In the first three months of this year, more than 2,900 people from Iraq and Turkey sought political asylum
in the UK, according to Home Office statistics. The majority of them probably described themselves as Kurds.
nation state to call their own, they come from one of the world's largest ethnic groups with unfulfilled aspirations for independence.
Estimates of the size of the Kurdish population range up to 40m people. Their homelands spread across the most mountainous
borders of the Middle East, incorporating most of northern and eastern Iraq, south-eastern Turkey, large tracts of western
Iran, segments of Armenia and a slice of northern Syria.
Denied self-rule after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at
the end of the First World War, Kurds repeatedly rose in revolt against the successor states of Turkey and Iraq during the
20th century. Their rebellions were suppressed with excessive brutality and bloodshed. In 1919, the RAF - in charge of maintaining
order in Iraq at the time - foiled a Kurdish uprising by aerial bombardment. Since then Middle Eastern states, particularly
Iraq and Iran, have exploited rival Kurdish tribes and political factions in wars with one another, betraying their junior
allies when circumstances shifted.
The uprising by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, the genocidal Anfal campaign
initiated by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s against rebellious Kurds in northern Iraq and the tumult of the 1991 Gulf war led
to millions of Kurdish refugees streaming out of their traditional heartlands.
The pattern of persecution, revolt and
displacement has, if anything, grown more complex in the past decade. Within Turkey, the army destroyed thousands of Kurdish
villages in an attempt to remove the PKK's support networks. Although the PKK is formally on ceasefire, there is still fighting
in the mountains and as many as 10,000 Turkish troops are inside northern Iraq hunting down the remnants of the organization.
Broadcasts in Kurdish are still banned in Turkey.
The London-based Kurdish Human Rights Project continues to win dozens
of cases - involving allegations of extra judicial killings, torture and freedom of expression - against Turkey in the European
court of human rights.
Within the UN-established no fly zone in Northern Iraq, Saddam Hussein's forces are forbidden
to enter. American and British jets patrol the skies, striking at anti-aircraft batteries and radar stations deemed to be
a threat. On the ground, in the Kurdish safe haven established at the end of the Gulf war, most of the territory is held by
two rival, semi-autonomous groups: the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union for Kurdistan (PUK).
Home Office recently changed its immigration practice, insisting that Kurds seeking asylum were not in immediate danger and
could be sent back to northern Iraq. The UN provides food and aid to the Kurdish zones, but Turkey blocks international aid
workers - and journalists - from crossing into the Kurdish territories.
Although the KDP and PUK areas have been relatively
peaceful for the past three years, Saddam's agents regularly travel in and out. Most of the populations live in a state of
suppressed anxiety about what will happen when Saddam, or his successor in Baghdad, tries to reassert control over the Kurdish
regions of Iraq.
Last autumn a battalion of Iraqi troops seized a village in the south of the KDP's land, testing the
allies' military response. British fighters and US buzzed the area and the Iraqi contingent eventually surrendered to the
The situation is far worse for those Kurds around the oil-producing cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, which were left
in the hands of troops loyal to Saddam in 1991. The Iraqi government has been pursuing a policy of forced Arabisation, expelling
Kurdish families northwards and replacing them with Arab-speaking families from southern Iraq. Many of those now fleeing Iraq
and traveling across Europe are thought to be victims of this policy.
If the political will to sustain the no fly zone
seeps away and Saddam's forces re-enter northern Iraq it could release a flood of refugees that would make the current influx
of asylum seekers look like a tiny trickle.