Makhmour Refugee Camp: A Sanctuary amidst Conflict
In distressing news, the Makhmour Camp, which has been frequently targeted by Turkish airstrikes, is now facing a siege by the Iraqi army. On May 20th, special army units accompanied by armored vehicles attempted to encircle the camp with wire fences and establish towers in strategic locations. However, the residents of the camp strongly opposed these measures, leading to clashes with the army. One person was injured as a result of the army’s attacks, further fueling the determination of the camp residents, who are now in their first week of resistance.
This is not the first time the Iraqi government has taken such action against the camp. In December 2022, they surrounded the camp and constructed a perimeter fence in a similar attempt to exert control over its operations. The government’s objective appears to be regulating and asserting authority over the camp. This latest move is part of an ongoing agenda to manage the camp’s affairs.
An Refugee Camp in Crossfire
Makhmour Refugee Camp, officially known as the camp of the martyr Rustem Cudi for the locals, located approximately 60 km southwest of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, serves as a residence for approximately 13,000 refugees and holds recognition from the UNHCR.
Makhmour (Mexmûr by local language) Refugee Camp was initially established in the early 1990s following the Persian Gulf War and the subsequent uprisings against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. It was initially intended as a temporary settlement for Kurdish refugees who fled their homes in northern Iraq and southern Turkey who because of the Turkey’s war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). However, due to the ongoing instability and conflicts in the region, the camp has endured for decades, accommodating multiple generations of displaced individuals.
Over the years, the camp has faced numerous challenges. Lack of infrastructure, limited access to basic services such as clean water, sanitation facilities, and healthcare, as well as overcrowding, have been persistent issues. However, despite these challenges, the residents of Makhmour Refugee Camp have shown resilience and determination to create a sense of community and maintain their cultural identity.
Initially situated beyond the control of the Iraqi Kurds, the camp’s status changed after the United States’ invasion in 2003, resulting in de facto territorial control by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Despite this shift, the camp has remained independent in terms of governance, maintaining a unique system.
In 2014, the Makhmour camp gained significance as a symbol of Kurdish resistance against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). After successfully repelling the ISIS threat, KRG President Massoud Barzani personally visited the camp to express gratitude to its inhabitants and had a meeting with . However, more recently, tensions have arisen between the KRG and the PKK, with Makhmour camp becoming a focal point.
In April 2020, the camp attracted international attention due to Turkey’s escalated drone attacks in the area. Furthermore, the KRG imposed restrictions on the movement of refugees, limited their access to employment opportunities, essential medical services, and education facilities. These developments have intensified the already strained situation within the camp.
Camp’s situation and life restrictions during 1990s.
Despite the hardships, the people of Makhmour Camp have shown remarkable resilience. Many have become active participants in camp governance and community initiatives, working together to address challenges and improve conditions. Through various community-led projects, they have created recreational spaces, cultural centers, and organized events to celebrate their heritage and foster a sense of unity.
Makhmour was a desolate town outside of Iraqi Kurdistan and distant from the Turkish border. Aside from an Iraqi military presence, it was an isolated place. Makhmour did, however, form a geographic link between Qandil, the PKK’s largest military base, and Syria, where Öcalan resided at the time. Some refugees initially protested the location and its isolation, but eventually yielded to Öcalan’s authority. The camp’s remoteness would provide space for experimenting with.
The Autonomy of the Makhmour Refugee Camp refers to the self-governing system established by the residents within the camp. Since its inception, the camp has developed its own administrative and organizational structures, aiming to provide essential services and maintain order within the community. The camp residents elect their own representatives and form committees to manage various aspects of camp life, such as security, education, healthcare, and social affairs.
The main governing body the camp is the Makhmour Camp Administration, which oversees the overall administration of the camp. The camp administration consists of elected officials who make decisions regarding the camp’s internal affairs, welfare, and resource allocation. They work to ensure the provision of basic services, including water, electricity, healthcare facilities, and education.
The autonomy of the Makhmour Camp is significant because it allows the camp residents to have a certain degree of self-determination and control over their own affairs. It provides them with a sense of agency and the ability to shape their lives within the constraints of the camp environment. The residents actively participate in decision-making processes, which contributes to a stronger sense of community and empowerment.
