Irvin, A.: Displacement in the Kurdish Regions, 2011

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Displacement in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and the Caucasus is a cause of great concern, with increasing numbers of people being forced from their homes due to conflict and regional instability. There are an estimated 3.5 million internally displaced persons in Turkey (Briefing Paper, September 2010), representing nearly 5 % of its population and over 40 % of the total number of IDPs in Europe and Eurasia. In some districts as many as 90 % of the population are IDPs. In Iraq there are over 1.5 million IDPs, many living in Kurdistan and the surrounding disputed areas. Recent aerial attacks by Iranian military forces against Kurdish opposition groups in Sulaymaniyah and Erbil governorates in northern Iraq have displaced almost 1000 households, or approximately 5,000 people. (Briefing Paper, August 2010). In Syria, there are over 300,000 Kurds who are officially stateless as a result of the increase in population of the 150,000 Kurds who were overnight stripped of their citizenship in the 1962 Hasakeh census. Kurds affected by these policies, both directly and through inheriting their consequences, are largely unable to alter their economic, legal or social status, and this has led to mass urban migration from traditionally Kurdish areas. In Iran, the clearance of 2,000 km2 in the Kordestan region during the 1980’s created tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees. In addition, according to UNCHR reports, there are believed to be some 7,000 registered Feili Kurds who remain in Iran following their expulsion from Iraq in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Cross regionally there are many refugee camps situated in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which is the home to around tens of thousands of refugees from Turkey, Iran and Syria.

Many IDPs are living either in segregated, poorly run camps, or in the slums of cities that are overcrowded and which do not have the infrastructure to support the sudden increase in numbers that displacement due to conflict brings. For instance, between 1991 and 1996, the city of Diyarbakir nearly quadrupled in size due to the influx of displaced persons, growing from 350,000 to 1.5 million. (Muller/Linzey, 2007). Displaced families, already suffering from the trauma of forced evacuation, are also facing increased poverty, unemployment and intolerable pressure on already under-resourced public facilities. The situation of IDP women is of particular concern as, faced with changes in family and community structures, they can often become isolated and increasingly vulnerable to violence.

IDPs suffer disproportionately high levels of psychological problems as a result of the reality and threat of violence, combined with the severe social dislocation associated with displacement. They are at an economic disadvantage and lack the social support networks necessary to survive in times of crisis. These problems create a complex situation in which many cumulative difficulties have an impact at an individual, family and community level. In his most recent report in 2009, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, underlined the need for a comprehensive plan to address the socio-economic problems faced by IDPs and to ensure sustainable durable solutions. (Hammarberg, 2009).

This paper aims to highlight the situation of displaced persons throughout the Kurdish regions, which is often obscured by distorted official statistics and a lack of monitoring. It will also briefly examine the role of the international community in seeking sustainable solutions to the problem faced by those displaced.


Estimates suggest that up to 4 million Kurds were displaced from their homes and villages during the conflict in southeast Turkey between 1984 and 1999. During this time, village evacuations were a frequent occurrence and were often accompanied by severe human rights violations. However, it was not until the opening of accession negotiations in 2004 that Turkey began to openly address its IDP problem. This was in large part due to pressure the European community began putting on Turkey on the issue.

As noted, many of those displaced were forced to live in extremely poor conditions on the periphery of cities and larger villages. The most apparent problems IDPs are facing are poverty and unemployment. Lack of education, which contributes to rising unemployment, is another major issue. A 2009 report found that more than 30 % of the children of Kurdish IDPs living in Diyarbakir and Istanbul, and 77.8 % of those living in Batman do not attend school, mainly due to the consequences of poverty. (Briefing Paper, September 2010). Women and children, who make up the majority of IDPs in Turkey, often face(d) additional obstacles in accessing education and other social services and are at increased risk for abuse. Women undertake most of the unpaid work involved in holding a community together, such as bearing and raising children, caring for the sick and elderly, fetching water, growing and preparing food and caring for livestock. All these are adversely affected by displacement, as women become isolated and are vulnerable to violence. 

There has been little substantive attempt to redress the past reasons for forced migration and the losses incurred due to displacement. Return for IDPs has been slow and inconsistent, hampered by a lack of transparency in return programmes, a failure to consult with affected populations, and the continued presence of village guard systems and landmines in the areas affected. The Turkish village guard system is made up of village guards recruited, sometimes forcibly, from local Kurdish tribes. Paid and armed by the Turkish government, and working alongside Turkish security forces, they have been used to assist the Turkish government in fighting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Recent events have further exacerbated the IDP problem in Turkey. The ongoing aerial bombardments within Kurdistan Iraq carried out by both the Turkish and Iranian militaries have created instability in the region and have made returning dangerous for many of those previously displaced. Estimates suggest that over 1000 families have been displaced by Turkey and Iran’s cross border military operations in 2010 alone. This is causing new displacement within Iraq, with Turkey receiving many of those displaced from Iraq, Iran and Syria.


Forced displacement in Iraq is commonly considered to have taken place in one of three periods: The first, under the former Ba’ath government; the second period, lasting from the March 2003 invasion until the February 2006 Samarra bombing; and the third period since February 2006. It is estimated that there are currently 2.8 million people who are internally displaced as of July 2009. Of these, it is estimated that one million had been displaced before 2003. (Internal Displacement MC, March 2010)

Figures from the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration (MoDM) are based on registration of IDPs in 15 central and southern governorates while KRG undertakes registration in the northern governorates. However, these figures should be approached with caution as registration remains voluntary, and is contingent on documentation, which IDPs are often unable to provide due to their circumstances.

