DOHUK, IRAQI KURDISTAN // Moqoble refugee camp does not get many visitors. Its grey tents are laid out in grim rows, and it nestles anonymously in the mountains of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan, near the border with Syria.
The sufferings of its inhabitants are overshadowed by Iraq's war to the south and Syria's international entanglements to the west, but the people who live in these tents have a story to tell about years of discrimination and ill-treatment at the hands of Syrian authorities. They are Kurds from Syria, part of a population of around two million, making up close to 10 per cent of Syria's people and by some distance the biggest ethnic minority in the country. In this camp there are 55 families and 48 single people, all of whom have fled Kurdish areas of Syria and none of whom would contemplate going back.
"I came five years ago," said Qassim, who did not want to use his real name. "If we had not run away, they would have put us in jail and killed us." His friend Asad Mohammed Salim, 27, said people had moved from Syria to Iraq "for political reasons". "We cannot live without freedom," he said. He, and others in the camp, said they had suffered beatings and detention without warrant at the hands of Syrian authorities, that land had been taken away, all political activism forbidden and cultural Kurdish gatherings outlawed.
The Kurdish population has faced discrimination at the hands of security forces and legislators since the 1960s, as Arab nationalism became more influential, and authorities began to worry that ethnic Kurds would call for independence. The independence movements of Iraqi and Turkish Kurds served to reinforce these fears, and over decades, government initiatives against Kurds have included transplanting Arabs to live in Kurdish areas, banning the registration of Kurdish baby names and outlawing teaching of Kurdish language in schools.
Analysts now say those measures are increasing, and while it is difficult to get official verification of numbers, the refugees in Moqoble said Kurds from Syria were still fleeing to the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, as well as to other countries. Noureddine, 22, who did not want his full name used, said he left Syria recently to study journalism in Iraq, because as he is one of a category of Kurds known as "maktoumeen" he is forbidden to do so in Syria,
Barkhoudan Salahuddin, 18, another refugee, laughed when asked if she knew whether many of her Kurdish friends were leaving Syria. "It would take three days to tell all their stories," she said. "They try to go to Europe, to Turkey and to here - you hear a lot of stories of people coming here." Many of the refugees said they did not have citizenship in Syria and as such could not work, own property or legally marry.
A report by London's Royal Institute of International Affairs in 2006 explained that in 1962, a census was carried out over one day in al Hasaka province in the north-east of Syria, where most of the country's Kurds lived. The census "arbitrarily stripped 120,000-150,000 Kurdish citizens of Syrian citizenship", and subsequently denied them civil rights. They were declared "ajanib" or foreigners, and as of 2004, number approximately 200,000.
Some Kurds, who failed to participate in the census, are known as "maktoumeen" or the muted ones, who now number around 100,000. They, like the ajanib, have no passports and are not allowed to travel or work in the public sector (where the vast majority of Syrian jobs are), but they are also not allowed to finish high school or book a room in a hotel. Their marriages are not recognised and they cannot own property.
Nadim Houry, researcher for Syria and Lebanon for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said tensions between Arabs and Kurds in Syria intensified after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Kurds saw the establishment of the Kurdistan regional government, in Iraq, he said, and felt they too deserved a degree of autonomy. Meanwhile, he said, Syria was under international pressure to stop supporting extremists in Iraq, and "worried about the way that the Kurds in Iraq supported the US".
This combination of rising resentment among Syrian Kurds and increased anxiety among Syrian authorities led to a showdown at a football match in the Kurdish town of Qamishli in 2004. A Kurdish team was playing an Arab one, and when post-match banter turned to brawling, security forces moved in. Most residents of Moqoble camp say they fled to Iraqi Kurdistan after the Qamishli violence. Qassim explained that at the match, there was a heavy Syrian security presence, checking Kurds to see if they were armed. But, he said, "the Arabs chanted 'Long live Saddam Hussein' and 'Down with [Iraqi Kurdish leader] Barzani', so the Kurds rose up against this." In the ensuing three-day riot, "the Syrian government moved tanks and aeroplanes to the Kurdish area - Kurdish people came from other cities to help the people in Qamishli."
Accounts of how many Kurds were killed and detained by Syrian authorities vary, but Amnesty International estimates that more than 30 died and 2,000 were detained, and that afterwards Syria's Kurds became both more politically active and more repressed. "There was mass mobilisation," said Mr Houry of HRW, "which was a surprise to everyone. You don't have spontaneous demonstrations in Syria." "The Syrians have got a lot tougher since 2004," said Robert Lowe of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. "They were rattled but pretty quickly regained control. They have been turning the screws, slowly, cleverly, not very obviously but there is no doubt the pressure has increased."
After the Qamishli riots, approximately 14 Kurdish political parties which had previously been tolerated, not least because of their division and disorganisation, "were told to stop all political activity", said Mr Houry. "Since then, there has been a more systematic forbidding of all public gatherings." These include celebrations of Kurdish culture like dance events, and the Nourouz celebrations in March.
"There isn't a week when some Kurd isn't detained," he said, adding, "I am not exaggerating." Detainees that are charged face accusations including rioting, which is defined as more than seven people meeting to protest a government policy. Legislation on property rights has also been tightened by "Decree 49" which was passed last year, and which makes ownership and inheritance of land more difficult.
Since the election of Barack Obama's as President of the United States, there has been more international engagement with Syria, and the issue of Syrian Kurds has been raised as part of general concerns about human rights in Syria. But, says Mr Lowe, "it is not a priority. More important is Syria's relationship with Iraq and with Iran, their support for Hamas and Hizbollah." Meantime, the situation of Syria's Kurds seems unlikely to change soon.
Syrian President Bashar al Assad promised in 2005 to address the issue of stateless Kurds, saying, "we will solve this issue soon in an expression of the importance of national unity in Syria." However, no progress has been made and the promises were dismissed by critics as playing for time. * The National