(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Greek roads prove deadly for migrants on busy land route to Europe

    Near the Evros River border between Turkey and Greece, which became a popular migration crossing point in 2018, officials have recorded a sharp increase in migrant and asylum seeker deaths from traffic accidents. And more than a quarter of all migrant deaths in mainland Europe in 2018 were due to road accidents in Greece, according to UN figures.

     

    Pavlos Pavlidis, a forensic scientist based in Alexandroupoli, Greece, whose sole responsibility is identifying dead migrants and asylum seekers, told IRIN that by mid-December he had already seen dead bodies from nine traffic accidents in 2018, up from two car crashes in 2017.

     

    Read more → Greece’s man in the migrant morgue

     

    It’s not entirely clear what’s behind the growing trend, but both reckless practices by human smugglers and attempts to avoid arrest and return to Turkey are possible causes.

     

    Greece itself has the highest rate of road fatalities in the European Union, at 69 deaths for every one million inhabitants in 2017.

     

    But for migrants, the roads are even more dangerous. According to statistics from the UN’s International Organization for Migration, 30 migrants died and 82 were injured in road accidents in Greece last year, out of the nearly 48,000 migrants who arrived in the country, 15,814 via Evros. The IOM recorded 109 migrant deaths in all of Europe in 2018.

    Most of the crashes take place on Greece’s Egnatia Odos highway, a €5.93 billion project that stretches from the Ionian Sea to the Turkish frontier, and was designed to be faster and safer than the roads it replaced when it was finalised in 2009.

     

    Dimitris Koros, a lawyer with the Greek Council for Refugees, told IRIN that attempts to avoid capture may encourage dangerous practices: “As [migrants] know that the more deep in the mainland they enter, the less possible it is for them to be pushed back, it makes their driving that much more reckless,” he said. IOM reports that nearly every accident occurs after a high-speed car chase with a police vehicle.

     

    Human smuggling is a business where corners are regularly cut, and Greece is no exception. In Evros, migrants are loaded into cars or vans beyond capacity. IOM reports that smugglers usually arrange for unaccompanied foreign minors already living in Greece to drive – the idea being that underage drivers won’t get jail time. Other times, migrants are forced to drive themselves. In either case, drivers are likely overwhelmed, unfamiliar with the terrain, and afraid of the authorities.

     

    Popular land route to Europe

     

    As IRIN has reported, in April 2018 the Evros River (known as the Meriç in Turkey) saw a resurgence in migrants and asylum seekers crossing into Europe, leaving first responders, police, and aid workers both unprepared and overwhelmed.

     

    That month, 3,600 people crossed at Evros, surpassing sea arrivals to Greece for the first time since 2014. Numbers have since dropped – the Hellenic Police report 1,848 people crossing in October and 1,025 in November – but they are still significantly up on 2017.

     

    A string of high-profile accidents began shortly after the uptick in arrivals last year. On 8 June, a van carrying 17 Iranian migrants flew over the Egnatia Odos’ protective barrier, leaving six dead, among them three children. Later that month, on 27 June, a sedan packed with 10 Syrians and Iraqis (including two children) lost control on the highway, killing three people and injuring the rest. The mother of the children died at the Alexandroupoli hospital later that day.

     

    The pressure on those arriving is intense. Both Human Rights Watch and the Greek Council of Refugees have found a clear pattern of police (or groups wearing paramilitary clothing) speaking in Greek and other foreign languages forcibly returning migrants across the Evros border to Turkey.

     

    Migrants and smugglers – usually hoping to reach Thessaloniki or Athens before moving elsewhere in Europe – know that the chance of reaching their final destination increases the further they go into the Greek mainland. “I used to breathe a sigh of relief when I saw signs for Kavala [a city some 200 kilometres southwest of Evros],” a former migrant smuggler who requested anonymity told IRIN in June.

     

    Whatever the causes of the individual crashes, deaths are stacking up.

     

    On 13 October, police chased a van full of migrants near Kavala, leading the van to crash head on with a truck. All 11 migrants stuffed inside were burned alive, charred beyond recognition. One month later, a migrant van again collided with a truck, injuring 27 people and killing a four-year old Iraqi boy.

     

    Most recently, on 13 December, a driver ignored warning signs to slow down due to an overturned lorry; he lost control of the vehicle and three migrants died. Another three survived with injuries.

    (TOP PHOTO: A group of Syrians who have just crossed the Evros River from Turkey to Greece. CREDIT: Socrates Baltagiannis/UNHCR)

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    Greek roads prove deadly for migrants on busy land route to Europe
  • An open secret: Refugee pushbacks across the Turkey-Greece border

    This is the third of a three-part special report on the Evros River border crossing between Turkey and Greece. Read the other instalments: “Greece’s man in the migrant morgue” and “Unprepared and overwhelmed: Greece’s resurgent river border with Turkey.”

    For more migration coverage see our series Destination: Europe

    Linda, a 19-year-old Syrian and registered refugee, had just crossed from Turkey into Greece at the Evros River when men carrying guns appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. She wasn’t sure if they were police officers or soldiers, but they emerged from behind trees and wore dark uniforms that helped them blend into the night.

     

    It was mid-May, and several hours earlier Linda had boarded a mini-bus in Istanbul with around 35 other people, including children and a pregnant woman, eager to enter European Union territory. The trip had been organised by smugglers, and the passengers ended up in a remote area close to the northwestern Turkish city of Edirne. At around three in the morning they boarded small boats that ferried them across the river.

     

    Linda’s plan was to get into Greece, then make her way to Denmark, where her fiancé lives. Her crossing was part of a sharp uptick in traffic into the EU via the Evros (known as the Meriç in Turkish) this spring; 3,600 people are known to have crossed in April alone, compared to just over 1,000 in all of 2013.

     

    But she didn’t make it more than a few steps into EU territory before she was stopped.

     

    The men demanded that everyone in the group hand over their mobile phones. “Then they beat the men who were with us, put us in a boat, and sent us back to the Turkish side of the border,” Linda recalled when she spoke to IRIN recently in Istanbul.

     

    Pushbacks like the one Linda experienced have been going on for years, documented by both human rights watchdogs and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. They are also illegal under European and international law.

     

    “The right to claim and enjoy asylum is a fundamental human right," Leo Dobbs, a UNHCR spokesman in Greece, told IRIN. Pushbacks at the Evros border, he added, are a “serious issue.”

     

    According to a report released by the Greek Council for Refugees in February, before the spring rush, pushbacks have increased to the point of being “systematic” as the number of people crossing the Evros has grown slowly in the past two years.

    The Evros River border between Turkey and Greece is one of the easternmost frontiers of the European Union. Until a fence went up on all but 12 kilometres of the Evros in 2012, it was the easiest and safest path for asylum seekers from the Middle East and elsewhere to reach Europe, and nearly 55,000 people crossed the border irregularly in 2011.

     

    A controversial 2016 EU-Turkey deal that paved the way for asylum seekers to be returned from the Greek Islands to Turkey (which it deems safe under the terms of that agreement), does not apply to the Evros border. Instead, there is a separate, largely ineffective bilateral readmission agreement dating from 2002 that was suspended earlier this year.

     

    Even under the terms of that agreement, pushbacks like the one Linda experienced violate European and international laws on refugee protection, which require states to allow asylum seekers to file for protection and prohibit sending them back to countries where they may face danger. While countries are allowed to protect their borders, they cannot legally return people who have already crossed without first evaluating their claims.   

     

    Pushbacks may be illegal, but they are an open secret. “It’s something that everybody knows,” said Dimitris Koros, a lawyer with the Greek Council for Refugees. Now, when an asylum seeker enters Greece from the land border, “the first thing you encounter is the possibility of being pushed back,” he added.

     

    The Greek Ministry for Migration Policy did not respond to IRIN’s requests for comment, but the Greek government has repeatedly denied it is engaged in systematic pushbacks.

     

    Human rights organisations say they have raised the issue of responsibility with the Greek government multiple times without receiving a response. “It’s a difficult thing… to say that the government instructs or gives orders to the policemen to do it,” Konstantinos Tsitselikis, a human rights law professor and former director of the Hellenic League for Human Rights said, “but they have the knowledge and they tolerate it at least.”

     

    It’s unclear just how many people have been pushed back or who is responsible, because the area around the border is a closed military zone and there aren’t many NGOs working in the region.

     

    Meanwhile on the Turkish side of the river, security forces regularly apprehend people attempting to cross and transfer them to government-run detention centres. But amidst a pervasive atmosphere of fear and silence, the treatment of asylum seekers and migrants after they are pushed back and detained largely remains a mystery.

     

    A longstanding practice

     

    According to Tsitselikis, pushbacks have been happening for decades.

     

    “I used to do my military service in 1996-97 in the Evros border area,” he told IRIN. “Even then the Greek authorities were doing pushbacks every day.”

     

    Although the border is technically a military zone, these days border police patrol the frontier as well as personnel from the EU border control agency, Frontex.

     

    People who have been pushed back, including Linda, describe being met by security forces wearing different types of uniforms, but it’s tough to assign responsibility.

     

    “Since it takes place outside of the public eye, we don’t really understand who is responsible,” Koros, from the Greek Council for Refugees, said.

     

    When asked about the practice by IRIN, Nikolaos Menexidis, police major general of Western Thrace, the Greek region that borders Turkey, said Hellenic police always follow the proper procedures when dealing with migrants.  

     

    Menexidis said his forces have been working with Turkish police for the past six years on what he calls “technical issues.” They primarily exchange information on stopping smugglers on both sides of the border, he said.

    the_fence_is_bolstered_by_thermal_cameras._farmers_have_special_permission_to_continue_to_use_their_fields.jpg

    Nikolaos Symeonidis/IRIN
    Most of the border between Turkey and Greece is lined with barbed wire fence and cameras.

    After pushback

     

    Linda’s ordeal did not end when she was pushed back into Turkey. The smugglers who brought her group to the border were gone and so was the bus. Without phones to call for help, the group was stuck. After waiting several hours, they tried to cross again.

