Kurdish Refugees Remain in Limbo

Thousands of refugees living in camps for over two decades are still without citizenship.
For almost two decades, Ali Ibrahim Mustafa, a 44-year-old Turkish Kurd, has worked illegally on construction sites across the Kurdistan region in Iraq to support his wife and nine children.

He, along with thousands of Kurds who fled violence in Turkey and Syria, takes illegal, low-paid, cash-in-hand jobs on construction sites or farms because of their status.

They still live in poor conditions in settlements erected as a temporary measure almost 20 years ago.

Many refugees, now with stateless children, say their living standards would improve if the government allowed them to work legally by granting them residency.

According to articles five and six of the Iraqi National Law 2006, anyone habitually living in Iraq for ten consecutive years or born in Iraq to non-Iraqi parents can apply for residency.

However, no Kurdish refugees have been granted citizenship. They remain in Iraq under a 1971 refugee status law that offers them protection, but no recourse to citizenship or residency.

This leaves them in a quandary, because while many see Iraqi Kurdistan as their natural home, without Iraqi identification documents refugees cannot be legally employed, own property or even buy a car.

“I sometimes work more but for less money than my Iraqi counterparts just to get enough cash in hand to feed my family,” said Mustafa, who has lived in the Meserek camp in Dohuk for the last 17 years.

According to the immigrants and displaced people’s office of the Kurdish Regional Government, KRG, in Duhok, around 5,348 Turkish Kurds and 1,000 Syrian Kurds are living in Makbali, Domeez, Meserek, Gregor, Husniyah, Mullah-Brown and Dartoo refugee camps.

The problem largely stems from when the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party, PKK started in the 80s, and rebels began fighting Turkish forces in their attempt to win autonomy for the Kurds in Turkey.

In 1993, Mustafa arrived with hundreds of other Turkish Kurd families after military clashes between Turkish forces and the PKK in his village of Silbi near the Iraqi border.

He says he is unable to return because of ongoing violence and fears of persecution from the Turkish government if he is accused of supporting the PKK.

In 2004, hundreds of Syrian Kurds also fled their country after clashes erupted in the north-eastern city of Qamishly following a Syrian government crackdown on political dissidents.

For seven years, Ameena Abdullah, a 25-year-old Syrian Kurdish woman, has lived in a tent inside the Makbali camp in Duhok with her husband and five children.

Her husband works illegally in construction but is often without work and his wages barely meet basic living costs.

“My children suffer diarrhoea and have other serious symptoms due to the camp’s poor conditions, but I can't provide them with the necessary treatment and a healthy balanced diet because we don’t have enough money,” she said. “We depend on UN handouts.”

There are also a small number of Iranian Kurds in Iraq, mainly in the Ashraf refugee camp in Kurdistan. The government has ruled out granting them residency, citing in a statement, issued last week, “regional pressure because of the growing power of Iranians in Iraq”. However, they will continue to receive humanitarian help until they are able to return to Iran.

Some lawmakers in Kurdistan accuse the Iraqi central government of neglecting the refugee issue, because they claim it does not want to add more Kurdish citizens to the Iraqi population.

Kurdish politician Ziyad Al-Dosky noted that refugees in Kurdistan already shared the culture and language of the local population.

“[Residency would] help them better to integrate into society,” he said.

Others argue that the ongoing problem is simply due to the failings of the political system, rather than any power struggle between Baghdad and Erbil.

“The federal government is still fragile after the fall [of Saddam Hussein’s regime] and the changes that followed,” said Hameed Bafi, a member of the Kurdistan list in Iraq’s parliament. “Some might claim that political sides could bring foreigners to change the demography of the country, which is of course not true and completely against the constitution.”

The Kurdish Human Rights Organisation, KHRO, says the problem of refugees lacking status was not just endemic among those of Kurdish background, but affects almost all nationalities in Iraq.

Iraq hosts some 38,000 refugees from Palestine, Iran, Syria and Turkey as well as a small number from Somalia and Sudan.

“Iraq should reconsider its refugee status rules related to granting nationality to refugees, according to the standards of human rights and away from politics,” the KHRO’s Hikmat Omar told IWPR. “There are refugees who have been living in Iraq for over 20 years, yet can’t have Iraqi nationality, while refugees in other countries can get that within five to ten years.”

Muhammad Abdullah Hamoo, the director of the Dohuk immigrants’ and displaced people’s office, said that his department was paying close attention to the situation.

The Duhok provincial council was currently in the process of building 90 residential units for the Kurdish Syrian refugees, and granting financial aid to 110 Turkish Kurdish families to build their own homes inside their camps; as well as constructing a series of schools for both communities, Hamoo added.

The United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees, UNHCR is also rolling out a programme to help refugees in Duhok through the Haricar Organisation for Human Development NGO, including legal aid, registering births and issuing new marriage certificates to aid them in any future bids to gain citizenship or residency.

Hikmat Omar Sharafani of Haricar urged the government to grant refugees citizenship status to prevent their further exploitation.

The UNHCR also warned the situation will continue to deteriorate as another generation of children are born stateless in Iraq.

Turkish Kurd refugee Mustafa’s 18-year-old son has already decided to leave his studies to assist the 14-member family.

“We don’t have much right now,” he said, “and it is better for me to work and help support the family.”


Rasheed Duhok is an IWPR trained reporter. Farah Ali, IWPR editorial coordinator and Hazim al-Sharaa, IWPR local editor in Iraq, also contributed to this article.