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.