Exodus of refugees across border raises tensions in Turkey
Some 50,000 refugees have already fled over the border, and more arrive daily, writes MARY FITZGERALD, Foreign Affairs Correspondent, in Antakya, Turkey
EVERY NIGHT they come, streaming over the hilly borderlands that divide Syria from Turkey. In the beginning it was scores, then hundreds, but now the number of Syrians fleeing violence back home has reached thousands.
Some 2,400 people, most of them women and children, crossed into Turkey on Tuesday night to escape the escalating crisis over the border, Turkey’s state-run news agency reported yesterday.
The renewed exodus came as rebel fighters tried to advance further into Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city and a major commercial hub, under continued heavy bombardment from government forces.
Regime airstrikes killed a number of civilians in the city as opposition sources reported that government troops had begun a long anticipated ground assault into rebel-held districts. The Syrian army also bombed the town of Tal Rafaat, close to the Turkish border, killing a number of children when their home was struck.
Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported that the group that had crossed the border on Tuesday night included two generals and two colonels who were defecting from the Syrian army. It said nine of the refugees – including women and children – had been injured in violence in villages near Aleppo and the neighbouring province of Idlib.
There has been a marked increase in the number of refugees arriving in Turkey this week as fighting intensifies in Aleppo, some 50km from the border. Turkish officials reported that 1,328 had fled over the border on Monday, nearly double the number of the previous day.
“Unfortunately, there is a human tragedy going on in Syria,” Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Ali Babacan, said yesterday, referring to the fallout from a conflict that is now estimated to have cost at least 19,000 lives.
Up to 50,000 Syrians have now sought sanctuary in Turkey, which plays host to figures from Syria’s fractured opposition and army defectors who act as nominal leaders for the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Turkey also turns a blind eye to the funnelling of weapons and funding over the border to opposition forces seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad. Towns close to the frontier like Antakya and Reyhanli serve as rebel staging posts. Many injured fighters come to the area’s hospitals for treatment.
Some 46,000 of the Syrian refugees languish in eight tented camps strung along the border area. In the Turkish town of Kilis, 12,000 have been housed in rows of prefabricated units set behind a high metal wall bristling with barbed wire.
Those who can afford it are moving to towns in Turkey’s Gaziantep and Antakya provinces, where they have rented apartments, causing prices to double or sometimes triple.
Some Syrians say they detect resentment from Turks. “You get a sense sometimes that we are not entirely welcome here,” says Ahmed, a 30-year-old from the restive town of Hama, who moved to Antakya several months ago. “People are worried that the longer the fighting continues in Syria, the more Turkey will be affected.”
There have been a number of incidents in the Turkish camps in which fighting has broken out among Syrian refugees as well as with Turkish security forces. Last month riot police fired tear gas during a dispute over food distribution in the Kilis camp.
“Our problem is that no one knows when we will be able to return to our homes, let alone anything approaching a normal life,” said Sumaya, who left Aleppo at the weekend. “Our lives have been turned upside down and the future looks bleak.”