     

    This time they made it further, walking for five or six hours in Greek territory before they were stopped, taken to a detention centre, and placed in a room with people from many different countries.

     

    After being held for several more hours, they were driven back to the border, the men were beaten again, and they were all forced back to the Turkish side of the river. By that point, the group was exhausted and thirsty. “For two days we didn’t drink water. When we saw the river we drank from it,” Linda said. “There were people who got sick because the water was dirty.”

    A group of Turkish soldiers found them in the woods and brought them food, water, and milk for the children and pointed them in the direction of Edirne, where they arranged for taxis to bring them back to Istanbul.

     

    In a way, Linda was lucky. Last December, the Greek Council for Refugees documented the case of a Pakistani man who died of hypothermia after being forcibly returned to Turkey. He had fallen into the cold water on the way back.

     

    While the Evros is no more than a few metres wide, its current is deceptively strong and, according to records in Greece, at least 29 people this year have died while trying to cross the water or shortly after.

     

    Some who are forced back to Turkey face serious punishment. Since a failed military coup in 2016, the Turkish government has jailed tens of thousands of opponents, leading to an increase in the number of Turks fleeing to Greece to seek asylum – nearly 2,000 in 2017 compared to just 180 the year before. The Hellenic League for Human Rights has documented two cases of Turks being pushed back from Greece at the Evros and later being imprisoned in Turkey, including journalist Murat Çapan, who is now serving a 22.5 year sentence for “participating in a terrorist organization and attempting to overthrow the constitution”.  

     

    Despite documentation, human rights advocates say they have struggled to bring attention to the issue of pushbacks, as EU and international policymakers focus on stemming Mediterranean crossings. There is little appetite in Europe at the moment for monitoring or changing policies that are keeping asylum seekers and migrants from entering the EU.

     

    “Both the European Union and the Greek government... prefer not to open this discussion, especially in this political environment,” Tsitselikis said, referring to the rise of right-wing, anti-migration politics in Europe that is shaking the foundations of the EU.

    Fear and silence  

     

    In early June, about a 10-minute drive from Edirne, hundreds of people in the parking lot of what the Turkish government calls a “migrant removal centre” huddled under tin pavilions that offered shade from the afternoon sun. This is where those caught on the Turkish side of the river are brought.

     

    IRIN visited three times over the course of a week to try to gain access, but never received a response to our requests.

     

    The centre is surrounded by a low wall topped with a chain-link fence and spools of razor wire. Each time IRIN visited, there were hundreds of people – mostly men, but also women and small children – in the parking lot and white vans passed in and out of the metal gate depositing more people. Two large charter buses idled in the parking lot with their doors open, seemingly waiting for people to board.

     

    In close to a week spent at the border, there was no concrete evidence of what was happening inside the centre. There were hints and rumours, but no one wanted to speak on record – including Turkish organisations that work with asylum seekers – because of the sensitivity of the issue.

     

    It is simply not clear how long people are kept in the centre, or what happens to them when they are removed. The Turkish Directorate General of Migration Management responded to IRIN’s requests for comment with links to online statistics and Turkish law on removals.

     

    Several Syrian and Afghan asylum seekers that IRIN spoke to shared stories of being held in such centres for a period of time before being released inside Turkey and permitted to stay. Most of the people IRIN spoke to reported good treatment while inside.

     

    But in 2015 and 2016, Amnesty International documented cases of Syrians detained while trying to migrate to Europe and being deported to Syria, according to Anna Shea, an Amnesty researcher working on refugee and migrant rights.

     

    Amnesty has also recently documented a case of a Syrian asylum seeker stopped in Edirne being deported to Idlib, the rebel-held province in northwestern Syria where a ceasefire is so far holding off a government offensive but humanitarians warn conditions are still dire. It is unclear if the case is part of a larger trend.

     

    In recent months, Turkey has deported large numbers of Afghans and Syrians, stopped after crossing Turkey’s southern and eastern borders, back to their respective countries.

     

    But it is difficult to know if this practice has been extended to people who have tried to travel to Greece, given that the organisations working on migrant and refugee rights were unwilling to speak on the record, and the government declined to comment on the issue or allow access to detained migrants.

     

    “The total stonewalling and lack of information and complete lack of transparency is cause for concern in and of itself,” said Shea, the Amnesty researcher. “I mean, what do they have to hide?”

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    Greenery alongside a brown river with a deflated boat in the foreground.
    Nikolaos Symeonidis/IRIN
    A deflated boat lies on the Greek banks of the Evros.

    Hidden practice

     

    At a small village outside of Edirne, a man herding goats pointed to places where people crossed the nearby river, but there was no sign of anyone during the day. Crossings happened only at night, he said. And the Turkish army prohibited people from approaching the river after 7 pm.  

     

    The road leading from the village followed the winding course of the Evros, which was often blocked from view by thick stands of trees. The surrounding area was full of corn fields, rice paddies, and thick vegetation. Small dirt roads that shot off in the direction of the river were marked with red signs carrying a stencilled soldier – a warning that entry beyond that point was prohibited.

     

    Not far away, in the city centre, everyone seemed shocked to learn that so many people had crossed the border this year. It was a problem that most locals assumed was already in the past, given that most of the frontier had been lined with barbed wire and cameras for the past six years.

     

    But those who have tried and failed to cross the Evros know that the rural quiet harbours dangers the eye can’t see.

     

    Linda has given up on seeing her fiancé anytime soon – a visa is likely to take years – and she isn’t planning on trying to cross the border again. “I started being afraid because of the things I saw,” she said.

     

    With additional reporting by Sarah Souli

     

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    On an eastern frontier of the European Union, people are whisked back to Turkey before they can claim asylum in Greece.
    An open secret: Refugee pushbacks across the Turkey-Greece border
  • After Russia-Turkey deal, the fate of Syria’s Idlib hangs in the balance

    In two weeks, a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey that has so far held off a government offensive on the rebel-controlled Idlib region in northwestern Syria will come into effect. It could avert deepening a humanitarian crisis for millions already living in difficult conditions. But public details about the agreement – reached in the Russian city of Sochi with no Syrians present – are few and far between. So what do we know, and will it work?

     

    Fearing mass displacement and further violence, humanitarians have met the 17 September announcement out of Sochi with guarded optimism, even as they express uncertainty about the outlines of the deal and its chances of implementation.

     

    “The news of an agreement between Russia and Turkey offers relief, but only in so far as it will avoid a bloodbath in Idlib,” wrote Rachel Sider, a policy advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council, in an email to IRIN.

     

    Sider pointed out that many previous ceasefires in Syria have collapsed, and warned that even with a deal in place the humanitarian situation in Idlib and the surrounding areas – home to as many as *2.5 million people – remains grim, citing “severe water shortages and displaced families sleeping out in the open.”

     

    According to the published memo outlining the Sochi agreement, a demilitarised zone of between 15 and 20 kilometres will be established in Idlib province. No heavy weapons – such as tanks or howitzers – will be allowed inside that area.

     

    The deal further stipulates that all “radical terrorist groups” will be “removed” from the buffer strip by 15 October and the zone will then be monitored jointly by Turkey and Russia, though Russia will reportedly not maintain an on-the-ground presence there.

     

    Last but not least, two key highways that traverse Idlib – the M4, which connects Aleppo to the Syrian coast, and the M5, which links Aleppo to Hama, Homs, and Damascus – will be reopened for traffic by the end of 2018.

    Aside from these key points, the particulars of what was decided in Sochi have yet to be fleshed out or made public, including where exactly the zone will be and who will be allowed to remain in it. “The agreement itself is a bit ambiguous,” said Sam Heller, a senior fellow with the International Crisis Group.

     

    So, as with so many other deals in Syria’s seven-and-a-half-year war, the devil will be in the detail.

     

    What do the Syrians say?

     

    That the announcement came out of a handshake between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no surprise: the former’s support for President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the latter’s backing of al-Assad’s rebel enemies long ago pulled any real negotiations out of Syrian hands.

     

    While Putin is supportive of al-Assad, he also wants to keep Turkey engaged in Russian-directed peace talks and maintain positive ties between Moscow and Ankara, in the hope of prying this important NATO member away from the EU and the United States.

     

    As for Erdogan, his chief concern is to avoiding further fighting in the region, both in order to save Turkey’s rebel allies and out of fear of a massive refugee crisis flooding across his borders.

     

    While there was no Syrian presence at the negotiating table, buy-in from all the forces on the ground will be key if the buffer zone is to hold or even come into effect in the first place.

     

    At least for al-Assad’s part, this appears to be the case. The Syrian Foreign Ministry welcomed the agreement, noting that the diplomatic process must ultimately aim to rid “all of Syria’s soil from terrorism and terrorists as well as from any illegitimate foreign presence.”

     

    The rest of the pro-Assad camp quickly got on side, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif saying “diplomacy works”.

     

    What do the rebels say?

     

    Two major rebel factions dominate in the Idlib region: a pro-Turkey coalition called the National Liberation Front (NLF) and Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group that grew out of the Nusra Front, formerly al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch. Tahrir al-Sham controls key parts of Idlib, including the provincial capital and the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.

     

     

    The NLF issued a statement on 22 September that lavished praise on Erdogan and said Syrians in Idlib welcomed the Sochi agreement with “great relief”. However, the group warned it would “keep our fingers on the trigger” to guard against treachery on the part of “the Russian enemy”. The NLF has since warned that it will not tolerate Russian patrols inside the buffer zone.

     

    Heller told IRIN that while “at first glance [the NLF] looks intransigent,” he believes the coalition’s initial statement “likely signals their cooperation on implementing [the deal].”

    “It seems the deal doesn’t require any of the NLF’s [member factions] to actually withdraw [from the buffer zone] or even to surrender their heavy and medium weaponry, just to relocate those weapons beyond the demilitarised buffer,” a move it looks like the NLF will be willing to make, Heller said.

