Protests in front of Iraqi security forces at Makhmour Camp
Protests in front of Iraqi security forces at Makhmour Camp

Protests as Iraqi military surrounds Makhmour Camp

Thousands of refugees woke up on Saturday morning to find Makhmour Refugee Camp, located about 70 kilometers southwest of Erbil, under an unexpected Iraqi military blockade.

Many residents have called this camp home since 1998, having fled the conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the 1990s. Residents now express fears that the Iraqi government might be collaborating with Turkey to increase pressure on them, a move they describe as “oppressive.”

Bewar Emin, the head of the camp’s communications department, conveyed the scene to NRT English: “We woke up this morning to a large contingent of Iraqi troops — army, police, and civil protection units included — fully armed and equipped, having surrounded our camp, attempting to construct fences around it.”

Emin suspects that this sudden maneuver by the Iraqi army signals a broader political plan. “This is unprecedented in the past 30 years; it’s a new development and, in our view, a political move orchestrated by the Turkish government,” he said. “When we spoke to them, they claimed to be following orders.”

While the camp’s residents are mainly civilians, the Turkish government has repeatedly accused the PKK of using the camp as a training ground. Consequently, the camp has been targeted multiple times by Turkish drone strikes, often resulting in civilian casualties.

Social media posts by the camp administration show men, women, and children in large numbers protesting against the sudden Iraqi military presence, which they deem an “attack” on the camp.

Major General Tahseen al-Khafaji, spokesperson for the Iraqi Joint Operations Command, was unavailable for comment when contacted by NRT English.

Emin disputes the Iraqi army’s claim of being there to protect the residents. He contends that neither the Iraqi government nor the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) truly intend to safeguard them. “If they wanted to protect us, they would prevent drones from entering and striking us,” Emin said. “We have been displaced seven times since 1994, this is our 8th camp, and yet our people face such circumstances. This is nothing but oppression against civilian, defenseless people.”

The camp occupies a region frequently described as a security vacuum between Erbil and Baghdad. Following the Islamic State’s advance through Iraqi land, this area had fallen out of the Iraqi army’s control. After the terrorist group’s territorial defeat in 2017, Baghdad has been making efforts to regain control over such territories.

Given the camp’s affiliation with the PKK, Turkey has justified its inclusion in aerial operations targeting the group’s bases within Iraq’s borders. Despite condemning the Turkish attacks, the Iraqi government has characterized the PKK as an “imported issue” and has repeatedly urged the group not to use its borders for launching attacks on Turkey.

As per data provided by the camp’s administration, Makhmour camp currently houses over 11,000 people. These residents, all originating from Southeastern Turkey, were displaced due to the long-standing conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK.