Tempers fray in Turkish border town over refugees

Turkey’s Hatay region is a magnet for reposing rebels

A Syrian woman holds her baby in a refugee camp in the border town Reyhanli, in the Turkish Hatay province. Photograph: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

A Syrian woman holds her baby in a refugee camp in the border town Reyhanli, in the Turkish Hatay province. Photograph: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images


On a bustling Antakya street in southern Turkey, a young man in replica seventh-century Islamic dress, complete with western backpack, gets disapproving stares from people getting out of a Syrian-registered car. In the eyes of both Turks and Syrians he is out of place, a potential menace.

Antakya, a town of 220,000 residents, 40km from the Syrian border and the brutal conflict that lies behind it, has been a melting pot of religions for millenniums. Today, foreign jihadis stopping off en route to the war in Syria and refugees streaming in the opposite direction have stretched the town’s age-old social fabric.

A semi-autonomous province of the French mandate of Syria until 1939, when annexed by Turkey following a flawed referendum, Hatay presents a headache for Turkey’s government, illustrated in last month’s local elections defeat.

The result of Hatay’s provincial ballot was the first de facto sign that local dynamics and tensions have influenced political life in Turkey.

If Antakya is the regional beating heart of history and trade, the border town of Reyhanli is its unkempt, boisterous baby brother.

That most residents of Reyhanli speak Arabic makes it more attractive to refugees fleeing Syria than other towns further north. The welcome is sometimes strained. Streets are unable to cope with the explosion of Syrian cars and soldier-carrying Turkish military trucks.

Divided population
Residents say up to half the town’s population is now Syrian and tensions between Turks and their guests reached boiling point following a double car bomb in May that killed 51. It was Turkey’s worst terrorist attack and no one has been charged for the massacre.

With opposition-controlled Syria so close as to be visible, rebels use the town as a depot to treat injured fighters and move food and weapons inside. “You see that car there,” says Ghazwan Mahmoud, a Syrian humanitarian worker, pointing to a nearby hill. “That’s Syrian land the government in Damascus hasn’t controlled for years.”

Of Hatay’s 1.5 million residents, about one-third are Alawite Turks who sympathise with the Syrian government, and are angered by Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s support for opposition rebel groups. Many live in the coastal town of Samandag, Turkey’s most southerly town, divided from Syria by the imposing Kilic Dagi mountain. Three weeks ago on the mountain’s southern foothill, Syrian rebels stormed a Syrian government border post, securing them a route to the Mediterranean Sea for the first time.

Though Arabic is the undisputed language of the street in Samandag and many identify themselves as Arab, there are scant signs that Syrian refugees live here. The reason is largely sectarian: those fleeing Syria’s northern towns and cities are predominantly Sunni, and prefer not to seek shelter in Hatay’s Alawite-inhabited areas.

“Two hundred men went into [the Syrian border town of] Kassab from Turkey a couple of weeks ago – Afghanis, Saudis, foreigners,” says Mohamed Kamaci, a provincial delegate of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). “The government has done nothing to stop them.” In Samandag, the AK Party can call on little support. A CHP representative won 81 per cent of the popular vote in recent local elections.

Improved infrastructure

Yet people elsewhere in Hatay support Turkey’s AK Party government. An aesthetically pleasing airport built on an open field north of Antakya in 2007 means residents no longer have to embark on the 400km round trip to Adana. Istanbul, where many locals live and work, is a mere 90-minute flight away, with regular flights also to Munich and Saudi Arabia.

The town’s parks are clean, the grass is freshly cut and litter is minimal. In Antakya, buses run on time.

But goodwill towards the government is sagging as the Syrian regime continues to drop barrel bombs across the border in Aleppo and the wave of refugees ploughing into Hatay continues for a fourth year.

“Sometimes they [Syrians] steal; they are not used to seeing our women dressed so liberally and harass them on the streets,” said a 30-year-old waiter. “We don’t like them.”

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