Hundreds of Syrian Kurds have returned home from Iraqi refugee camps over recent weeks despite fears for their safety, amid complaints that thousands have been ‘imprisoned’ with little access to food, healthcare and work.
Over the past month, around 100 people have been voluntarily returning each week from camps in Iraq after fleeing northern Syria at the start of a Turkish offensive in October designed to force out Kurdish forces.
With winter setting in and resources dwindling, the numbers are likely to grow.
Despite an official ceasefire, violence has continued in northeast Syria. The forced withdrawal of Kurdish forces has allowed the return of the Assad regime to some areas, with many fearing it may carry out revenge attacks on its opponents.
Human Rights Watch has also accused Turkish-backed forces of human rights abuses against the local population in the so-called ‘safe zone’ declared by the Turkish government.
Some 17,000 Kurds have sought refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan since the early days of the operation.
Bardarash Camp, which is home to 9,500 newly displaced Syrian Kurds, is under strict security protocols. People are only allowed to step foot outside of the camp if they have a relative already living in the region who will sponsor them and are not allowed to return once they have left.
Unable to leave the camp to work, food is scarce and many have turned to selling their blankets and mattresses.
Amid growing despair, a young man set himself on fire a few weeks ago, later dying of his burns. A second man is said to have tried the same last week – he was already doused in kerosene when he was saved by intervention from others in the camp.
Those without any family in living locally are left with two unfavourable choices. They can stay inside the relatively small camp or return to uncertainty in Syria.
“I’d rather die with dignity on my own land than die of hunger,” one man said, on the bus to take him back to Syria. He was one of the few daring to try and get back to his home in Darbasiyah on the Turkish border.
Most are trying to get back to al Hasakah, wanting to settle just outside of the ‘safe zone’.
For 52-year-old diabetic Mayasa, the lack of anything more than very basic healthcare is forcing her to go back to Syria.
“We are really scared for her. Our areas are still not that safe and the situation could turn at any minute,” her son said, explaining that the doctor at the camp would not refer her to a hospital.
According to USAID, 117,000 of the 200,000 displaced since the start of the offensive have returned, though it is believed the majority are Arabs rather than Kurds.
While the number of Kurds who have returned so far is believed to be relatively low, dozens of people told the Daily Telegraph that they fear they will soon have no choice but to return.
Like many young men, 27-year-old Walat, escaped military conscription in 2013 and is wanted by the regime. He said that if conditions don’t improve in the coming weeks he will be forced to go back.
“The regime is everywhere in Kurdish areas now,” he said, referring to a Russian-brokered deal that saw the SDF allow Assad regime troops into its territory – for the first time in five years – to help fight the Turkish offensive.
“For me, especially as a Kurd, there is no safety for me in Syria, but at least I might be able to work.” he said.
While over 5,500 people have been given clearance to leave the camps in KRI, the process is slow, with many citing it as one of the main reasons they are going back to Syria.
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