The Refugee Camp Under Attack from All Sides

A six-month-long embargo is the latest threat that the 13,000 residents of Maxmur Camp— Kurdish refugees from Turkey— have faced in their efforts to defend themselves and rebuild stable lives.

Maxmur Camp (ANF).

In the mid-1990s, thousands of Kurdish refugees from Turkey fled a scorched-earth state “counter-terrorism” campaign that displaced up to one million civilians and flattened as many as 4,000 villages. Once they reached Iraq’s Kurdish region, the refugees organized not only emergency accommodations, but also autonomous political, economic, and self-defense structures. In 1998, Maxmur Camp was established in its current location. Since then, it has maintained its democratic self-administration against steep odds— and faced threats from local and international powers because of it.

Rather than provide meaningful relief, the international community has chosen to target and isolate Maxmur— simply because of the ideas that its people have put into practice to build a new life in a geographically and politically hostile region. Both regional and international powers have sought the camp’s closure, with little regard for the humanitarian costs of doing so.

The United States has said little publicly about Maxmur’s existence— but official communications tell a very different story. Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables show U.S. support for closing the camp and facilitating the return of its residents to Turkey, regardless of the persecution that caused them to flee. One cable referred to a militarized raid on the camp as a move that “pushes forward the humanitarian process that could result in the voluntary return of refugees to Turkey or their resettlement.” The return of refugees to a country that remains hostile to them is prohibited under international law— a concern that appeared not to have been taken into account.

In addition to diplomatic manipulation, Turkey has taken military action against the camp itself. Indiscriminate Turkish airstrikes — so common in Iraqi Kurdistan that Human Rights Watch has condemned them as a likely war crime — also pose a significant threat. Turkish attacks have killed multiple civilians in the camp, most recently in late 2018.

International organizations are also complicit. Maxmur has received formal United Nations aid since the late 1990s, but only to a limited degree. The UN has also worked with Turkey and Iraq on an agreement for “voluntary return” of refugees there in 2004. That agreement, supported by the United States, ironically stated that “Turkish authorities are to ensure that the refugees who volunteer to go back to Turkey are free to return their former places of residence,” with no mention that the vast majority of the Kurdish towns from which they fled had been destroyed and were never rebuilt. Maxmur’s residents were only officially registered with UNHCR and the Iraqi government as refugees in Iraq in 2011.

Today, 13,000 people live in Maxmur Camp. They manage 13 schools, hospitals, and other public services, as well as economic cooperatives, local democratic governance structures, and institutions unique to the Kurdish movement, like autonomous women’s councils and centers. Their education system provided inspiration and practical resources for the establishment of the first ever Kurdish-language education program in Syria, implemented by the Autonomous Administration. They have established a variety of cultural and civil society projects, ranging from a theatre cooperative to literacy courses. Local defense forces were instrumental in the fight against ISIS in the region, protecting the camp and helping stop the terror group’s spread across Iraq.

Though the fight against ISIS is over, Maxmur’s people are now facing a new threat— one that could be related to the same international interests that have targeted the camp since its inception. Since a Turkish intelligence agent was killed in Erbil in July 2019, the KRG has imposed an embargo the camp, preventing its residents from traveling to other cities under its control. The resulting humanitarian crisis has received little international attention.

The KRG has shown its hostility towards Maxmur residents before— and its willingness to work with outside actors, like the United States and Turkey, to target the camp. U.S. officials noted that KRG officials “expressed opposition to local integration in Kurdistan for Makhmour residents unwilling to repatriate to Turkey” in 2006, and discussed the KRG’s willingness to support Turkish goals in the region. A 2008 cable notes that former KRG Interior Minister Karim Sinjari told U.S. officials that he supported the closure of the camp, and another from 2007 mentions that KRG President Massoud Barzani said that his government “would not allow any refugees in the camp to be integrated into the local community.”