In recent years, the resilient residents of the Makhmour camp have found ways to sustain themselves through agricultural practices and modest animal husbandry. However, their efforts have been significantly hampered by the persistent challenges of a water crisis and ongoing unrest due to conflicts in the region. These factors have further exacerbated the limitations faced by the residents, making their pursuit of livelihoods increasingly arduous.
The camp residents are facing significant obstacles in terms of employment opportunities. As they are already being denied entry to Erbil, the KRG is starting to restrict access to Sulaymaniyah as well. As a result, the majority of the camp’s residents are compelled to seek labor in the territory of the Republic of Iraq, specifically in Baghdad, where they are allowed transit.
Tragically, commuting to work has proven to be perilous for many resident. These individuals often work as laborers and earn meager wages, typically less than $20 USD for a full day’s work. The economic hardships and risks associated with their daily commutes further exacerbate the challenges faced by the camp residents.
The camp confronted with a significant healthcare challenges. With only one clinic available, the medical resources are severely stretched. While there are a limited number of nurses, pharmacists, and lab technicians present, the clinic is staffed by just one doctor. This scarcity of medical personnel exacerbates the already pressing situation.
To compound matters further, patients from the camp are facing additional hurdles in accessing necessary healthcare services. They are denied entry to Erbil, where the closest hospital offering comprehensive medical care is located. This denial of access to crucial healthcare facilities outside the camp further exacerbates the healthcare limitations and strains on the available resources. The residents face considerable difficulties in receiving the healthcare services they require, and the absence of adequate medical facilities puts their well-being at risk.
In the camp, a notable educational system is in place, serving a student population almost 4,000, with the dedicated efforts of 150 teachers. The educational facilities consist of nine schools, comprising four kindergartens, four primary schools, and one secondary school. Notably, all the teachers in the camp are volunteers, driven by their commitment to education.
An admirable aspect of the educational system is its dedication to gender equality, ensuring that girls receive the same educational opportunities as boys. Remarkably, over 99% of school-aged students successfully complete their secondary education within the camp.
However, despite the high rate of secondary school completion, graduates from the camp face a significant setback as the Kurdistan Regional Government denies them admission to universities. This denial of access to higher education poses a challenge for the aspiring students, hindering their prospects for further academic advancement and potentially limiting their future opportunities.
Makhmour camp has been subjected to relentless airstrikes and attacks by Turkish army drones since 2017 (here and here) despite its significant distance from the border. These unwarranted assaults have led to the loss of numerous lives and caused immeasurable suffering to innocent individuals residing within the camp.
Tragic incidents unfolded on April 15, 2023, as alleged Turkish drone strikes resulted in the loss of two civilian lives and left two others injured in the villages of Kani Miran, Saliawah, and Waryawh located in Sulaymaniyah. The strikes inflicted a devastating toll on the affected communities, causing immense grief and raising concerns about the safety and security of civilians in the region.
Regrettably, the Iraqi government, the KRG, and the United Nations have shown a lack of response and urgency in addressing these brutal attacks. The absence of intervention and protective measures from the Iraqi government, combined with the cooperation of the KRG, has left the camp inhabitants vulnerable to severe security threats. Additionally, the silence observed by the United Nations, which holds the responsibility of ensuring the safety and well-being of the camp’s residents, has fostered an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. This silence erodes the trust of the camp’s inhabitants in the ability of these institutions to effectively provide the necessary protection and support.
The constant presence of armed drones hovering over the camp has had a profoundly negative impact on the mental well-being of the residents, particularly the continuous presence of Turkish state aircraft flying over the area, which has inflicted severe psychological damage on the children. The once carefree act of walking on the roads has become a daunting experience for the children, who now find themselves constantly looking up at the sky, anticipating the next bombing or airstrike. This distressing reality has stripped these innocent children of their rightful childhood, constituting a clear violation of humanity.
Furthermore, this situation poses an imminent threat to the safety and security of women and mothers residing in the camp. They live in perpetual fear, as every passing moment puts them, their children, and their families at risk of being targeted by airstrikes and bombings.
The continuous presence of armed drones and the psychological distress inflicted upon the residents represent grave concerns, highlighting the urgent need for action to protect the well-being and fundamental rights of the camp’s inhabitants. The ongoing exposure to such threats and violence warrants attention as a pressing issue demanding international intervention.
In a distressing turn of events, the Makhmour Camp, a recurrent target of Turkish airstrikes, found itself under siege by the Iraqi army on the morning of May 20th. Special army units, accompanied by armored vehicles, sought to encircle the camp with wire fences and establish towers at strategic locations. However, the residents of the camp vehemently opposed these measures. Amidst the clashes, one person was injured as a result of the army’s attacks, further fueling the determination of the camp residents, who have now entered their first week of resistance.
