Police officers have kicked in the doors of a rehabilitation facility providing services to injured refugees from the ISIS attack on Kobane. Refugees were manhandled and verbally abused while health staff, working in a voluntary basis, were abused and told they should stop treating the refugees.

Stephen Smellie Kurdistan, Turkey, Health
Selma Atabey of health union SES speaks up for Kurdish refugees

Selma Atabey of health union SES speaks up for Kurdish refugees

Selma Atabey is a nurse working at a large public hospital in Diyarbakir and co-president of the city’s branch of health workers union SES.
She told me that when the crisis in Kobane started in August many injured people were among the refugees that flooded into the Kurdish town of Suruc over the Turkish border. However the health and municipal services could not cope with these numbers and so they were moved to camps and hospitals across the region including to Diyarbakir.

“In our hospital we have received 180 patients, men and women, needing treatment for injuries,” she told me.

“We treat their injuries but because they are not Turkish citizens they do nor get any more help than that in the hospital. The police visit them and tell staff they should not be helping them and verbally abusing both staff and patients.”

When Selma argued with them the police insisted on taking her details including fingerprints. They also took photographs of the patients.

“They are trying to intimidate us and the patients.”

However it was when some of the patients who need more therapy to help them recover were moved to a voluntary run centre, in premises gifted by the local council, that the harassment was stepped up.

“There were two patients in the therapy centre when the uniformed police smashed in the doors and started shouting and abusing us. They shouted at me, asking why I was helping these people. I told them this was my mission, to help people. They threatened to arrest me if I did not stop.”

Selma called on the local MPs for the area, members of the Kurdish HDP, who visited the centre and lodged complaints with the police and Governor. She has also contacted her union head office in Ankara who will contact the Health minister. The harassment of health workers and patients as described by Selma is not just isolated incidents but representative of the situation generally. Around 200,000 people from Kobane have sought refuge in Turkey. These refugees are mainly Kurds and the region they have travelled to is also mainly Kurdish. Kurdistan, which they claim as their homeland, is divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey and in each country Kurds have suffered years of oppression.

In Syria, Kurds have created a form of radical autonomy since the civil war there led to the central government forces of Assad withdrawing. This “Rojova revolution” has encouraged Kurds in Turkey to continue to press for greater autonomy in Turkey. The attack on Kobane led to huge demonstrations by Kurds in Turkey, as well as elsewhere, who demanded that the government stop supporting ISIS and allow the Kurds to offer support to the defence of the city. The Kurds have organised support for the refugees, including around 6,000 Yazidis from Iraq, with little support from the central government. The harassment of health workers offering support to the refugees, and their patients, reflects the general Turkish state’s response and the concern that Kurds organised to help fellow Kurds is too symbolic of the strengthening Kurdish identity and organisations.

Whilst in the SES office in Diyarbakir Selma showed us a pile of bags packed with clothes and blankets.

“Our members give up their time to work unpaid to support the injured refugees but they also donate money to buy food and clothes to help them keep warm. But they need more. The Yazidis also need help and we help them. But they also need psychological support. Our union have raised this with the health ministry but they have not responded.”

There is no doubting the effort that SES members in the region are making to support the injures refugees. The fact that they are doing this whilst their government does little and in the face of the police harassment that Selma described will elicit support from health workers throughout the world.


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Stephen Smellie

Stephen Smellie is Secretary of UNISON South Lanarkshire

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