     

    To persuade fighters working under the Tahrir al-Sham umbrella to either withdraw or join Ankara-controlled rebel units, Turkey will likely have to wield both carrot and stick.

    What’s less certain is how other groups present in the area likely to become the buffer zone will react come 15 October. While no groups are mentioned by name in the documents published so far, the Sochi agreement is understood to take aim at the NLF’s jihadist rival Tahrir al-Sham and other terrorist-designated factions.

     

    Tahrir al-Sham under pressure

     

    So far Tahrir al-Sham has taken an ambiguous stance, giving no clear indication if it will comply with the deal or try to wriggle out of it. The group clearly worries that accepting Turkish diktats would weaken its position, but also that rejection could draw a Russian-backed offensive by the Syrian army – or a Turkish-backed attack by the NLF.

     

    Heller said he expects Turkey to try to push Tahrir al-Sham out of the demilitarised buffer by 15 October.

     

    To persuade fighters working under the Tahrir al-Sham umbrella to either withdraw or join Ankara-controlled rebel units, Turkey will likely have to wield both carrot and stick.

     

    Veteran jihadists and foreign fighters dominate Tahrir al-Sham’s leadership, but much of the rank and file are young local men who may be more interested in their families’ survival than ideological principles. According to the Syrian pro-opposition newspaper Enab Baladi, one faction of Tahrir al-Sham has already signalled its readiness to withdraw from the buffer zone, over the objections of a more intransigent rival wing.

     

    While the Sochi-friendly members of Tahrir al-Sham are being courted by Turkey, their rejectionist rivals are supported by smaller jihadi groups like Hurras al-Din, a Tahrir al-Sham splinter that has positioned itself on the most extreme fringe of Idlib’s politics. Hurras al-Din has already come out against the agreement.

     

    Given that Tahrir al-Sham has fractured before, Ahmed Aba-Zeid, a Syrian researcher and supporter of the non-jihadist opposition, has previously told IRIN he anticipates “additional splits as Turkish pressure on the group to dissolve increases, but this time from its non-ideological contingent.”

     

    A Free Syrian Army-flagged group known as Jaish al-Ezzah has also protested the agreement, raising the heat on radicals in Tahrir al-Sham, who stand to lose face if they bend to Turkey’s orders.

     

    Although several prominent members of Tahrir al-Sham have attacked the Sochi deal in the media, it has issued no public statements as of yet, and the group’s representatives say they are still discussing the matter internally.

    Behind the scenes, Tahrir al-Sham appears to be pleading with Turkey to water down the demands placed upon it, or to help find some other face-saving solution.

     

    “Some of this [outward] rejectionist rhetoric may be part of a negotiating pose,” Heller noted.

     

    A Tahrir al-Sham spokesperson did not respond to IRIN’s request for comment.

     

    Turkey’s options, Russia’s decision

     

    Rebel infighting could be as devastating for Idlib’s civilians as a Russian-backed Syrian army offensive, and may spark unpredictable splits and fissures on both sides of the divide.

    Should Turkey fail to get Tahrir al-Sham to comply, or if some faction of the group tries to obstruct implementation of the Sochi deal, it’s possible Ankara will shift gears and support an NLF attack against Tahrir al-Sham, Hurras al-Din, and other jihadist rejectionists.

     

    Rebel infighting could be as devastating for Idlib’s civilians as a Russian-backed Syrian army offensive, and may spark unpredictable splits and fissures on both sides of the divide.

     

    Aware of the distaste most Syrians feel for foreign-inspired infighting, Tahrir al-Sham is already doing its best to appeal to a shared sense of hostility against al-Assad and the Russians.

     

    “Dividing the factions between moderates and terrorists and making them strike each other is a stratagem of the Russian occupation,” warned Tahrir al-Sham’s online news agency, Iba, in a 25 September statement distributed across Syrian social media.

     

    The following day Erdogan insisted that the withdrawal of “radical groups” from Idlib’s demilitarised zone was already underway. But the Turkish president provided no detail and so far there’s little evidence of movement on the ground.

     

    As things stand, the stalemate seems unchanged: Turkey keeps prodding Tahrir al-Sham to play by the Sochi rules and Tahrir al-Sham is still trying to bridge its own internal divides.

     

    With only two weeks left to go, it’s unclear if Erdogan can implement his side of the Sochi deal – or at least persuade Putin that whatever the situation is like on 15 October, it’s better than a battle.

     

    It’s a holding pattern for humanitarians too, with the UN estimating that as many as 800,000 people could be displaced by an offensive.

     

    “Any solution that removes the immediate threat of military action is welcome,” Cynthia Lee, a Damascus-based official with the International Committee of the Red Cross, told IRIN. “We now have to wait and see how the announced ‘demilitarised zone’ around Idlib will be implemented.”

    (*Population statistics in Syria are uncertain and humanitarian sources have in the past overstated numbers in rebel-controlled regions, but there’s no disputing that many vulnerable civilians live in Idlib. Major aid agencies estimate there are as many as 2.5 million people in the wider Idlib region, an area that includes parts of the Idlib, Latakia, Hama, and Aleppo provinces but not Afrin or areas further along the Turkish border.)

    This work was supported in part by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

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    After Russia-Turkey deal, the fate of Syria’s Idlib hangs in the balance
  • US and UK halt key Syria aid shipments over extremist “taxes”

    The United States and Britain have abruptly stopped aid they fund from going through a key border crossing into Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, with USAID saying the move is to prevent extremist groups from benefiting from taxes they impose on aid trucks.

     

    The freeze puts at risk supplies that help to support hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people in Idlib, which is controlled by a patchwork of armed groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad and faces the prospect of an assault by al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces.

     

    The unexpected instruction to aid agencies, communicated by USAID on 26 September and Britain’s aid department DFID shortly after, forbids shipments from passing into Syria through the main Bab al-Hawa border point with Turkey.

     

    A spokesperson for USAID said its “partners” should “immediately cease all use of the Bab al-Hawa (BAH) border crossing between Syria and Turkey under USAID-funded awards.” USAID took the step as a “sanctioned terrorist group” is “likely incurring financial benefits from Syrian trucks accessing the BAH border crossing.”

     

    An aid official familiar with the Syria relief operation confirmed the measures to IRIN and asked for anonymity given the sensitivity of the subject. The US and Britain are two of the top four donors of humanitarian aid to Syria, according to UN data. The others are Germany and the European Union.

     

    Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group sanctioned by the UN (and therefore all its member states) as well as by the United States, controls a large part of Idlib, including the Bab al-Hawa crossing.

     

    DFID followed USAID’s lead after the US government told aid groups it had concerns over “taxes” levied by the civilian arm of HTS, aid officials familiar with the humanitarian system in Syria confirmed to IRIN.

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    Statements from civilian arms of the sanctioned HTS differ on the fees charged on aid trucks.

    In what appeared to be a swift response to the shutdown, dual English-Arabic language statements dated 29 September from HTS’s self-styled “Salvation Government”, or civilian administration, said it would stop charging aid trucks as of 1 October.

     

    The Salvation Government confirmed it had been imposing “fees” on “trucks used for delivering humanitarian aid”, money that was spent on repairing and maintaining roads used by the aid trucks. The statement added that the fees would now stop so as to “relieve the suffering and hardship faced by our people”.

     

    However, what appear to be the official website, and Twitter and Facebook accounts for the administration of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing issued a statement on 1 October denying that it had charged aid trucks cash or in-kind fees.

     

    Vital aid route for many in need

     

    In the latter stages of Syria’s war, Idlib’s original population has swollen with displaced people from elsewhere in the country – about one third currently receive internationally-funded humanitarian food aid.

     

    An estimated 2.5 million people live in rebel-controlled Idlib province and the surrounding areas (excluding the nearby Kurdish enclave of Afrin), and as many as half have been forced to flee their homes at least once. Estimates of people in all of opposition-controlled northwestern Syria have been put as high as 2.9 million.

     

    Al-Assad’s government plans to retake Idlib, but a stop-gap deal between Turkey and Russia has put off a full-scale assault that could have had a “catastrophic” impact on the vulnerable civilian population, according to the UN.

    Concerns that food and other aid are being taxed or siphoned off by extremist groups have complicated aid operations in rebel-held parts of Syria this year, despite growing fears for the wellbeing of the general population.

     

    Bab al-Hawa has changed hands several times in the Syrian war, as rebel groups fight to control its strategic position and lucrative income.

     

    A Turkish news agency estimates that 1,500 trucks of aid enter Syria through Bab al-Hawa every month, as well as 4,000 commercial truckloads. A promotional video from the border crossing operator has a similar figure, saying 85,000 consignments pass through every year (roughly 7,000 per month).

     

    One study said that fees and duties through the key crossing point in 2015-2016 amounted to at least $3.6 million per month.

     

    Aid supplies from Turkey, delivered free on the basis of need, offer a safety net to the most vulnerable who lack income or resources to support themselves. Commercial trade and smuggling, both with Turkey and with the rest of Syria, provide the vast bulk of Idlib’s imports.

     

    Aid groups that do not rely on US or British funding will be unaffected by the donors’ move: these include Turkish aid groups and its Red Crescent, which also provide aid within Idlib but use a different crossing point not controlled by HTS: Bab al-Salaam, further to the north. The USAID spokesperson told IRIN the Bab al-Salaam border crossing “is not impacted”.

     

    bp/as/ag

    US and UK halt key Syria aid shipments over extremist “taxes”
  • Unprepared and overwhelmed: Greece’s resurgent river border with Turkey

    This is the second of a three-part special report on the Evros River border crossing between Turkey and Greece. Read the other instalments: “An open secret: Refugee pushbacks across the Turkey-Greece border” and “Greece’s man in the migrant morgue”.

    For more migration coverage see our series Destination: Europe

    Locals in Evros are used to new faces. People have been quietly slipping across the river that forms a natural barrier for all but 12 kilometres of the tense, militarised border between Greece and Turkey since Greece joined the European Union in 1981.