In September 2016, anticipating protests in Erbil, KRG security forces cut off the Maxmur-Erbil road, and fired workers who lived in the camp. Aziz Kara, a member of the Maxmur Workers’ Committee, told ANF that:

“Hundreds of workers from Maxmur have been dismissed from their jobs in Hewler and Sulaymaniyah during the past one week. We are living in this camp for 23 years now and we have never harmed anyone. Then why are our people being fired? This must have an explanation but they don’t have any.

As a matter of fact, this incident is totally political because all those subject to investigation are asked why they live in Maxmur and why they join demonstrations and protests. They are later threatened to not do such things again and forced to sign a document in this scope.”

Leyla Arzu Ilhan, the co-chair of the Maxmur People’s Assembly at the time, said that the attacks were “developed by the Turkish state and KDP together,” and noted that the people of Maxmur had been able to rely on their autonomous institutions in times of crisis before. “They want to isolate Maxmur from the society of Southern Kurdistan with the ultimate goal of evacuating the camp here. This is being developed by the Turkish state and KDP together,” she said— a statement that corresponds to known discussions between Turkey, the KRG, and the United States on the closure of the camp.

The current embargo is far more comprehensive— with devastating consequences. For 194 days, workers who live in Maxmur but work outside of the camp have been unable to go to their jobs, and civilians facing medical emergencies have been blocked from receiving the help they need. Dr. Medya Almani, who has provided medical services in the camp for several years, told ANF in August that:

“We refer the patients we can’t treat here to Hewler. There are several patients who are severely ill, but because the road is closed they have to turn back. This is risking their lives. In these few days, two pregnant women were stopped by the KDP asayish at the Zurka checkpoint. They lost their babies because they weren’t let through. A patient’s appendix ruptured when he wasn’t allowed to go to Hewler. Only then he was let through.”

One of the women from Maxmur who suffered a miscarriage spoke to Human Rights Watch about the ordeal:

“An officer told my husband that the checkpoint has instructions not to allow anyone from the camp into Erbil…I was in the car losing blood, but the officer looked at me and said I was fine…When I lost my baby, it was sad moment and I also felt like I might die at that moment and no one would care. Since then I still haven’t had any proper medical treatment.”

Fatma Kara, another woman who lost a pregnancy after being blocked from accessing medical care, described similar circumstances in an interview with ANF.

“I went to the hospital on July 19 when I was sick. I couldn’t get treatment because the hospital in the camp didn’t have enough resources. The doctors referred me to a hospital in Hewler. I was going in and out of consciousness. With my sister and my husband we headed to the hospital in Hewler. We had referral documents, but the security forces didn’t let us through. We insisted due to the severity of the situation, but the official at the checkpoint said he will not let anybody through. So we had to go back.

After we went back to the camp, I lost my child. I can’t get out of bed because I’m still sick and now I’m grieving for my child. KDP is keeping hundreds of sick people from getting through.”

Young children, the elderly, and those with chronic illnesses are particularly at risk from the blockade. In October, a five-month-old baby suffering from respiratory and heart conditions died after her family was stopped at a checkpoint for several hours before being allowed to access a hospital. A source in the camp said that, to date, at least six children have died in total. The camp’s Health Committee has warned that they are running out of essential medicines, making many conditions even more difficult to treat without referrals to outside facilities.

Human Rights Watch also published accounts from low-income workers who relied on employment outside the camp to provide for their families. One woman said that she was not able to afford holiday gifts for her family after both she and her husband had lost their jobs:

Our daily salaries were just enough to cover our daily expenses. On the first morning of Eid [Islamic holiday], I cried because I couldn’t buy clothes or sweets for my children. It wasn’t Eid for us.”

While KRG authorities claim that students have been allowed to travel to their schools and universities, officials in Maxmur revealed that they were only allowed to do so after signing forms that said they would not take part in any political activity— an unjust limitation on freedom of expression. Many students also fell behind a year after not being allowed to register for their classes on time.

