In the event of a war on Iraq, neighbouring Turkey could be on the receiving end of a major influx of refugees. During the Gulf War of 1991, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds crossed the 331 km border in search of assistance - catching much of the humanitarian community off guard. In an interview with IRIN, the President of the Turkish Red Crescent, Dr Ertan Gonen, discussed contingency plans and concerns over another potential influx.
QUESTION: If there is conflict in Iraq, Turkey could see a major influx of refugees into the country. How would you describe your current state of preparedness?
ANSWER: Given the scenarios we are working with, we expect between 20,000 and 30,000 people into Turkey proper. However, according to the Turkish government estimates, between 275,000 and 300,000 could come, while the UN estimates approximately 150,000 could come - right at the border or along the narrow area along the frontier, which we refer to as the buffer zone.
If this crisis lasts more than a month, than we are expecting about 500,000 people to this area. As the Turkish Red Crescent, we could then accommodate between 100,000 and 110,000 people with tents, blankets, food, and hygiene, and other nonfood related items. We are ready to accommodate about 100,000 people along the border area.
Q: In terms of capacity, how many refugees do you feel you could handle? Could that number be increased?
A: Until now, we are using only about one third of our stocks. As Turkey is a disaster prone country - with natural disasters happening quite often - we are keeping the other two thirds in reserve in the event something should happen. However, should the government instruct me to use all our stocks - whatever I have - then I can accommodate 250,000 to 300,000 people in and around the border area.
Q: Where exactly would these refugees be facilitated?
A: During the 1991 crisis, some 500,000 people entered the country. Now we are more experienced, both as a government and as the Red Crescent. That being the case, we are trying to control areas around the border so that no more than 20,000 to 30,000 people into the country. However, sometimes, people don’t cross over through the controlled areas but rather through the mountains - outside of our control. We are trying to control this and facilitate everyone in a 10 to 20 km buffer zone along the border - but inside Iraq.
Q: How many camps would be within this buffer zone?
A: It depends on the population movements. At the moment, we have different packages for ‘tent cities’ to accommodate 5,000 or 10,000 people. Up until now, no camps have been established, but we are ready. About a week ago, we had an exercise in Silopi. There we established a campsite for between 3,000 and 4,000 people. This was a practice exercise. We haven’t established any camps yet as the crisis hasn’t begun.
Q: In the event of an influx, would the border remain open?
A: No. We are trying to keep people in this buffer zone so that people don’t enter Turkey. The borders will not be open. We will try to keep them closed so as to avoid a possible influx. This is particularly necessary for security reasons. Additionally, this will also make it easier for people to go back to their homes afterwards.
Q: How do you see your humanitarian role in relation to the government and the United Nations?
A: On behalf of the government, the Turkish Red Crescent will be the lead implementer, with all humanitarian agencies, including the United Nations, working under its umbrella. The UN may monitor the distribution of assistance, but the Turkish Red Crescent will implement it.
Q: How would you describe the current state of cooperation
between the United Nations and the Turkish Red Crescent thus far? Are there any areas you would like to see more work?
A: We are holding discussions with all respective UN agencies, but to date we have not received any assistance from them. At this point, all our discussions are theoretical. During the crisis in 1991, we didn’t receive any help so this is a major concern of mine. I’m expecting more than talks.
Q: In terms of assistance, are there any areas where you would like to see greater international donor response?
A: All we are expecting from the donors and the United Nations is that when we use Red Crescent stocks, they are replenished. We will be lacking many things from my stocks once they are used and would like to see them restored. We will be distributing food to hundreds of thousands of people. We will have 608 staff members on the ground there and their daily expenses and allowances will need to be met. Those are my expectations. I’m not expecting anything else.
Q: At the moment, does the Turkish Red Crescent have people along the border?
A: As of today, we have 210 staff members along the border. Should the situation require, we are ready to increase that figure to 608.
Q: What in your view were the main humanitarian lessons learned in 1991 and what efforts are you taking to avoiding similar difficulties.
A: We had very negative experiences during the 1991 gulf crisis. In two days, an influx of 500,000 people came into Turkey. The Turkish Red Crescent used all its resources to deal with the situation and in the end, no assistance was ever received to replenish these expenditures.
In terms of outside assistance, we had two countries - I won’t mention their names - who promised to take some of these 500,000 people, but in the end, one took 24 people while the other took 22. After the situation - which lasted about 10 days - everyone left without providing us with any help or assistance. This is why I’m concerned about the replenishment of our stocks and expenses.
Q: In terms of pre-positioned supplies, what have you got on the ground?
A: In addition to the 210 staff members we have on the ground now, the Turkish Red Crescent can accommodate up to 50,000 people along the border area with food, shelter, blankets, heaters, lighting, mobile kitchens and kitchen sets, toilets and sanitation facilities. Meanwhile, from the cities of Adana, Erzurum, and Elazig, we have additional stocks for another 50,000, ready to go to the border in two hours.
Q: Should the Turkish military enter northern Iraq, how would the Turkish Red Crescent respond?
A: The Turkish Red Crescent will act in line with international rules and regulations.
Q: In the event of a potential influx, what is your main concern?
A: I have three main concerns: Security, health and registration of the refugees entering the country. We could have difficulties here, while the other areas we are more used to. We need to have enough support in order to provide sufficient assistance to these vulnerable people. I can, however, easily say that I have the personnel, staff and experience to do that.