"We saw people burning in front of us. We escaped running over their dead bodies, there were no safe routes to escape, and they did not secure a road for civilians to leave. Even if I eat soil here I would not go back to Syria," said newly displaced Syrian Sorya Ahmed, 55. Photo: Alan Ayoubi/NRC

Refugees fleeing Turkey’s north east Syria operation say they can’t go back – NRC survey

Published 17. Dec 2019|Edited 16. Dec 2019
The majority of refugees fleeing from Turkey’s military operation in north east Syria say they won’t return to their country, and plan on settling in Iraq.

A survey conducted by the Norwegian Refugee Council in Bardarash Camp in northern Iraq, where the majority of refugees are hosted, found that 95 per cent of them say they don’t think they will return and plan to remain in Iraq. They cite ongoing fighting and uncertainty as the main reason not to return, at 69 per cent, while 17 per cent of them say they have no home to return to after it was destroyed or occupied.

Another 10 per cent cite fear of retribution from Turkish and Syrian army forces, as well as being afraid they or a close relative will be conscripted in the Kurdish YPG forces or the Syrian army.

“Turkey’s military operation has scarred the lives of tens of thousands of Syrian families,” said NRC’s Middle East Regional Director Carsten Hansen. “The families tell us terrible stories of both the violence and the difficulties in trying to escape to safety. They need to be offered protection for the long term – whether in Iraq or in the areas they fled from.”

Sorya Ahmed, a 55-year-old refugee told NRC: “Where would I go if I had to go back? My house was burnt down, and the original people of my area have left. Even if I had to eat soil here in the camp I would never go back to Syria.”

The research presented in NRC’s new report ‘Desperate Measures’ today confirms the widespread fear, suffering and desperation engulfing the north eastern region of Syria since Turkey started its military operation on 9 October, following the announced pull-out of U.S. forces. It has forced more than 17,900 Syrians to flee into Iraq and over 220,000 to be displaced internally. While about  half of the internally displaced have returned to their homes, relatives seeking refuge in Iraq say they lack most services and are fearful of what happens next.

Refugees told NRC of harrowing journeys, fleeing shelling and troop advances, being forced to take long walks across the hilly border in the cold at night, with most of them forced to pay hundreds of dollars to smugglers to avoid being sent back on the Syrian side. Family members have been separated in these difficult journeys, while 90 per cent of the refugees interviewed said they had to leave relatives behind, mostly because they could not afford the smuggling fees or because they were too frail to travel.

Many Syrians NRC spoke to are relieved that they managed to reach safety but show growing signs of despair about life in the camp. More than 40 per cent of respondents report that their inability to leave the camp premises is their primary concern.

Inside Syria, displaced civilians told NRC that many areas are still without water and electricity and that their neighbourhoods are gripped by the reigning uncertainty and the fighting.