Turkey’s Embargo on Kobane continues to produce Syrian Refugees

29 Sep 2014, Kobane, Kobanê Canton, Syria --- Hundreds of Syrian Kurdish refugees waited to be allowed to enter Turkey, Monday, after Islamic State forces stepped up their bombardment of the city of Kobane. Forces from the Islamic State continued to push towards the city of Kobane/Ayn al-Arab, Monday, shelling the city from the east and south west with heavy weapons as YPG forces attempted to hold their advance on all fronts. --- Image by © Bryan Denton/Corbis

by Hawzhin Azeez

The recent tide of refugees, estimated at 350 000, flowing into Europe has led to a massive humanitarian crisis. Desperate refugees embark on a long and dangerous journey across the Aegean sea in an effort to reach safety. Hundreds have recently drowned, yet many remain so desperate that they are willing to take the chance of reaching safety and security in Europe by taking the perilous journey. The lifeless body of Alan Kurdi and his brother washed ashore highlighted sharply the refugee crises, and galvanised the European community to address the humanitarian disaster and prompting acceptance of large numbers of refugees in places like Germany and Sweden.

Instead of focusing on major structural changes, the ongoing discussion has largely focused on how EU countries should deal with the influx of refugees, what measures need to be in place and how to ensure that refugees are provided with adequate services. As a central tenant of a lack of a holistic solution,  tension have risen as some EU countries have taken on more than others, while particular countries such as France and UK are seen as not carrying their share of the burden.

More recently discussions have evolved around ensuring that the core factors producing the refugee crises are addressed, including the ongoing civil war in Syria and the Assad regime. An argument largely overlooked and underdeveloped is the role which liberated territories can play in stopping the flow of thousands of refugees.

In Syria, Rojava and Kobane have largely functioned as a filter and a central base by supporting thousands of refugees from other parts of Syria. International experts have noted that providing support to safe zones helps to curb the flow of refugees. Kobane, with a current total population of 200, 000 people, and the site for the historical resistance against ISIL terrorists is currently 80% in ruins. The swell in population has also increased the burden of the canton. It has made the task of providing essential services and support to a traumatised community fundamental.

With international support largely missing, the locals have begun the almost impossible task of rebuilding Kobane and providing some basic welfare and support for the native population and the refugees. The Kobane Reconstruction Board and a plethora of other local associations such as the Rojava association in Turkey have been at the forefront of this endeavour. However, the rebuilding process has been slow and arduous and many critical aspects of the rebuilding, including the education, health, water and electricity sector remain largely unaddressed. Many experts argue that to effectively rebuild the city $1.5billion is needed.

Apart from the obvious financial concerns, the most crucial factor contributing to the slow rebuilding process is the ongoing humanitarian embargo by NATO member Turkey towards the Rojava region. Turkey’s on going war with the Kurds continue both internally an across the neighbouring borders of Iraq and Syria. The recent election win by the pro-Kurdish party HDP, who smashed the 10% margin to win 80 seats in the Turkish parliament has resulted in spiring of violence and clashes between Turkey and Kurdish factions, particularly with the on-going military successes of the Kurdish YPG-YPJ fighters against ISIL in Rojava. These military successes combined with the HDP win have raised concerns about Turkey’s own large Kurdish minority and their aspirations for increased political inclusiveness and cultural representation. The embargo on Rojava has had a number of ongoing flow on effects on Kobane.

At the top of the list, the embargo- including the prevention of necessary aid and supplies from crossing the border—has ensured that NGOs and humanitarian groups wishing to support Kobane cannot enter the canton officially. Currently the embargo prevents any individuals with a non-Turkish passport to cross the border. Where major organisations such as Handicap International are able to transfer staff over to Kobane due to official E.U. authorization they face huge challenged in taking the equipment and machinery needed to engage in rebuilding the infrastructure. Many other organisations and skilled experts have been prevented from crossing the border.

While Turkey has shown that it is more than willing to strongly encourage displaced people to return to Kobane, it has actively prevented NGOs taking the steps necessary to allow refugees to return to a safe and liveable environment. Twice each week the border to Kobane is opened and refugees are allowed to return to the canton, however unless serious medical conditions occur they are unable to return to Turkey. In line with this approach, Turkey allows specific types of aid, such as food from the Diyarbakir and Suruc municipalities to cross the border as a means of increasing the incentive for refugees to return. But conversely it prevents essential needs such as mine sweeping equipment necessary to allow people to return to their homes and villages safely.

The other major obstacle facing the rebuilding process is demining. The current and ongoing embargo has had a detrimental impact on the capacity of international organisations and the canton to effectively clear the area of mines and allow refugees to return. International organisations such as Global Community and Handicap International currently face significant challenges of being unable to import vital mine sweeping equipment, usually considered as military equipment. Without these machinery their mine clearance work cannot continue, which in turn prevents the refugees from returning to their homes. Further, NGOs are heavily reliant on government grants and funding. Where funding is not received, or run out, projects come to a standstill.

Organisations such as Handicap International, who are waiting for the next round of grants and funding in the coming year, resort to providing capacity building services such as educating the indigenous workforce to learn essential demining skills in an effort to continue to support such communities. But if the embargo continues and the equipment does not arrive then the education and training is essentially rendered ineffective.

Of the 420 villages which surround Kobane many have been littered with improvised explosive devises by ISIL as a deliberate effort to booby trap homes, local business and farms and prevent displaced refugees from returning to their homes. The lack of machinery and funding has ensured that the villages remain no go zones, swelling the population in major areas such as Kobane. More crucially, the villages are the main source of agricultural production and food supply to the canton and surrounding areas, but so long as they remain mined refugees cannot return and continue their agricultural work effectively. The flow on effects are long term and detrimental to normalisation of life in the area.

Further, the demining process can take years, if not decades. Mozambique was recently declared free of mines after the 1977-1992 war, 23 years after the war ended. Mozambique’s case highlights the long term need for international experts and organisation to continue working years after peace has been restored.

Likewise, the nature of the improvised explosives placed around the villages by ISIL are ingeniously placed in school bags, in kitchens and other general positions so that it is almost impossible to teach returning refugees what to look out for. Close to 50 people, many of whom are women and children have lost their lives as a result. Demining NGOs run regular workshops, provide pamphlets and information to returning refugees about unexploded bombs and devices and what to look for. Unfortunately, the improvised booby traps around the surrounding villages are much harder to identify, locate and demine. Four local members of the demining group have lost their lives as a result of these improvised booby traps. The lack of adequate machinery also means that this process is currently at a complete stand still.

As a result, the over 200, 000 returning refugees remain within and around the city of Kobane, placing a greater burden on the city to provide essential services. Currently no international aid or funds have been provided to help rebuild the education, health or water and electricity sector. This is despite a large international conference which was held in the European Parliament on the 1st of July this year to raise awareness and gain funds and support.

The current humanitarian embargo by Turkey restricts the flow of aid and expertise, prevents effective demining, limits the capacity of NGOs to provide support to local communities, and remains the central obstacle in not only the preventing normalization of life but also rebuilding the canton.  As a result encouraging the still remaining 300, 000 refugees to return becomes an impossible task.

This process effectively condemns already traumatised refugees to an uncertain future of ongoing displacement internally within Rojava.

In order to address part of the problem affecting and producing the current refugee crises it is essential that stable regions such as Rojava are provided with the international humanitarian aid and support urgently needed. The NGOs currently wishing to support the rebuilding process face an impossible task of having to function with severely limited capacity as a result of the embargo.

In the absence of an effective policy of supporting stable regions desperate refugees continue to turn to Europe as the only viable solution.

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