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Makhmour Refugee Camp. © Private / 2019

(Beirut) - Security forces for Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have arbitrarily imposed restrictions on movement for most residents of Makhmour refugee camp for Turkish Kurds since mid-July 2019, Human Rights Watch said today.

The restrictions came after unknown assailants suspected of belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group engaged in a decades-long conflict with Turkey, killed a Turkish diplomat in the nearby city of Erbil on July 17. KRG security forces, known as Asayish, arrested several suspects and imposed the restrictions, seemingly because of perceived PKK support among some residents. As a result, many camp residents have lost their jobs and had difficulties getting health care.

“Authorities can’t just punish everyone in a camp because some people may be sympathetic to the PKK when there’s no evidence they committed a crime,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These arbitrary restrictions on camp residents are keeping them from reaching jobs and health care.”

The camp, 60 kilometers southwest of Erbil, is home to at least 12,000 ethnic Kurdish Turkish nationals. Most fled southeast Turkey from 1993 to 1994 when the Turkish military forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of Kurds from their villages during the conflict with the PKK. In 2011, Iraqi authorities and UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, officially registered the site as a refugee camp and Iraqi authorities granted the residents refugee status.

Dindar Zebari, the KRG’s coordinator for international advocacy, responded on October 30 to a Human Rights Watch inquiry about the situation, writing that KRG authorities “slightly restricted temporarily” the camp residents’ movements because of “security issues.”

He claimed that “the new measures did not include those who have jobs, students, or those seeking treatment in Kurdistan Region hospitals considering that they have approval documents.” In a subsequent email on November 6, Zebari repeated that “all these precautions are temporary and for protecting the safety of everyone” and said that “approval documents” meant letters from employers or educational institutions confirming the person’s status.

Five residents told Human Rights Watch that they had the requisite documents and permission to leave the camp but that security forces had barred them from passing through the first checkpoint on the road to Erbil and other cities in the Kurdistan Region. Another resident said he had lost his job as a result and couldn’t get a new job that could provide an employment letter. They said that only students and a few people referred to hospitals had been able to get through.

Another resident said that security forces allowed her through the first checkpoint but turned her back at another checkpoint closer to Erbil.

A doctor in the camp’s clinic said that she tried, largely unsuccessfully, to refer many cases to Erbil hospitals because of the clinic’s limited treatment options: “Asayish told us they didn’t trust the referrals from our clinic as genuine. But we then got Makhmour hospital, which also has very limited medical resources, to make the same referrals and they rejected them too.”

A woman who was three months pregnant said she had a referral from Makhmour hospital, which was stamped by the Makhmour mayor’s office, for a pregnancy checkup at an Erbil hospital. She waited at the checkpoint from 7 a.m. to noon on October 31. “A very rude officer told me I could wait a year and he still would not let me go through to Erbil, even though I had all the required paperwork,” she said. “He took my referral paper before sending me back.”

Another woman said that on the evening of August 8, when she was six months pregnant, her husband took her to the camp clinic after she started bleeding heavily. The doctor there said she needed to go to a hospital in Erbil for emergency treatment. The camp had no ambulance, so her husband drove. They passed through three checkpoints but were stopped at the last one.

“An officer told my husband that the checkpoint has instructions not to allow anyone from the camp into Erbil,” she said. “I was in the car losing blood, but the officer looked at me and said I was fine.” She said they eventually turned around and that she miscarried on the way back: “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.”

The doctor from the camp confirmed the woman’s account and said she knew of a second woman in the camp who miscarried because she was unable to get to a hospital after being stopped at the same checkpoint.

A 45-year-old woman with 5 children said the restrictions caused her and her husband to lose their jobs as cleaners, which are not the kinds of jobs that provide letters of referral. She said that about 1,000 camp residents had worked at such jobs in Erbil and other cities: “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.”

An engineer who used to work at a construction company in Sulaimaniyah said he lost his job once authorities stopped allowing workers through the checkpoint. He said he has a valid refugee identity card and a card showing his membership in the Kurdistan Engineers Syndicate but that officers at the checkpoint said that no one from the camp could go to Erbil.

An Iraqi Kurdish resident of the town of Makhmour, next to the camp, said on November 6 that every time he drives through the checkpoint, he is asked if he is transporting anyone from the camp: “I see many people from the camp, including old women and sick people, just sitting on the ground by the checkpoint, begging the Asayish to let them through… I don’t understand why they don’t allow them to pass.”

The camp residents interviewed said they could leave the camp for cities under the control of Baghdad, like Mosul, but were afraid, citing lack of Arabic language skills, missing documents such as valid identity cards, and fear of arrest. Many families’ identity cards expired in 2014, and authorities in Baghdad only started re-issuing them in 2018. During those four years, KRG checkpoints had let them reach cities in the Kurdish region. Three camp residents said that in early September 2019, two men living in the camp with expired identity cards who were trying to travel to Dohuk, in the Kurdish region, via Mosul, were kidnapped by unidentified assailants and are still missing.

The KRG’s international obligations require it to guarantee anyone on its territory the right to choose their place of residence and to move freely. Under international law, it may only limit people’s movement – nationals or non-nationals – if the restriction is “provided by law … and necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others.” In addition, these restrictions must be non-discriminatory and proportionate to the restriction’s purpose.

International law also prohibits making freedom of movement “dependent on any particular purpose or reason for the person wanting to move.”

“It should not take mothers losing their babies for KRG authorities to realize these restrictions are excessive,” Whitson said. “It is shocking that authorities have not put an end to restricting the movement rights of some of Makhmour’s refugees.”     

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