Backlash against refugees on Turkish border forcing many to return to Syria

Turkey is home to more than 400,000 refugees fleeing ongoing conflict

Mohammed al-Mar and his three-year old sonwaiting with other Syrian refugees at Turkey’s Cilvegozu border gate. They were staying with relatives in Reyhanli until they were asked to leave this week. Photograph: Caelinn Hogan

Mohammed al-Mar and his three-year old sonwaiting with other Syrian refugees at Turkey’s Cilvegozu border gate. They were staying with relatives in Reyhanli until they were asked to leave this week. Photograph: Caelinn Hogan


“We know we are going to our deaths, but we don’t have any other choice,” said Mohammed al-Mar, his three-year-old son propped on his shoulder as they waited in the midday sun among a crowd of Syrian refugees, pressed against the metal bars of Turkey’s Cilvegözü Sinir Kapisi border gate.

His wife clutched their youngest child over the round curve of her pregnancy, her baby due in less than a month.

For more than a year, al-Mar and his family have taken refuge with Turkish relatives in the nearby border town of Reyhanli, where twin bomb attacks on Saturday claimed the lives of almost 50 people and sparked a backlash against Syrian refugees, accused of bringing violence to the rural town.

Yesterday morning, more than 100 people passed through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing into Syria through the Cilvegözü gate, which had remained closed since Saturday’s attacks.

“Reyhanli people kicked us out, because they think the Syrians bring the problem to their city. We are afraid to go back to Aleppo – Aleppo is dangerous,” al-Mar said despondently.

For the past two days, the family have been destitute after their relatives asked them to leave. They tried to find a way to return to Syria through smuggling routes but eventually returned to the border and waited in the hope they would eventually be allowed through.

The family felt unable to seek shelter in the inundated refugee camps and said they had nowhere else to turn. Their passports and documents were lost, left behind in their home, now reduced to rubble, in the neighbourhood of Salaheddin, the site of intense clashes between regime and opposition forces in the Syrian city of Aleppo.

No documents
On the inside of the border gate an official called out names from a handwritten list, attempting to register the large number of Syrians who had crossed illegally into Turkey before rebels gained control of the border crossing. Buses hired to transport those with no documents waited on the other side.

Turkey is now home to more than 400,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the ongoing conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 70,000 and driven 1.5 million to seek safety in neighbouring countries.

Three days after the bombings, relief workers continued to remove debris from the streets surrounding the bomb sites in the city centre. Large convoys of police enlisted from nearby Antakya patrolled the town. Tensions remained high among the local community and Syrians who had decided to stay indoors.

Many local residents accused the government of creating a media blackout and withholding information about the bombings, which some believed was to protect Syrians from further hostility.

Nine men, all Turkish citizens, are in custody in relation to the attacks, and the government has linked the bombings to a pro-Assad organisation linked with the Syrian regime intelligence service.

In February, a car bomb at the Cilvegözü border killed 17 people, with Turkish authorities again attributing the attack to the Syrian regime.

Outside an apartment building with peeling paint on the corner of Mahmut Ekmen Street, a Syrian family of five were piling into a car, the children carrying school bags filled with their belongings.

They were heading for the Cilvegözü gate.

A young man on a scooter swerved to a halt beside them and began shouting at them to leave. His friend sitting behind him cradled a bandaged arm against his chest, an injury sustained in the bombings.

Police intervention
Policemen stationed in the area quickly intervened to assist the family and attempted to calm the group of locals who had gathered around the car.

“We want them to go back. When the Syrians came the problems began,” said a 14-year-old boy, who asked not to be named.

“All people are afraid and confused; they don’t know who did this and they are worried there may be other bombs,” said one police officer on the condition of anonymity.

“We cannot drive our car in the streets anymore,” said Abu Hussain, a Syrian living in Reyhanli for the past year, as he watched the scene from his front garden across the street.

His car is hidden in a neighbour’s garden nearby, the windows of the driver and passenger’s seats smashed in.

Eventually the family’s car was released from the crowd, the children’s faces pressed against the windows as it sped towards the border with Syria.