Prior to 2003, Saddam Hussein’s government forcibly displaced political opponents, particularly Kurds in northern Iraq and Shi’ias in the south. In the north, the government’s ‘Arabisation’ campaigns were designed to obstruct Kurdish aspirations for independence and to strengthen control over lucrative oil reserves near the city of Kirkuk. Following the 2003 US led invasion, much of the displacement was due to air strikes and urban warfare primarily in the areas of Anbar, Thi’Qar, Basra and Baghdad. However, the most significant cause of displacement since the 2003 invasion has been the sectarian conflict. Sectarian and ethnic tensions, fuelled by disputes over governorate borders, have continued to cause displacement, although it has become less frequent. Adding to what is already a serious situation, the aerial and land bombardments carried out by Turkey and Iran have resulted in increasing numbers of IDPs in Kurdistan, Iraq.


During the 1980’s the clearance of 2000 km2 of land in the Kordestan region of Iran led to tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees. Today there remains three UNHCR refugee camps in Kurdistan, Iraq to care for those displaced during this time. In addition, in an ostensible effort to fight against terrorism and government opposition groups, the Iranian government commonly conducts security and military operations in Kordestan. During these operations, people are forced from their homes and are prevented from accessing their pastoral and agricultural livelihoods. (Project Seminar, September 2010).

As noted above, the coordinated aerial bombardments into Kurdistan, Iraq carried out by both the Turkish and Iranian military, further force people from their homes on both sides of the border and create instability in the region. 

Finally, the political climate, particularly in regards to minorities or other marginalised groups and human rights defenders who can be perceived as a threat to the ‘integrity of the state,’ has led to forced migration from Iran into the neighbouring states of Turkey and Iraq.


The state’s decision to strip 120,000 Kurdish people of their citizenship in 1962 has today led to an estimated 300,000 individuals living as stateless people within the Syrian borders. Economic underdevelopment, which is particularly acute in the Kurdish regions of Syria, and the ongoing ‘anti-Kurd’ climate had led to the situation that many Kurds in Syria migrate, largely to Iraq. At the same time, those who fled post-invasion violence in Iraq are living on the border areas in UNHCR camps located in the state’s Kurdish region.

Role of the International Community

There are steps that the international community can take to ensure that the situation of displaced persons in the Kurdish regions is not ignored and that states are making efforts to assist the displaced in accessing services and economic opportunities and, if they wish, to return safely to their villages.

In Turkey, the international community should work to monitor the operation of Turkey’s IDP programmes, including the current Compensation Law and Return to Village and Rehabilitation Project to ensure that it is being carried out fairly and that those eligible are aware of their rights and the compensation that is due to them.  Additionally, the European Union can make Turkey’s accession also conditional upon the government’s development and implementation of a comprehensive plan to deal with not only compensation to IDPs in Turkey but also the redress of the wide range of problems they suffer. Finally the EU and the larger international community can utilise existing relations with both Turkey and Iran to urge both states to respect Iraq’s territorial integrity and work towards ending cross border military operations by stressing the detrimental effects they have on regional peace and stability. 

In Iraq, greater support should be given to the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in protecting its territorial integrity and facilitating safety for its citizens. This support can and should include the provision of technical expertise to assist the Iraqi government and the KRG to develop a comprehensive policy towards returnees and in addressing the historic and ongoing causes of displacement in Iraq.

In Iran and Syria, while there is less influence the international community is able to exercise, there are still things that can be done to improve the IDP and refugee situation in these states. As noted above the international community can use its existing relations to encourage both states to respect minorities and their cultural and religious diversity. Further, it is vital that they support the UNHCR, ICRC and other international organisations working with vulnerable groups in these states and along their border regions.

In the case of Iran, international governments should stress the importance of respecting Iraq’s territorial integrity and putting an end to cross border military operations in ensuring regional stability. Moreover in Syria, the international community should seek to link future economic and trade deals to the government’s efforts in improving the human rights and security situation for IDPs and refugees within the state.


As this paper has illustrated, displacement throughout the Kurdish regions remains a pressing problem. Many of the people affected in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria have been displaced for decades, with ongoing conflict in the region continuing to add to these numbers daily. While some of these states have made attempts to resettle or return their refugee and IDP populations, these plans often lack a strategy for implementation, and furthermore the majority of those displaced have not yet been offered lasting solutions to their plight. There are many barriers facing IDPs that limit their ability to return, which must be addressed, with international assistance, by governments in the regions. Ideally, a coordinated effort among states would work to focus on the issues, which extend across borders, and make return difficult or impossible for many. These include the continuing conflict and violence, particularly the ongoing cross border operations being carried out by Iran and Turkey, the destruction of villages that were evacuated, the presence of government village guard militias and the widespread presence of landmines in the border areas between Turkey, Syria and Iran. (Briefing Paper, September 2010) Further complicating their return is the fact that these areas often lack the economic opportunities, social services, and basic infrastructure including clean water, electricity, telephone lines, schools and roads, which are necessary to the livelihoods of returnees.

Anna Irvin, 2011