     

    But everyone on the Evros River was puzzled when a crush of hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers began crossing their sleepy riverine border every day in March. Six months later, arrivals have slowed but worries persist that the region is still poorly prepared for any new influx.

     

    At the rush’s height in April, more than 3,600 crossed the river in one month, surpassing the total number of people arriving in Greece by sea for the first time since 2012. They came across the Evros on plastic dinghies, and once on Greek soil they were picked up by smugglers in cars or continued the journey by foot. The banks of the river were littered with discarded clothes, water bottles, food and medicine packages, and flotation devices, which remain there today.

     

    Despite its history of migration, Evros, one of Greece’s poorest regions, was caught off guard. Hundreds of new arrivals were crammed into police stations, waiting for months to lodge their asylum claims. There were no NGOs to help out. Conditions were dismal, and services limited.

     

    “We are all surprised with the rise in arrivals in Evros, and the lack of Greek preparation,” said Georgia Spyropoulou, an advocacy officer with the Hellenic League for Human Rights, from her office in Athens.

     

    Greek officials say they were caught unawares too, with a local police commissioner telling the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in June that “it is necessary to be prepared in case there is an increase in arrivals again.” Still, local police insisted they were doing the best they could with the resources available to them.

     

    No one is quite sure what prompted the flood of people in the first place. And plenty of of people are still making their way to Evros – 9,480 by the end of July, taking a gamble on a border that looks safe but can be deadly – 29 people have died this year during the crossing or shortly after.

     

    Border police and barn doors

     

    Before 2012, and before millions of people began landing on Europe’s beaches and drowning in the Mediterranean, Evros (known as the Meriç River in Turkish) was the main crossing point for those hoping to make it into Europe through Greece.

     

    Amidst mounting pressure from other EU countries to further seal its borders (Austria’s interior minister famously said Greece was “open like a barn door”), Athens launched Operation Aspida (“Shield”) in 2012, deploying 1,800 more police officers and erecting a fence on the land portion of the border, adding to a 175-strong rapid border intervention team known as RABIT – set up in 2010 with the help of Frontex, the EU border agency.

    Those who made it alive to the Greek banks of the Evros this year found a system wholly unprepared for their arrival.

    The new measures worked, and by November 2012 migrant arrivals had dwindled to none – a remarkable decrease from 6,500 in August that year.

     

    Athens denies reports of pushbacks of asylum seekers, but human rights watchdogs have documented collective expulsions in which people are forced back into Turkey after already crossing the river, and the UN has also raised concerns.

     

    Despite the crackdown, the numbers began to creep up again slowly this March. And then the spring rush came.

     

    Understaffed and unprepared

     

    Those who made it alive to the Greek banks of the Evros this year found a system wholly unprepared for their arrival.

    a_group_of_syrian_and_iraqi_refugees_both_families_and_unaccompanied_minors_are_housed_together.jpg

    A group of Syrian and Iraqi refugees behind a fence
    Nikolaos Symeonidis/IRIN
    Syrian and Iraqi asylum seekers at the RIC in Fylakio

    The procedure is supposed to be simple: new arrivals are brought to “pre-removal detention centres” run by the Hellenic police, where they wait for no more than seven days to be fingerprinted and have their asylum claims registered at the region’s one official Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) in the small village of Fylakio.

     

    But it proved to be anything but.

     

    The RIC was understaffed and overwhelmed by the numbers, causing the sorts of major delays in processing that have plagued the reception system on the Greek islands.

     

    In a scathing review of Evros in the springtime, UNHCR criticised the detention of new arrivals in sub-standard police facilities. Human Rights Watch also found troubling conditions in May: women and girls were being held with unrelated men. One woman told the watchdog she was sexually assaulted by a fellow asylum seeker; her requests to be transferred to another location were ignored.

     

    After asylum seekers’ claims are processed, they are moved to the RIC itself, which has a 240-person capacity.

     

    Unlike on the Greek islands and its controversial policy of containment, people in Evros are allowed to move about the country. After applying for asylum, most head to other government- or UN-run camps elsewhere in the country. Still, even the RIC facility quickly became overrun as unaccompanied minors and those likely to have their asylum claims rejected had to stay on.

     

    Improvements

     

    When IRIN visited Fylakio in July, it found the RIC camp no longer overcrowded, and newly arrived asylum seekers expressed relief at being out of the pre-removal detention centre. “That was a very bad place,” one Turkish arrival said, declining to elaborate.

    “We have the experience and motivation to manage the situation,” but not the manpower.

    IRIN was not granted access to the nearby pre-removal detention centre. But despite Greek police releasing many migrants from police detention, a HRW report from July said conditions in Fylakio remained “inhumane”, describing “dark, dank cells, with overpowering odours in the corridors”, a lack of toilets and locked doors, and insufficient healthcare.

     

    There have been some improvements for those out of their first detention, and NGOs have arrived to help: ARISIS, a Greek non-governmental organisation that provides social support for minors, had recently set up a makeshift office, and Médecins Sans Frontières has now established a permanent outpost in Fylakio.

     

    But one RIC employee said they remain understaffed. “We have the experience and motivation to manage the situation,” but not the manpower, the employee said, asking to remain anonymous because they were not authorised to speak to the media.

     

    Staff work in two shifts. When IRIN visited, the centre’s director was on sick leave, and there were still no doctors on staff, and only three nurses.

     

    In one crowded container at the RIC centre, an Iraqi family was living alongside the body of a dog that had died the previous week – its body still hadn’t been removed, and the stench lingered. The mother was concerned for the health of her infant, who was in hospital. Because members of the family, including the mother, are minors, they are currently stuck in limbo, waiting at the RIC.

     

    Communication remains a constant issue. There are no official, permanent translators and the overwhelming majority of the centre’s staff only speaks English or Greek.

    the_fence_between_turkey_and_greece_barricades_the_land_border_but_that_doesnt_deter_some_people_from_trying_to_cross_it.jpg

    A shoe in barbed wire at the Turkey Greece border
    Nikolaos Symeonidis/IRIN
    The fence that lines all but 12 kilometres of the border between Greece and Turkey is bolstered by thermal cameras.

    “There are asylum seekers who are interpreting for other asylum seekers… [which is] completely inappropriate,” Eva Cosse, Western Europe researcher for HRW, told IRIN.

     

    What’s next?

     

    Months after the springtime surge at Evros, there is still confusion about what caused it – and if there’s any way to predict if the same thing might happen again. Everyone, it seems, has a theory.

     

    “The waves of migration increase in populations when there are serious issues in the country of origin,” Nikolaos Menexidis, the barrel-chested police major general of Western Thrace, told IRIN from his headquarters in the town of Kommini. “When Turkey created the latest issues in Afrin, we saw a rise in numbers.”

     

    It’s true that following Turkey’s assault on the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin – militias supported by Ankara took control in March – the majority of those recorded crossing in the spring were Syrian Kurds and Iraqis.

     

    But that doesn’t explain the drop in other nationalities who have long used the river crossing, like asylum seekers from Pakistan, countered Dimitros Koros, a lawyer with the Greek Council of Refugees.

     

    ☰ Read more: Are Greece/Turkey relations responsible?

     

    Over the past year, tensions between Greece and Turkey have increased dramatically.

     

    Relations soured after a historic visit by Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Greece in November 2017 that saw the Turkish president suggest a revisiting of the Lausanne Treaty, which delineates the borders between the two countries.

     

    Then on 2 March this year two Greek soldiers accidentally strayed into Turkey. Such incidents are not uncommon, but this time Turkey kept the two soldiers in custody. Ankara attempted to trade with Athens for eight soldiers accused of involvement in the failed 2016 coup who fled to Greece.

     

    Athens refused, instead releasing the eight Turks into protective Greek custody. Several days later Turkey announced they would no longer honour a bilateral deal in which Greece returns irregular migrants who cross at Evros back to Turkey. More than 1,200 migrants have been sent back under this deal in the previous two years.

     

    The soldiers have since been returned and the deal is back on. But in the meantime the reduced chance of being legally returned to Turkey may have encouraged people to take the Evros route.

     

    Locals, who have witnessed the ebbs and flows of people since the 1980s, see the refugees as pawns in a much larger game.

     

    “All the problems are created by politicians,” an employee of Bedreddine, a café in the Evros town of Orestiada that collects food and other donations for refugees in addition to serving food, told IRIN. “In April, it was political – because of Erdogan [and the captured soldiers].”

     

    “I think everything is a play by Erdogan – he can send or stop refugees in Greece or in Europe generally,” echoed Giorgos, a retiree and resident of Didimoticho, one of the first villages refugees see when crossing into Greece. “For sure it’s a political game,” said Vasilis (not his real name), a former people smuggler.

     

    But “the movement of people does not stop or start like that,” countered Spyropoulou, the advocacy officer of the Hellenic League for Human Rights. It’s much more complicated, she argued, adding: “Turkey doesn’t have that holistic power.”

     

     

    Some people may be driven by politics – Turks who had fled and made it to the RIC in Fylakio said they had been wrongly accused of terrorist activity at home or suspected of ties to the Gulen movement, which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames for the 2016 attempted coup in his country. Others may have just heard there was a chance to make it to Europe at the river.

     

    Whatever the reason for the surge, migrants and asylum seekers people will likely continue to take their chances on the way to Greece. And Koros, the lawyer with the Greek Council for Refugees, worries that new arrivals will continue to struggle, as they move away from the squalid conditions at the border itself and into a wider region unequipped to help.

     

    “Evros is not just the border,” he said. “Evros is here in Thessaloniki. They are here, homeless, without any provision of service.”

     

    ss/as/ag

    When an old migration route became new again, the Evros region was caught on the back foot
    Unprepared and overwhelmed: Greece’s resurgent river border with Turkey
  • Greece’s man in the migrant morgue

    This is the first of a three-part special report on the Evros River border crossing between Turkey and Greece. Read the other instalments: “An open secret: Refugee pushbacks across the Turkey-Greece border” and “Unprepared and overwhelmed: Greece’s resurgent river border with Turkey.”

