The Turkish government said yesterday it planned to send soldiers up to 12 miles inside the Iraqi border to prevent refugees from pouring across the border into south eastern Turkey.
The announcement contrasts starkly with indications given to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) that the Turkish authorities would build and provide security for at least six serviced camps in Turkey and a further 12 in Iraq to deal with any refugee crisis that might arise.
The UNHCR had believed the Turkish government was prepared to care for over 250,000 refugees under this arrangement.
No movements of people have been reported so far but Amnesty warned the presence of Turkish forces in northern Iraq and the stated intention of blocking refugees alone could prove incendiary in the historically volatile region.
There are also fears, so far unsupported, that the deployment of Turkish troops to Iraq could signal the start of a more ambitious plan to exert control over the northern provinces and take over the oil rich city of Kirkuk and the strategically important city of Mosul.
Northern Iraq is populated mainly by the Kurdish ethnic group who also account for much of the population of south eastern Turkey. The Kurds in Iraq have a large degree of autonomy and activists among their neighbours in Turkey have long agitated for the right to join them in an independent Kurdish state spanning the border.
The issue flared up following the last Gulf War when the Iraqi army brutally suppressed a Kurdish uprising led by the armed revoluntionary group, the PKK, leading to the movement of several hundred thousand refugees to the inhospitable mountains of the Turkish border. The last properly serviced refugee camp, at Atrush inside the Iraqi border, which housed some 8,000 refugees, was controversially shut down by the UNHCR in 1996 because of claims that the PKK was using it as a base camp.
A legacy of bitterness and volatility has remained in the region and Amnesty spokeswoman Judith Arenas said there were very real fears that history could be repeated, with the spark for trouble just as likely to come from the Turkish side of the border as within northern Iraq.
“Something we might expect would be that martial law would be declared in the Turkish provinces bordering Iraq to try to keep a rein on things but it is foreseeable that the PKK would retaliate and that could trigger off something much bigger. Feelings are running very high and it would require the Turkish authorities to keep a cool head and balance the long-term concerns against short-term actions.”
Ms Arenas said Amnesty was urging all countries bordering Iraq to keep their borders open to avoid the concentration of refugees in any one spot should mass movements of people begin.
“The reports we are getting today are a cause for concern but we are not alarmed yet. There is a new government in Turkey and they have made very positive statements about human rights issues. This is a chance to prove their commitment before an international audience and we hope they take it.”