systematic persecution of Kurds in Turkey, the use of forced displacements to facilitate state control of Kurdish populations and the situation of internally displaced Kurds in Turkey at the time when US officials sought the closure of the camp, suggest that Makhmour’s residents would not have been safe if they were to return.
To this day, Kurds in Turkey are arbitrarily detained and tortured on the slightest of pretexts: Kurdish asylum seekers have been accepted in Western countries on the grounds that they have faced such inhuman treatment and would be subjected to it again if they were to return to Turkey.
In the mid-2000s, organisations working on the issue of internally displaced persons reported significant flaws in the limited plans that Turkish authorities had offered for resettlement and compensation, noting that displaced people still suffered from severe poverty and discrimination.
It is highly unlikely that international standards for safe returns could have been met in this case — a fact that the UN’s belated recognition of Makhmour’s population as refugees in 2011 legitimised.
Furthermore, the fact that the need to close Makhmour was justified on security grounds is a form of collective punishment on the grounds of political beliefs — which is also forbidden in international law.
In condemning the recent embargo imposed on the camp by the KRG, Human Rights Watch noted that the political sympathies of some of the camp’s residents could not be considered grounds to target them all. The absurdity of trying to send refugees back to a state that persecuted them for their political opinions because of those opinions should not be lost on observers of the situation.
The little-known story of Makhmour provides important context for understanding current developments in the region. It is a chilling precedent for current US indifference to Turkey’s policies of mass displacement and forced demographic change in northern Syria — a tragedy once again facilitated itself by US policy.
Some of the strongest supporters of the camp’s closure have diplomatic roles on issues related to Turkey and Kurdistan today — James Jeffrey, the current US Special Envoy to Syria, and David Satterfield, the current US Ambassador to Turkey, both expressed support for closing Makhmour. Holding officials accountable for involvement in past human-rights violations is essential for preventing future ones.
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