    For more migration coverage see our series Destination: Europe

    Pavlos Pavlidis has spent nearly two decades examining and identifying the bodies of migrants and asylum seekers who have died attempting one of the least known but deadliest routes into Europe.

     

    So far, that's 359 bodies – a grim count and occupation. Pavlidis is tall, with sloping shoulders and a cigarette perpetually affixed to his hand. He has the gentle but clinical demeanour of someone used to delivering bad news, but would rather see what he does as bringing answers to the living.

     

    “For me, it’s very important that I give an answer to people,” says Pavlidis, who is in his mid fifties and personally inspects every body that washes up on the Greek side of the muddy banks of the Evros River that divides Greece and Turkey. “It’s not a good answer. It’s a tragedy – but at least it’s an answer.”

    At first glance, the river where most of the corpses come from looks quaint and harmless enough. Sunflower fields dot the banks, local tavernas serve up the water’s main catch, a meaty catfish, and the water itself is just a couple dozen metres wide.

    But this is one of the deadliest border crossings in Europe. Until 2010, it was riddled with 25,000 anti-personnel and anti-tank landmines, buried by Greece in 1974 after Turkey invaded Cyprus. Today, all but 12 kilometres of the border are fenced off.

    At first glance, the river where most of the corpses come from looks quaint and harmless enough. But this is one of the deadliest border crossings in Europe.

    This spring brought a surge of people from Syria and Iraq trying to cross the Evros – 2,700 people traversed its waters in April alone (more than crossed in the whole of 2017), surpassing sea arrivals in Lesvos for the first time since 2012. The UN’s refugee agency says at least 9,840 people crossed the river in the first seven months of 2018.

    Along with the thousands who managed to enter Greece across the Evros this year, 29 didn’t make it; their bodies brought to a hospital in Alexandroupoli, the largest city in the Evros region, and to Pavlidis’ basement morgue.

     

    Hidden dangers

    Because the river isn’t very wide and appears calm, many migrants don’t see the danger coming. But Pavlidis says the river’s current is deceptively strong and difficult for even a seasoned swimmer to navigate.

     

    Smugglers pile families into tiny inflatable boats and, since they rarely allow luggage, many people wear three or four pairs of trousers and shirts, adding extra weight.

    a_plastic_boat_caught_in_the_trees_of_the_evros_river.jpg

    Nikolaos Symeonidis/IRIN
    A plastic boat caught in the trees of the Evros river.

    Unlike in the Mediterranean, where the salt helps keep bodies intact, the freshwater Evros decomposes them quickly. Bloated corpses are found after several weeks or months by local fishermen, the EU border agency Frontex, or local police. Pavlidis says that children, their tiny bodies bogged down by sediment and fallen trees, are almost never found.

     

    “The bottom of the river is very muddy,” he explains. “There are a lot of branches from the trees and the bodies get stuck...The fibres of the clothes get soft and disintegrate. And the fish – we have all kinds of fish in the river, and they eat the skin post-mortem.”

     

    Along with the thousands who managed to enter Greece across the Evros this year, 29 didn’t make it.

    Identification

     

    By the time bodies show up in Pavlidis’ morgue, most are beyond recognition.

     

    He turns on his computer and starts clicking through dozens of horrific images. In one, a man’s face is a black oval, the skin completely peeled off and frozen into a never-ending scream. The cause of death was hypothermia – a relatively quick death, two or three minutes. Hypothermia usually preserves the face, but in this case, the man’s face was burned from the sun, and his eyes had been eaten by birds. In another photograph, a body is bloated like a drum, the skin stuck to the metal gurney in transparent sheets.

     

    After 18 years in the morgue, Pavlidis is hardened against the images; he says he has to be.

    pavlos_takes_whatever_itmes_he_can_off_each_body_individually_bagging_and_cateloguing_each_one_copy.jpg

    Nikolaos Symeonidis/IRIN
    Pavlidis catalogues and stores personal items in the hopes they might help with identification.

    The photos do not usually help Pavlidis in giving the dead a name, but their bodies do offer rare clues, like the odd tattoo. Sometimes he can glean religion by checking male bodies for circumcision.

     

    Pavlidis collects anything that might help with identification, but he often has little to go on. “Because of the length of time spent in the water, their personal items or documents are damaged,” he says.

     

    Pavlidis also takes DNA from each body (teeth, usually), and gives each person a unique identification number.

     

    With the help of one nurse, he meticulously documents each corpse, photographing the body and carefully placing any salvaged personal items in little plastic bags he stores in his office.

    He keeps each corpse for months – shelved in refrigerators maintained at a chilly -20 degrees Celsius – in the hope that someone will show up to claim them.

    Family contact

    Pavlidis can collect and catalogue the bodies with care, but connecting with the families from a small city in northeastern Greece is a challenge.

     

    “My problem is contact with the family. These parents are in [places like] Afghanistan or Pakistan; they don’t know where Alexandroupoli is or who I am,” he says. “It’s easier if the family is already here in Europe. I can take DNA from them to make a familial match.”

     

    Of all the corpses he’s catalogued, only 103 have been identified.

     

    Pavlidis works with the Greek police and the International Committee of the Red Cross, and is in close contact with the Pakistani Embassy in Athens; Iraq and Syria have missions there too. But the closest Afghan embassy is in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, and communication is more difficult.

     

    In some cases, the identification part of his job turns into a bureaucratic nightmare. Once, Pavlidis dealt with the body of a Chinese man who was found with his credit cards and other forms of identification. With the help of the ICRC, Pavlidis contacted the Chinese government. Two years later, an official response came: there were too many people in China with the same name to identify him.

     

    That man died in a traffic accident, highlighting one of the absurd realities of the Evros crossing – the danger doesn’t stop once migrants reach the Grecian banks of the river. They must walk for several kilometres to reach the nearest village, and many follow the train tracks into town.

    the_morgue_can_keep_up_to_two_dozen_bodies_at_a_time._here_pavlos_stands_in_front_of_the_last_corpse_to_arrive_in_2017_copy.jpg

    Nikolaos Symeonidis/IRIN
    Pavlidis stands in front of the last corpse to arrive in 2017. His morgue can hold up to two dozen bodies at a time.

    Stoic by professional necessity, one case particularly rattled Pavlidis: in 2015, a Syrian family was walking along the train tracks when a six-year-old girl let go of her father’s hand and ran into an oncoming train.

    Her body, like that of many others whose bodies are left behind in Greece, is buried in the village of Sidiro, a Muslim enclave in Evros. Bodies deemed to be Muslim are sent to the village, where they receive an Islamic burial. In July when IRIN visited, there were three empty graves, recently dug and awaiting bodies.

     

    Non-Muslims are buried in a local Christian cemetery.

     

    The car and van journey towards Thessaloniki, where many migrants are headed, is equally dangerous, thanks to unsafe cars used by smugglers (who sometimes force migrants to drive themselves), and even police chases.

     

    In early June, a van carrying 16 Iranian migrants crashed in the mountains near Kavali, killing six people, including three children. During IRIN’s time in Evros, a sedan carrying 10 people from Syria and Iraq, including two children, crashed on the main highway criss-crossing northern Greece, killing two adults  on impact. The mother of the children died upon arrival to Alexandroupoli hospital.

     

    It was the worst car accident the hospital had seen in 2018, and it brought the hospital’s director-general to tears.

     

    Despite the dangers, there will be more deaths. People will continue to cross Evros, and some will succumb to the river or roads. And waiting for them will be Pavlidis, resolute in his duty to provide them a last glimmer of dignity from a basement morgue in a small port city.

     

    “These families can’t wait for a lifetime,” he says. “It’s an ethical responsibility and an ethical satisfaction to do this work.”

     

    ss/as/ag

    The Evros River is an increasingly popular route into Europe despite its deadly record
    Greece’s man in the migrant morgue
  • Stemming conflict, staying happy, and storms times two: The Cheat Sheet

    Every Friday, IRIN’s team of specialist editors offers our take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

     

    On our radar:

     

    A dubious distinction

     

    Quick quiz question: In which country were the most people internally displaced in the first half of this year? Syria? Yemen? Congo? Wrong, wrong, wrong. The answer is Ethiopia, where less high-profile conflicts have been raging far from the media spotlight. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s mid-year report, 1.4 million Ethiopians were newly displaced between January and June. So what’s going on? Well, the two main areas of displacement are both in the south – one around the central zones of Gedeo and West Guji, the other farther east, where the country’s Somali and Oromia regions have been locked in a long border dispute. In both cases, inter-communal tensions are driven by competition over food, farmland, and other resources. But it’s not just about conflict, says IDMC Director Alexandra Bilak. As in other East African displacement hotspots like Somalia and Kenya, droughts and flooding linked to climate change also play their part, even if the science can get complicated.

     

    Don’t worry, be Paraguayan

     

    People in Paraguay and Colombia are the most upbeat, a new survey of citizens in 145 countries claims. Polling firm Gallup’s annual Global Emotions Report scores positive and negative feelings. The firm asked 154,000* people about laughter, respect, rest, and mental stimulation on one end of the spectrum, and about their stress, anger, sadness, physical pain, and worry on the other. The Central African Republic broke a depressing record: it scored the most negative feelings of any country in 10 years of surveys, while in 2017 Afghanistan won another unhappy medal: the least positive feelings. Three “meh” countries – in which a significant proportion didn’t report strong feelings one way or another – include a surprising entry: Yemen, along with Belarus and Azerbaijan. A note of caution: the Gallup poll doesn’t include some countries facing profound political and humanitarian problems, including Burundi, North Korea, Somalia, and Sudan.