Maxmur’s governing institutions have repeatedly called on the KRG, the government of Iraq, the United Nations, and the international community as a whole to end the blockade and allow the camp’s population to live in peace. In August, the camp’s democratically-elected governing council issued the following statement:

We call on the UN, and particularly the UNHCR, to fulfill their duties and take action to enforce international law and conventions by holding Turkey to account for its attacks on the Maxmur Camp, home to more than 13,000 refugees. Turkey is itself a signatory to the UN Charter and international human rights agreements.

We call on the UN to immediately ensure that the embargo on the Maxmur Camp is lifted, and that the Maxmur Camp has access to food supplies and medical care.

We call for an end to Turkish military aggression against the Maxmur Camp. If Turkey is allowed to act with impunity, it will continue targeting the residents of the Maxmur Camp, resulting in more death and destruction.

The government of Iraq must take responsibility for crimes committed against civilians living within Iraq’s borders who have now been targeted by military airstrikes using Iraqi airspace. We therefore call on the government of Iraq to act against this violation of its sovereignty.

We call the international community, the defenders of human rights, and civil society to react against the illegal, deadly acts of Turkish military aggression against the Maxmur Camp.”

Civil society institutions have also shown active resistance. Regular demonstrations against the embargo— and those against other attacks on the Kurdish people across the region— have taken place, with significant popular support. Members of the Ishtar Council, the camp’s elected women’s assembly, held a 27-day sit-in at a KRG security checkpoint, during which they were attacked and threatened by security forces.

In light of the scale of the crisis in Maxmur today, it worth asking whether the embargo is the KRG’s plan alone.

Multiple current U.S. officials responsible for regional issues have expressed interest in seeing the camp closed and its residents sent elsewhere. James Jeffrey, seen by some as one of the architects of the Turkish occupation of Sere Kaniye and Gire Spi, is a known supporter of the closure of Maxmur and the return of its residents to Turkey. In one 2008 cable, he stated that his team had “pressed” Turkish officials to take a “take a fresh look at closure of Makhmour Refugee Camp in northern Iraq.” David Satterfield, the current U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, had also suggested the camp’s closure on various occasions in talks with Turkish officials.

It is also noteworthy that the embargo was the only “response” to the death of a Turkish agent in Erbil. A stronger Turkish reaction was expected, but never materialized. It is possible that the embargo is not a “temporary” local security measure, as KRG officials have claimed, but a move made at Turkey’s behest to retaliate against a civilian population with no connection to the attack and achieve a longstanding Turkish goal of weakening the camp. That Turkey has used military force against the camp before makes it hard to believe that they would be unwilling to deploy a local ally to implement economic pressure.

The people of Maxmur have stated clearly that they believe Turkey is responsible— and is targeting them solely for their identity. At a July demonstration just days after the embargo was reacted, one protestor said that:

“The invading Turkish state wants to destroy any place where there is a Kurd. Maxmur Camp is subjected to various attacks every day. Moreover, the silence of the UN and Iraqi government is the basis for these attacks…Let the colonial Turkish state and its collaborator, the KDP, know that the people of the camp will never give in to the attacks and will not step back from the line of struggle and resistance.”

If this is true, it is unsurprising that the embargo has coincided with another, more direct Turkish attack on autonomous Kurdish-held territory — the invasion of North and East Syria. Weakening the Kurdish liberation movement’s efforts at governance by targeting their civilian populations is a known Turkish tactic, used both within their borders and across the region.

Taken together, these circumstances suggest that the United States and Turkey hold responsibility for this humanitarian crisis as well. It is impossible to know their true level of involvement— but precedent suggests it is likely more than has been discussed in what little coverage the situation has gained.

What is clear is that the people of Maxmur are currently being targeted for little more than their attempt to seek basic rights: freedom from war, oppression, and poverty. The state whose policies they fled decades ago has followed them across international boundaries, using local and international allies to prevent them from living as Kurds with agency over their own political structures and the ability to defend themselves. The embargo is not only a violation of humanitarian law, but of basic moral principles. Like all international efforts to crush freedom and self-determination in the name of narrow state interests, it must end.

News and analysis on Northeast Syria.