In a recurring pattern, the Iraqi government has once again attempted to enforce a restrictive measure targeting the camp. This is not the first instance of such action, as back in December 2022, the army made a similar endeavor by surrounding the camp and constructing a perimeter fence. It is evident that the government’s objective is to assert control and exert management over the camp’s operations. This latest move reflects a persistent agenda to regulate the camp and exert authority over its affairs.
On May 20, the media reported the heavy presence of Iraqi army forces outside the camp.
In the autonomous Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq, the KRG holds administrative authority over regional affairs. However, it is noteworthy that the refugee camp situated on the border between the Kurdistan Region and the rest of Iraq does not fall under the direct control of the regional government. Over the years, this camp has been a subject of ongoing controversies, primarily revolving around allegations that the Iraqi army intends to impose a blockade and “demilitarize” the camp.
During a major military operation in northern Iraq in 2021, Turkish President Erdogan warned Iraq that Ankara will “cleanse” the camp, saying it was a safe haven for Kurdish militants. Erdogan then threatened to push his military campaign further into Iraqi territory, describing the camp, located 180km south of the Turkish border, as an “incubator” for Kurdish militias belonging to the PKK.
Filiz Budak, a representative from the Makhmour Refugee Camp has drawn attention to the Iraqi government’s plan to erect military towers, suggesting that this initiative is aligned with the policies pursued in collaboration with the Turkish state and the Barzani family.
According to Budak, the Iraqi government is currently acquiescing to the demands of the Turkish state, which, during meetings, openly admits to restricting the flow of water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the camp. This action has led to the creation of different markets, but Budak asserts that the Iraqi government should not prioritize the well-being of other people at the expense of their own population. Budak believes that the establishment of military towers is a direct consequence of the negotiations and shared interests between the Turkish and Iraqi governments.
Local activists have reported on the escalating tension that has resulted in a conflict between the residents of a camp and the army. In a recent video (left), the UNHCR has breaking their seven-year silence with a visit to the Camp.
In a recent revelation, Yusif Kara, a representative from the Makhmour Refugee Camp, has exposed the collaborative efforts of the Iraqi government, the “Barzani family,” and Turkey to shut down the camp by erecting wire enclosures. Despite consistent opposition from the camp residents, this information has been conveyed to them multiple times, reflecting a dismissive attitude from the authorities towards their concerns.
Kara highlighted the latest developments surrounding the camp, shedding light on the mobilization of the Iraqi army for an impending siege scheduled to commence on May 20. The plan involved a forceful attack on the camp, with the backing of police forces and armored vehicles. In response, the camp residents actively sought negotiations, requesting a meeting with the delegation representing the authorities. Regrettably, their pleas were met with disregard, and the authorities obstinately proceeded with their decision.
Strongly condemning the behavior of the Iraqi government, Kara emphasized the violation of international laws and principles established by the United Nations, as well as the erosion of the spirit of hospitality. Additionally, Kara firmly stated that the decision taken by the authorities aligns closely with the policies pursued by the fascist Turkish state.
What Baghdad wants?
A security official in Baghdad revealed plans to erect a perimeter fence around Makhmour Camp, aiming to bring it under the oversight of government security forces. The move comes as part of a broader strategy to control the movement of Turkish and Iranian Kurdish dissident groups within Iraq’s Kurdistan region and areas under federal government authority.
Turkey has conducted multiple military operations targeting PKK fighters in Iraq and Syria, leading to casualties not only among the fighters but also civilians. The PKK’s presence in Iraqi Kurdistan has complicated relations between the region and Turkey, impeding trade between the two neighbors.
The Iraqi government’s plan to secure Makhmour Camp is claiming to be part of a broader effort to exert control over dissident Kurdish groups operating in the Kurdistan region and areas under federal government jurisdiction. By implementing stricter measures, the government claims to regulate and monitor the activities of these groups, thereby affecting regional dynamics and trade relationships.
In the ongoing efforts to preserve the autonomy of the camp and restore peace to its environment, dialogues are taking place between the camp authorities, government officials, and representatives from the United Nations. These discussions aim to find viable solutions that ensure the camp’s self-governance while fostering a peaceful atmosphere for its residents.