     

    International justice in the spotlight

    A UN-mandated rights probe made waves last month when it accused senior Myanmar military commanders of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in last year’s violent purge of Rohingya civilians in Rakhine State. On Tuesday, 18 Sept., the UN Human Rights Council is scheduled to discuss the investigation’s final report. The rights probe is calling for Myanmar’s top generals to be investigated and prosecuted at the International Criminal Court – or by an independent tribunal. Separately this week, the United States threatened sanctions against the war crimes court if it proceeds with investigations involving citizens of the US or its allies – a direct response to the prospects of an ICC investigation of alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, which could include examining actions taken by US forces. Like many foreign governments, the US has condemned violence against the Rohingya, and most rights groups see the ICC as the only avenue to international justice. Yet the US is now taking aim at the ICC for its actions on an unrelated issue. Could this affect the broader push for ICC investigations in Myanmar? Notably, the UN’s new human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, this week called for a separate “international mechanism” to preserve and analyse evidence of possible atrocity crimes in Myanmar, which would complement any future ICC investigation.

     

    Rebuilding Afghanistan

     

    The failure of US reconstruction efforts after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan is a big factor behind the country’s present-day instability. This week, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the US Congress-mandated watchdog, issued a scathing assessment of a $216-million USAID programme promoting gender equity in the country. Among its findings: only 55 women have benefitted from a key component meant to prepare women for jobs with the Afghan government. Read the report here. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General António Guterres is scheduled to present his quarterly update on Afghanistan before the Security Council on Monday, 17 Sept. The key humanitarian problems have made frequent appearances here on the Cheat Sheet. Guterres’s report will be the last before parliamentary elections scheduled for 20 Oct. Already this year dozens of election-related attacks have caused hundreds of civilian casualties.

    Storm watch:

    hurricane_florence_wide-angle.jpg

    A. Gerst/ESA/NASA
    Hurricane Florence from the International Space Station.

    Hurricane Florence weakened to a Category-1 storm as it made landfall in North and South Carolina on Friday, but lesser wind speeds don’t necessarily mean lesser damage. The storm itself is moving slowly, meaning it could crawl through the area and unleash heavy extended rainfall, as did last year’s destructive Hurricane Harvey. A study published this year in the science journal Nature found evidence that tropical storm “translation speeds” have slowed by 10 percent since 1949 – meaning they linger longer when they strike land.

     

    Typhoon Mangkhut is expected to hit the northern Philippine island of Luzon early on Saturday, 15 Sept., before veering on a path toward southern China and northern Vietnam. It’s the strongest storm to strike the Philippines this year; millions lie in its direct path and officials are bracing for heavy damages. Is it fair to compare media coverage of two separate disasters looming on either side of the globe? We attempted a tally of coverage on Hurricane Harvey and the South Asian floods last year.

     

    In case you missed it:

     

    GENEVA: A new report on food and nutrition says 672 million people (one in eight adults) are obese. About five percent of under fives are also overweight, says “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018”, a UN publication released last week. Of 821 million hungry people, 62 percent are in Asia. After years of steady decline, the number of hungry people is on the rise since 2014, both in terms of percentage and absolute numbers. This, the study says, is due to instability, “adverse climate events”, and economic slowdowns.

     

    KABUL: It’s not just war that uproots families in Afghanistan. This year, more people have been displaced by drought than conflict, according to UN tallies released this week. More than 275,000 Afghans have left their homes due to drought, compared to 220,000 pushed out by conflict. It’s indicative of Afghanistan’s complex displacement crisis, where IDPs, returned refugees, and victims of disaster all have overlapping humanitarian needs. Case in point: Our story this week from Iran, which threads a link between Iran’s plummeting economy, soaring deportations, and Afghanistan’s drought.

     

    LONDON: Dhananjayan (Danny) Sriskandarajah will be the new chief of Oxfam’s GB unit, replacing Mark Goldring later this year. He takes the helm as the veteran development agency navigates its recovery from sex abuse and safeguarding scandals that have rocked public trust in Oxfam and the sector as a whole. The Sri Lankan-born Briton was formerly based in South Africa as the head of CIVICUS, an international alliance of civil society organisations.

     

    PORT MORESBY: The polio outbreak in Papua New Guinea has reached the country’s capital, health officials have confirmed. We highlighted earlier transmissions last week. There have now been 12 confirmed polio cases this year. The World Health Organisation says the spread of polio to urban Port Moresby is “very worrisome”. PNG health authorities are planning emergency vaccinations in the capital beginning 24 Sept. The country was declared polio-free in 2000.

     

    The weekend read:

     

    US bans aid workers in Turkey-Syria scam

     

    Don’t skim off the world’s most needy and think you can get away with it. That’s certainly one of the morals of this story. Our weekend read reveals the scale of procurement fraud involving cross-border aid from Turkey intended for Syrian refugees, as exposed by a USAID probe that named 20 firms and individuals. As IRIN’s Ben Parker reports, the corruption ring appears to have involved several Turkish companies and staff at several international NGOs. The Irish NGO GOAL has taken a big hit over the scandal, which led to the resignations of several senior staff and major donor diffidence. A former logistics officer at the Irish charity comes in for the biggest censure: a 10-year ban from doing business with the US government. The former Turkey country director of another NGO, the International Rescue Committee, is one of nine individuals debarred for five years. And a wider probe is ongoing.

     

    And finally:

     

    See above. An amazing-looking segment on The Weather Channel is going viral (and making other TV stations envious). As Hurricane Florence hits the US, the “Immersive Mixed Reality” video effect shows what a nine-foot storm surge is like projected alongside a live presenter. The channel is working with a partner, The Future Group, to develop eye-popping special effects. The productions are based on technology platform Unreal Engine, used in movie production and video games such as Fortnite.

    (*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number polled as 145,000)

    bp-iw/ag

    Stemming conflict, staying happy, and storms times two
  • For Kurds in Southeast Turkey, the urban conflict continues

    In July 2015 a new phase of the decades-old conflict between the Turkish government and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants erupted after a two-and-a-half year peace process failed: the largely rural guerrilla war entered majority-Kurdish towns and cities in the southeast as government forces went house-to-house to root out PKK-linked fighters.

     

    Fighting was most intense in the central neighbourhoods of Sur district, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the provincial capital of Diyabakir, where ancient fortified walls surround historic mosques, churches, and synagogues. The ten months of conflict, including a three-month siege that damaged or destroyed the majority of buildings, has left many of those displaced by the violence feeling as if they must now fight for their homes and for their community and culture to live on.

     

    On the hunt for votes ahead of his June re-election, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Sur in March, promising to renovate the district as part of a 2.3-billion Turkish lira ($500 million) plan to revitalise the southeast. He spoke of creating a vibrant economy and a new tourism boom.

     

    But most of Sur’s original residents – the majority Kurds, 24,000 of whom are still displaced by the fighting, which lasted until March 2016 – won’t be able to afford the new buildings going up where their homes once stood.

    20180320-diego_cupolo_dsc_1610lrw_copy.jpg

    Diego Cupolo/IRIN
    Newly constructed houses and rubble where houses once stood in eastern Sur, a UNESCO World Heritage site once home to a largely Kurdish community.

    This situation has expanded the enmity between local Kurds and the central government. Many displaced residents say they believe that Erdogan’s administration — which, following a June election victory, will remain in place until 2023 with expanded executive powers granted by a 2017 referendum — is profiting from displacement and engaging in demographic re-engineering by pricing out displaced Kurds, a minority long discriminated against by the state.

     

    “The reconstruction is aimed at shaping the society through space, erasing the memory and creating a new memory,” said Nevin Soyukaya, an archaeologist with the SUR Platform, a group of citizens monitoring the reconstruction of Sur. Soyukaya personally helped place the district on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 2015, just months before conflict erupted. “Therefore, this is an attempt to change not only the physical structure, but also the demographic structure.”

     

    Many of the dwellings in Sur were “gecekondu”, a Turkish term for informal structures meaning “built over night”. State officials have come to view gecekondus as urban blight – areas of high crime and drug use – and have looked to raze them and rebuild to contemporary standards. This has happened elsewhere in the country, but in Sur the process is moving quickly, prompted by the damage from fighting.

     

    For Cengiz Abis, a Kurdish Sur resident whose family home was razed, not only is government compensation too low to allow him to buy back what will eventually be built in its place, but the area where he grew up still feels like a warzone.

     

    "Diyarbakir has been invaded,” he says. “The whole city is filled with police stations, with armoured vehicles. When we look around, all we can understand is that we are under occupation. There are plain-clothed police everywhere. We are being followed and monitored all the time."

     

    Nurullah Bilgin, provincial director of Turkey’s Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning, told state media in late June that the redevelopment project in Sur is worth two billion lira (around $420 million), with 340 homes now under construction and 1,500 new residences planned.

     

    “Sur will become an attraction center,” Bilgin said, with the potential “to draw one million tourists.”

     

    The Housing Development Administration of Turkey, known as TOKI, has not released the names of the private contractors involved in rebuilding, nor did it respond to numerous requests for comment. Residents, employees at non-governmental organisations, activists, and politicians interviewed for this article said that the lack of transparency in the process has led them to assume that the most likely recipients of large-scale contracts are business leaders with close ties to Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

    20180615-diego_cupolo_dsc_1091lrw_copy.jpg

    Diego Cupolo/IRIN
    Cengiz and Emine Abis are now staying in Baglar, Diyarbakir, having been displaced from their home in Sur.

    “It was everything we had”

     

    The 2015 breakdown in a ceasefire between the state and the PKK led to ten months of street fighting followed by ongoing skirmishes, which, according to an International Crisis Group tally, claimed almost 4,000 lives, including 452 civilians.

     

    Many of the casualties came from urban militant strongholds like Sur, where Cengiz Abis and his wife Emine each grew up and later bought a two-room flat together.

     

    Around half of Sur’s 120,000 mostly Kurdish residents fled during the fighting, but the Abis family had tried to stay in their home to protect their property, despite military curfews, fighting, and water and electricity cuts. But in March 2016 they were forced out and spent 15 months in prison, while their children were sent to a state orphanage.

     

     

    All they have left of their Sur home are mobile phone pictures of living room furniture slashed open and flipped upside down on top of clothes scattered on the floor.

     

    The photos were taken by a friend who tried to recover Emine’s treasured wedding gown after she and her husband were sent to prison for allegedly aiding the PKK during the fighting (they were accused of acting as human shields and providing material aid to the group).

