Turkey’s border stays closed to Syrian refugees

Russian air strikes on city of Aleppo continue to force people to sealed frontier

In the southern reaches of Turkey, the war in Syria no longer seems like a conflict in a far-away land.

Just over the border in the town of Azaz, thousands of people have left their homes over the past few weeks and amassed on the Turkish-Syrian border. Some 40 miles south, the city of Aleppo is also succumbing to the wrath of Russian air strikes, spawning a fresh wave of refugees heading north towards Turkey.

Metal gates

At the Oncupinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border near the town of Kilis, Turkish policemen guard the frontier. Apart from the slow, orderly progress of trucks and registered medical staff crossing into Syria, the metal gates remain shut, a symbol of Turkey’s refusal to open the border to the tens of thousands of refugees gathered on the other side.

Abdul Karem is one of the lucky ones. The 20-year-old and his wife left his home town of Tall Rifat near Aleppo a month ago to join his parents in Turkey, after bombs destroyed buildings near their home.


He and his wife now share a caravan with his parents and two brothers in the giant Kilis refugee camp adjacent to the Oncupinar crossing. The conditions are “good”, he says with a smile as he shows me his refugee swipe card needed to access the high-security camp. But he is concerned for his four sisters – they are gathered just a couple of kilometres away in tents on the far side of the border, unable to cross into Turkey.

Ankara’s burden

Turkey, which has provided food, blankets and medical supplies to Syrian refugees on the other side of the border, has refused entry to the new wave. Despite warnings from the international community about its obligations under the Geneva Convention, Turkey has argued it is already shouldering a huge proportion of the refugee burden, having accepted about 2.5 million refugees.

Aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières estimates about 23,000 people have arrived at the camps and border areas in northern Syria in the past few weeks, in addition to thousands already there. MSF’s head of mission in Syria, Muskilda Zancada, says that lack of shelter is becoming a major concern.

“There are pre-existing camps for internally displaced people but these are already at full capacity,” she said.

In the past week, three MSF-supported hospitals in Syria have been bombed, but with no casualties.

On Thursday, representatives from more than 17 countries and institutions meet in Munich in the latest attempt to kick-start Syrian peace talks, following the collapse of UN-brokered talks in Geneva last week.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent