Welcome is wearing thin for Syrian refugees


Many Turks in the border region resent their government’s open arms policy, writes SEAMUS MIRODAN

THE NUMBER of refugees fleeing Syria could reach 700,000 by the end of the year, the UN refugee agency said yesterday, far surpassing its previous forecast of 185,000 reached in August.

About 294,000 Syrian refugees have already crossed into four neighbouring countries — Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey — or await registration there, the agency said. Over a third of those fleeing violence in their towns and cities have headed for Turkey, the most accessible border for many and a nation which has until now kept its doors wide open in welcome to those whom prime minister Tayyip Erdogan prefers to refer to as “our guests”.

But as a staggering 2,000 to 3,000 refugees are added to the total number fleeing the conflict every single day, according to the UN agency, tensions in the border towns which house them are threatening to boil over.

“We want to show them mercy, but we don’t love them and we definitely don’t love having them here,” said an employee from the local governor’s office in the Turkish border town of Kilis, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Others were less diplomatic: “They are willing to work for less than us,” said enraged local kiosk owner Serif Mercimek. “Already factories are hiring Syrians over locals and this will only get worse. We’re really angry at the government – if the Arabs don’t go home soon there will be trouble.”

Just before the UN agency made its announcement, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that more than 300 people were killed in Syria on Wednesday, in one of the bloodiest days in the 18-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. As the fighting intensified, the border checkpoint on the outskirts of Kilis was awash with new arrivals.

Entire families crammed themselves and a few key possessions into vehicles — children rode in the boots of hatchbacks, their legs dangling precariously over the rear bumper. Once processed through immigration they found themselves on the doorstep of the Kilis refugee camp.

But the 12,600 escapees who arrived before them have already taken up residence in the camp’s 2,000 prefab containers. Families share two small rooms equipped with electricity, running water and a small kitchenette. They receive free medicines, pre-paid credit cards for shopping, free meals and even training courses in handicrafts. There have been wedding parties, babies born and even a pop concert inside the camp.

All of which has fostered the resentment of the local population in a town that is far from affluent and where the economy was largely dependent on exports to Syria before the war.

“Trade is now down 100 per cent,” said Kilis Chamber of Commerce president Mehmet Ozgil. Stimulated by this state of affairs, the local rumour mill has gone into overdrive and gossip about government largesse towards its “guests” abounds in the town.

The local press has reported state-sponsored honeymoon trips for newlyweds in the camp, lavish gifts for newborn babies and Syrian women seeking IVF fertility treatment from state hospitals. However, the Kilis governor’s office said that while it was true that some babygrows and shoes were given to new mothers, “the rest is pure nonsense”.

For their part, the refugees express gratitude for the sanctuary the camps offer, but frustration at their situation. With 12 members of his family inhabiting one two-room container in Kilis camp, Mazin Abu Khaleel has been forced to fashion a makeshift covered patio out of wooden poles and carpets to extend their living quarters. He and his sons sleep outside while his wife and daughters are afforded the privacy of the container.

“At least my family are safe, I thank God and Erdogan for that,” he said, “but life is very hard. They give us cards to shop in the camp, but we have no cash and no means of making any.” When his eight-year-old daughter fell sick the previous week, Mazin found himself in a desperate situation. The camp hospital could not diagnose her condition, as it was not equipped to give her the necessary blood tests.

For that he needed to head to the general hospital in Kilis town. “But without money I couldn’t pay for a taxi. It was late at night and I stood on the side of the road with my sick child for three hours until finally a driver accepted a reduced fare. So I gave him my very last six Turkish lira, but what will I do next time? Now I truly have nothing left,” he said.

For the latest arrivals, a fleet of minibuses was on hand to ferry them to other less well equipped sites such as the camp in neighbouring Urfa, where residents have to make do with tents pitched in a desert and utilities such as water are communal and in shorter supply.

Thousands more refugees have been left on the Syrian side, camped out without running water or sanitation. Children with muddy faces play amidst open fires topped by cooking pots and pans, as the Turkish authorities scramble to establish new facilities to receive them. “Because of the unhygienic conditions and the large number of children we’re seeing a lot of viruses passed around,” said Doctor Muaaid Abu Samih from the nearby Free Syrian Army Medical Centre.

Some of those stranded have chosen to cross the border illegally by traversing a minefield which separates the two countries. Large gaps in the barbed wire fences on either side allow refugees to cross over and Free Syrian Army recruits to cross back and join the fight against Assad’s forces. The Turkish military patrols this area but appears to do little to stop the flow in either direction. Those who cross over illegally cannot gain entrance to the camps so rent local accommodation if they can afford it. The rest sleep rough in the town square; a situation the locals feel is untenable.

Two months ago these tensions exploded in Kilis’s central bazaar as angry refugees traded blows with stallholders over the price of goods. And with some Turkish politicians alleging that Damascus has retaliated against Turkey’s open arms policy towards the refugees by providing support for Kurdish separatist group the PKK, the townsfolk of Kilis are worried their security is also in jeopardy. A recent car bomb in the provincial capital, Gazantiep, killed 8 people leading to fears that Kilis could be next in line.

“The refugees have brought a lot of problems,” explained Hireyin Kilimci who runs a pastry shop in the town centre with his two sons. “The hospital is full of Arabs so we have to wait a long time for treatment and house rents are going up. There are people sleeping in the square, but where will they go when winter comes?

“We’ve seen a rise in robberies and prostitution, and that’s the government’s fault. Because the police always protect the Arabs we can’t do anything about it. We’ve had the Kurdish problem for decades, will it be the Arab problem next?”