     

    But the dress was nowhere to be found, and the home’s appliances were gone.

     

    When they were released and reunited with their children, they found they could not go home. Their house was in the walled-off security zone that covers the eastern half of Sur, where most residential buildings had been razed after the state declared all war-damaged structures unfit for habitation.

     

    The place where the house once stood is now a field of weeds, frequented by the occasional stray cat, Emine said.

     

    While state authorities are rebuilding the area, local Kurds argue that government compensation and offers of discounted housing elsewhere are inadequate.

     

    “I saved up to buy [our house in Sur] for years and we fixed it up with our own hands,” says Cengiz, now renting in Baglar, the low-income Diyarbakir neighbourhood where many displaced Sur residents have resettled. “It was everything we had,” Emine adds. “We will never feel at home anywhere else than Sur, and now it’s gone.”

     

    The changing face of Sur

     

    In west Sur, where most houses remain intact, the area’s rich history as a cultural centre from Greek and Roman times, through the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, to the present day can still be seen in some of the aging structures left behind. Its alleyways still serve as communal patios where neighbours drink tea as their children play, away from the hectic traffic in the busy, new areas of Diyarbakir.

     

    But, in recent decades, Sur has also come to represent poverty, a place where homes are rudimentary and lack proper sewage and heating. First proliferating during the mass rural-to-urban migration following World War II, construction of gecekondus intensified in places like Sur during the 1990s as conflicts ravaged surrounding villages, driving people into the cities.

     

    The central government introduced renewal plans for the neighbourhood in 2012, but they were put on hold until fighting subsided in 2016.

     

    When the siege ended, security barricades closed off damaged areas and state officials ordered an “emergency expropriation” of about 60 percent of Sur properties. Large swathes of residential areas had been abandoned, and many houses collapsed under bombardment. These properties are now in the possession of the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning.

     

    Some religious and historic buildings were preserved, as the state embarked on ambitious plans to see Sur become a world-class tourism destination, following a promise by former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu in 2015 to turn it into the next Toledo.

     

    “These cities have faced unplanned growth since the 1990s, and would need urban renewal even if these events hadn’t happened,” he said at the time.

    20180320-diego_cupolo_dsc_1688lrw.jpg

    Diego Cupolo/IRIN
    Damaged buildings in Sur's walled-off eastern half, former residents whose homes are declared uninhabitable are offered financial compensation or a discount on subsidised housing elsewhere.

    In September 2016, then-prime minister Binali Yıldırım introduced an updated reconstruction plan for southeastern Turkey, which included an initiative to build 7,000 new homes in Sur. But the new homes now sprouting up will be relatively expensive: prices are believed to be in the range of 400,000-600,000 lira, or $87,000-130,000, far beyond the reach of many Sur residents like Emine and Cengiz.

     

    “I just want the field, the space where my house was”

     

    Displaced residents of Sur whose homes are declared uninhabitable have a few options: accept a compensation payment, accept a discount on government-subsidised housing elsewhere, or fight it out in court.

     

    The compensation varies widely and is based on the property size and the value of a household’s furniture.

     

    Remziye Tosun, 37, gained unwanted fame when security footage was posted on YouTube showing her being searched while she was evicted from Sur in March 2016.

     

    Like the Abis family, she defied the government’s orders and remained in her home during the conflict to protect her belongings, and was arrested as a result.

     

    Upon release, Tosun was offered 57,000 lira ($12,400) for her house, but declined it, claiming she had spent at least 120,000 lira ($26,100) to purchase and renovate it. She accepted 7,000 lira ($1,500) for the furniture and home appliances she lost, but continues to pursue more compensation in court.

     

    Tosun, like many displaced residents, also receives monthly compensation of 1,000 lira ($217) – though these payments are distributed inconsistently, according to those who receive them.

     

    “This is hush money,” says Tosun, recently elected as a deputy for Diyarbakir with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). “I told them, ‘I don’t want your money, I don’t want your TOKI [subsidised housing], I want my house back.” She adds: “I just want the field, the space where my house was. We will rebuild it. I would even be happy living there in a tent.”

     

    The Abis family are of a similar mind. Emine and Cengiz were offered 47,000 lira ($10,200) for their house. They say that amount wouldn’t even cover their most recent renovation costs and have launched a lawsuit to get a better offer.

     

    Tempted by a TOKI?

     

    Aside from cash payments, the state is offering displaced residents a discount on apartments in state-subsidised, low-income housing or in high-rise buildings that locals call TOKIs, after the national housing administration. They are more modern than the gecekondus of Sur, but they don’t appeal to everyone.

     

    “TOKIs are far, far away [from the city centre] and there is nothing near TOKIs except more of them, so you are isolated,” Cengiz says. “Inside the buildings, you don’t know your neighbours because you never see them. In Sur, it was different. We had close relations with our neighbours. We knew who they were.”

     

    “It’s not about the price,” he continues. “It’s like taking a bird from nature and putting it in a cage. We want our freedom, and Sur’s where our freedom was.”

    20180324-diego_cupolo_dsc_3402lrw_copy.jpg

    Diego Cupolo/IRIN
    Most of the traditional buildings in western Sur remain intact, and some residents have returned home

    Even with the discounts and reimbursements the state is offering, TOKIs, at between 150,000 and 200,000 lira ($32,600-43,500), are out of reach for most displaced former Sur residents.

     

    Not everyone views the reconstruction plans with cynicism. Altan Tan, who was born and raised in Sur and recently ran for office unsuccessfully with the moderate Islamist Saadet Party, said the gecekondus needed to be demolished and were unfit for occupation.

     

    “I grew up in a gecekondu, and it’s only nice for those who don’t understand what that means,” Tan says. “[The residents of Sur] are objecting because they are not getting enough compensation for their property. They know they can’t buy a new home with whatever the state is offering them. It’s a question of money, not politics, like everyone will have you believe.”

     

    Regardless, Tosun says she and others like her are determined to go back to Sur, to reconstruct the community they once had.

     

    “The displaced residents of Sur… they are saving that rent money and waiting to buy the field where their house used to be.” she says. “So when they are able to go back, they will, and they will start rebuilding and rebuild their lives. No matter what, one day, I will live in Sur again.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Two young men sit on Sur's fortress walls near the Nasuh Paşa, an Ottoman-era mosque. CREDIT: Diego Cupolo/IRIN)

    dc/as/ag/js

     

    The fighting has ended, but fears that a culture will be erased remain
    For Kurds in Southeast Turkey, the urban conflict continues
  • Erdogan wins, Burundi baffles, and the EU offshores: The Cheat Sheet

    Every Friday, IRIN’s team of specialist editors offers a round-up of humanitarian trends and developments from around the globe.

     

    On our radar:

     

    Breaking bad in Burundi

    Last month’s constitutional referendum was widely seen as a move to allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to stay put for years to come. That the former rebel leader now seems willing to bow out gracefully in 2020 has raised hopes that Burundi might again be moving closer to stability and the rule of law – after 300,000 people died in a 1993-2005 civil war and recent years marked by political unrest and violent oppression. Maybe you were among the many who were pleasantly surprised. Get ready to be disappointed. The latest findings from UN investigators aren’t too hopeful. They found that “extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, targeting those opposed to the proposed amendment of the constitution” had taken place this year. The overall security context, they warned, was likely to worsen and cast doubt on the sincerity of Nkurunziza’s announcement. For its part, Burundi dismissed the findings as the fruit of “geopolitical appetites”.

    The slow road to ICC investigations in Myanmar

    The push to levy some form of international judicial accountability for Myanmar’s anti-Rohingya purge nudged forward this week, months after a military campaign in northern Rakhine State ousted more than 700,000 Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh. The European Union and Canada imposed sanctions against seven senior Myanmar military and security officials. An Amnesty International investigation named and accused 13 people of “crimes against humanity committed during the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population”. And a Reuters investigation detailed how two light infantry divisions led last year’s crackdown – drawing partly on social media posts from soldiers who took part. But those who wish to see accountability for last year’s violence – including Rohingya survivors themselves – are still faced with the same problem: the International Criminal Court can’t open an investigation in Myanmar without a referral from the UN Security Council. The court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, is exploring ways of bypassing this roadblock – with an unprecedented legal challenge we told you about earlier this month. ICC judges have asked Myanmar to respond by 27 July. Still, rights watchdogs warn that this is not enough to account for the scale of the violence. This week, Yanghee Lee, the UN’s special rapporteur for rights in Myanmar, said the ICC should be probing “decades of crimes” in Myanmar, including violence elsewhere in the country such as the ongoing crackdowns in Kachin and northern Shan states.

    Afghanistan: cash is king

    There’s a growing trend in the aid sector for offering cash assistance in emergencies: it’s flexible, it’s spent locally, and it helps recipients make their own choices about what they need. For many Afghan refugees returning from neighbouring Pakistan, it’s also one of the only forms of official assistance they get to re-integrate. Is it working? A new case study offers mixed reviews of the repatriation cash grants given by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. People coming back to Afghanistan under a voluntary returns programme receive an average of $200. Afghans use the bulk of their cash grants on food, the case study found, although the cash also helps them to rent homes or buy land. But cash has its limits in Afghanistan, where jobs are increasingly scarce (a situation worsened by a severe drought) and land tenure and insecurity have made it difficult for many to rebuild their lives. “Cash alone has not helped beneficiaries to safely return to non-conflict affected areas; many have become [displaced] in a matter of weeks or months following return,” the study notes. It’s a key issue for the government, which has failed to establish any large-scale land programme for returnees. More than 1.6 million Afghans have returned from (or been pushed out of) Pakistan and Iran over the last two years.

