When the Turkish coastguard intercepted a crowded wooden boat carrying more than 200 migrants to Greece on Tuesday, the rescue crew was stunned to discover a dozen of their own countrymen among them.
The 12 Turkish Kurds said they were “fleeing terror” in the country’s southeast, where intense fighting and month-long military lockdowns have emptied entire neighbourhoods.
European officials hope Ankara will stem the flow of refugees and serve as the continent’s gatekeeper, promised an aid package worth €3bn (£2bn) and the resumption of the stalled EU accession process in return. But Turkey is rapidly creating a wave of displacement of its own.
Last month, opposition parties and human rights groups said that Turkey’s resurgent conflict with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) had forced as many as 200,000 civilians to leave their homes. The government has put the number at 93,000.
The population of Cizre, a southeastern town that has seen some of the worst violence, has plummeted from 120,000 to a mere 20,000, according to Faysal Sariyildiz, a local MP. “The places where people live are being hit by mortars. People are leaving town when they can,” he said.
The collapse of a two-year-old ceasefire between the PKK and the state last summer plunged the region back into crisis. In December, the conflict began to escalate when authorities put several towns under siege-like blanket curfews while security forces battled Kurdish militants in the streets and shelled suspected PKK targets.
Since then, more than 1,000 PKK fighters have been killed, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency. Turkish human rights organisations say some 200 civilians have been killed.
A number of districts are still under lockdown. Yesterday afternoon Turkish police arrested Glasgow East MP Natalie McGarry while she was visiting Sur, the city centre of the de facto Kurdish capital Diyarbakir which has been under curfew for more than two months. She was released soon after, tweeting that she was “fine and absolutely safe”.
“On a large scale, there are serious human rights violations taking place and the desperation of many people is getting bigger,” wrote the European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur Kati Piri after travelling to Diyarbakir last week.
“Dialogue must be resumed. We have to do everything to avoid a bloody civil war in Turkey,” she added. The Turkish government denounced her statement as biased.
Alarmed by the deterioration in southeastern Turkey, the EU has called for a ceasefire. But Piri has accused European officials of turning a blind eye to rights abuses in the country, whose cooperation they need to halt the refugee flow.
“If the EU does not engage actively in calling for an immediate ceasefire and the peace process to be resumed, we could face another refugee inflow, and this time it will be coming from Turkey,” she told reporters in Brussels last week.