    What Erdogan’s victory means for Syrian refugees

    Looks like Syrian refugees should be breathing a sigh of relief after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s re-election this week – after all, opposition parties did the most during the campaign to pander to growing intolerance among Turks of the more than 3.5 million Syrians who have sought refuge in their northern neighbour. But, come to think of it, Erdogan also vowed to send the refugees home, with his fair share of pandering. So, what will the now-emboldened president do? Erdogan wasn’t expected to barrel through this week’s elections with such force. He had a strong challenger in Muharram Ince – a former physics teacher and religious nominee of a secular party – and even one behind bars: jailed Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas. But with 53 percent of the vote, the president managed to avoid a runoff and will now remain in power until at least 2023. Was the vote free and fair? Hard to say. The polls were held under the state of emergency that has been in place since 2016’s failed coup, and so many Turkish journalists are imprisoned that there’s not much of an independent media left. Erdogan clearly has plenty of support, including from the 30,000 naturalised Syrians eligible to vote. A few of his campaign promises: take over the country’s central bank, send Syrian refugees home, and bolster Turkey’s military campaign in the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin. Plenty to keep an eye on then.

     

    Our weekend read:

    Destination Europe: Frustration

     

    Ever hear of “disembarkation platforms”? They’re key to the opaque deal that came out of this week’s marathon EU talks on migration policy, a deal to more equitably share the responsibility for refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers – currently shouldered largely by Italy, Greece, and Spain. Hard facts on how this might work in practice are scarce. What is crystal clear is the push towards offshoring, increasing pressure on African countries (think Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Niger, and Tunisia) to set up asylum processing centres, known as — you guessed it – “disembarkation platforms”. Despite the carrot of millions of euros in development assistance, no country is rushing forward to sign up. Nor do critics find statements such as, "These platforms will not in any case be black holes or prisons or Guantanamos" (from European Commission spokeswoman Margaritis Schinas) reassuring. Boggled by what this all means to the human beings on the ground? We’re here to help with a cautionary tale on the longer-term effects of EU policy-making in one of those disembarkation platforms, er, transit countries, Niger. In the latest instalment of our special report “Destination Europe”, Eric Reidy visits the people-smuggling hub of Agadez and finds growing frustration as the migration business is driven underground, largely because of EU pressure, and the once-booming local economy nosedives. Fears of militancy are growing. “This law is going to push people to go to the rebellion again, because you have your kids, you have your family, you have many mouths you need to feed,” says Mousa Ahmed, a 51-year-old former driver and former rebel. “They came one day and said, ‘Stop this.’ And they didn’t give you anything to replace it. They’re pushing you to do something.”

     

    One to listen to:

     

    What’s another word for ‘immigrant’ ?

     

    The US Supreme Court upheld Trump’s travel ban, 17 states sued the administration over its “zero-tolerance” border policy – and that’s just the half of what happened this week in the US debate over immigration. But anti-immigrant sentiment, and the rhetoric used to bolster it, isn’t really new. The latest episode of one of our own must-listens, NPR’s Code Switch podcast, looks into the language used to refer to immigrants and other races today and in the past – think invaders, animals, savages, aliens – and what hearing it means for our ability to see other people as subhuman. If you’re not already listening to Code Switch, this week is a great time to start.

     

    am-as-il/ag

    Erdogan wins, Burundi baffles, and the EU offshores
  • The Yazidis who never came down the mountain

    Nestling near the summit of Sinjar Mountain in northwestern Iraq, hundreds of blue and white tents line several kilometres of battered road snaking through a windswept valley.

     

    This is where, in 2014, some 50,000 members of the Yazidi religious minority fled a massacre by so-called Islamic State. Trapped on the mountain with no food or water, their plight grabbed international headlines.

     

    Four years later, more than 2,000 families, some 10,000 people, still live on the mountain in a camp with scant facilities. Unable to return to their flattened homes or too terrified of further persecution to leave – or both – they feel increasingly forgotten.

     

    Since liberation in late 2015, up to 25,000 Yazidi families have returned to towns and villages once ruled by IS, according to Sinjar’s mayor, Ferhad Hiamd. But that’s not an option for many mountain camp residents who hail from places like Sinjar’s old town – largely reduced to rubble by IS demolitions, street battles, and airstrikes.

     

    One of those who can’t go back is Mahmoud Khalif Bayan, who sits on the floor of his sparsely furnished tent, demoralised by the fact he can only get a day or two of casual labour a month and is unable to provide for his family.

     

    “My home is completely destroyed and, as no one has yet returned to our village and there are no services, it remains impossible for us to return,” he says. “If we had anywhere else to go, we would leave, because this is no way to live.”

    For the Yazidis, Sinjar Mountain is sacred. It has provided refuge in past wars. But their difficult life here is under renewed threat. In late March Turkey announced an impending military offensive in Sinjar, claiming that members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which it considers a terrorist group, are still sheltering there.

     

    While this looming military threat has made the situation in the camp even more precarious, grinding poverty and a near-total lack of job opportunities on the remote mountain mean any assistance is quickly used up, and needs remain acute.

     

    Residents say what they really need is help that will last over the long term and enable them to rebuild their lives.

     

    ‘We live by God’s mercy’

     

    Bayan’s youngest child, three year-old Chuer, was born in the camp. Her brother Benge, who was just six months old when the family fled, can remember no other home. They live four people to a small tent.

     

    “It’s terrible here because we have no services, no electricity, no proper school, and no healthcare if the children get sick,” Bayan’s wife Shereen explains. The nearest clinic is a half-hour drive, but few residents have cars or can afford transport.

     

    In a nearby tent, Hetty Hero, who looks a decade older than her 40 years, explains how every aspect of life at the camp, located 1,463 metres above sea level and often subject to extremes of weather, is difficult.

     

    “Winter is terrible because rainwater leaks into the tents and it’s very, very cold, and, in the summer, the tents are unbearably hot because we have no fan and no electricity to run one.

     

    “We sleep outside in the summer because it’s cooler, but the snakes and scorpions here are a big risk for the children,” she says. “We have very little food, no doctor, no money, and no work opportunities, and, really, we live by God’s mercy.”

     

    Aid has arrived intermittently since the liberation of Sinjar in late 2015, Shereen says, including occasional donations of clothes and food boxes and, once, 500,000 Iraqi dinars ($420) for every family.

     

    Out of the spotlight

     

    Although the Yazidis continue to attract some media attention, particularly stories of young women forced into sexual slavery, officials from several international NGOs, none of whom agreed to be mentioned by name, noted that donations had dropped off since Iraq declared victory over IS in December 2017. The officials say they are struggling to raise funds for projects in Sinjar.

     

    Small solar panels donated by one NGO back in 2014 have long since ceased to work. Every few nights, government power reaches the handful of brick dwellings for around two hours. Those from nearby tents top up their mobile phones in half-hour charging stints. Another NGO had provided generators and fuel to run the pumps for water-wells, but it withdrew from Sinjar a year ago and the pumps now stand mostly useless.

     

    Sinjar resident Marwan al-Sheikh helps with logistics at the camp, which is run by a local Yazidi brigade of the People’s Protection Forces, or YPG, which worked directly with the PKK from 2014 until 2017, sharing control of the mountain until Iraqi forces took over the area late last year, according to local YPG commander Said Hassan.  

    Iraq has since incorporated the YPG into its Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces), a collection of mostly Shia fighting forces allied with the Iraqi army during the battles against IS and now officially under state control.

    Sinjar old town.jpg

    Tom Westcott/IRIN
    Sinjar's old town lies in ruins

    Al-Sheikh says camp organisers collect money from the families to buy fuel for generators from Sinjar town, but many residents don’t have the 4,000-dinar ($3.30) fee.

     

    UNICEF spokeswoman Laila Ali says the UN has provided assistance to residents of the mountain camp since 2015 via a local partner, most recently supplying kerosene heaters and warm clothing.

    It is unclear what aid, if any, other aid groups are providing – several, including the World Health Organisation, failed to respond to IRIN’s request for comment.

     

    Whatever aid does arrive offers only fleeting respite. And the camp continues to grow despite the tough living conditions and few basic resources available to residents. Some Sinjar residents who returned to the region from other parts of Iraq to find their homes destroyed or villages deserted have come back up the mountain.

     

    Hassan, a Yazidi, says the mountain has always been seen as a safe haven, even during IS occupation of the region, and that the camp now houses 2,100 families, more than double what it did when most of the Yazidis first fled Sinjar in 2014.

     

    “At first we just had tarpaulins, but organisations in [the Syrian Kurdish area of] Rojava, and the Iraqi government, later sent tents,” he says. “We welcome any Yazidis here, giving them a tent so they can set up a life.”

     

    Under threat

     

    Since Turkey’s threat to intervene in Sinjar, the Iraqi government has sent forces to the area and the PKK announced its complete withdrawal.

     

    In his makeshift general store in a roadside shack, camp resident Khalid Khodaida explains how people on the mountain are now terrified and can’t sleep at night because they fear airstrikes.

     

    “Even though they have no money and almost nothing, some people have already fled,” he says. “The Yazidi people have suffered enough and all we want for our future is peace and safety.”

     

    Turkish warplanes already carried out airstrikes in Sinjar last year, killing eight YPG members and two civilians, including a shepherd’s 10-year-old son.

     

    A spokesman for one of the main international providers of humanitarian aid in Iraq, speaking on condition of anonymity, voiced major concerns about access to the camp and secondary displacement if Turkey follows through on threats to launch military operations in the region.

     

    IS repeatedly tried to conquer the mountain until it lost control of Sinjar town in late 2015. It was kept at bay by the mountain’s height and by military positions manned by the YPG, all-female Yazidi units, and the PKK.

    Despite the hardships, Hassan, the YPG commander, is quietly optimistic and glad the camp has at least allowed them to stay in their homeland and preserve their threatened culture: “This camp has enabled us to maintain our Yazidi demographic here, and many people stay because it’s near their former homes, so [that] when Sinjar is eventually rebuilt it will be easier for them to return.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Women in the mountain camp say life is tough all year round. Tom Westcott/IRIN)

    tw/as/ag

     
    Four years after fleeing so-called Islamic State, thousands of families remain stranded
    The Yazidis who never came down the mountain

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