Syrian Refugees Face an Increasingly Horrific Situation in Turkey

Now that rebel groups are fighting each other, even more families are fleeing to live in shipping containers and in empty lots--or even without a home entirely.
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A Syrian refugee man sits in front of a container in a refugee camp named "Container City" on the Turkish-Syrian border in Oncupinar in Kilis province, southern Turkey. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

KILIS, Turkey and JARABULUS, Syria —  Malek, a 46-year-old Syrian farmer who lives outside the Kilis refugee camp in a litter-infested lot, asked me, “Will our suffering last long?” He, along with 200 refugees, most families, fled to Turkey after Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attack in August.

These are grueling times for Syrian refugees. Since March 2011, when the peaceful protests began, more than two million Syrians have fled, seeking asylum in one of four neighboring countries — Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq — and leading to an increasingly unsustainable burden on these nations. Malek, who has a young son, asked, “All of the international community is working against us. Are we all animals? Is there no humanity?” He believes that this failure of foreign governments to assist the refugees has allowed Assad to “use us as wood for the fire in Syria.”

He breaks down in tears as he talks about the plight of his family and his countrymen.

Malek’s story is not an anomaly. On the Syrian side of the Jarabulus border crossing with the Turkish town of Karkamis, an unconscious rebel soldier is rushed by on a gurney, his severely disfigured face possibly the result of the intense clashes between the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (know inside Syria by its abbreviation ISIS) and pro-Western rebel groups. The al-Qaeda-linked ISIS reigns over Jarabulus, Syria, and aims to impose a Sharia-based Islamic state on the population.

These internecine battles have unfolded among the complex sets of rebel groups, compounding the scorched-earth policy of Syrian president Assad as he attempts to wipe out the opposition entirely. The ISIS announced in September its campaign of “cleansing evil” to obliterate pro-Western rebels.

On any given day, cars crammed with food and supplies make their way into Jarabulus. A mere 90-minute drive from Jarabulus is the Syria-Turkey border town of Kilis, where Malek resides. The border crossing was shut down for the past few weeks because al-Qaeda affiliated groups began fighting with allies of the moderate Free Syrian Army.

The five-member Daham family was the one of the first arrivals—roughly 50 days ago—to this shanty town. A young boy sleeps in the Daham’s dilapidated, makeshift tent, flies sticking to his face. Khlaif, a 14-year-old boy from the Daham family, told me, “We have the soil [to] play with.”

The children’s mother, who suffers from a mental illness and is badly in need of psychiatric medication, said, “We are thankful for the Turkish government, but we need a place to stay for the kids.” There is no shortage of rumors about the opening of a new camp in Kilis to house the homeless refugees. As a result, large groups of displaced Syrians frequently appear at the gate to the Kilis camp expecting the governor of the province to announce the move to the newly built camp.

While Turkey has gone to great lengths to provide refuge for the overwhelming waves of needy Syrians, the situation in Kilis illustrates the larger problem. The Turkish authorities have absorbed some 500,000 Syrians spread across the county.

On the other hand, the Turkish government has given a kind of green light to the jihadists to cross into Syria. A deadly ISIS member, for example, who escaped from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and is now in Gaziantep, Turkey on his way to Syria, was featured this week in an interview that aired on Al Aan, an Arabic-language TV station based in Dubai..

Turkey’s unwillingness to commit to one side or another of the Syria issue complicates matters for refugees at camps like the one in Kilis and other towns along Syria’s border. Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon have absorbed more than two million Syrian refugees, and are slated to appeal to the international community at a “crisis meeting” in Geneva for more help.

Mahmoud, a former English schoolteacher from Syria who now lives in the Kilis camp, says there are two are types of refugee camps: containers and tents. Most of the refugees living in Southeastern Turkey are lodged in containers, he said. Mahmoud lives with his three children and wife in two rooms of a container. The third type of refugee are the homeless Syrians living in parks and shanty towns.

The camp provides health services, electricity, security and running water. Mahmoud said the refugees are issued identification cards with a line of credit attached. A monthly stipend is also provided to each family—for Mahmoud’s, the total is 525 Turkish Lira, or about $260. The camp can hold 12,000 refugees, but the real number of Syrians living in containers there is estimated to be between 15,000 and 17,000.

The Turkish foreign affairs ministry has a cumbersome process for allowing journalists to gain entry into the camps. There is a long waiting list for news organizations, for example. A spokesman for the Turkish ministry who processes the applications says there are many journalists waiting in the queue in Gaziantep.

To exacerbate the confusion, there is some speculation that Turkish authorities are shying away from news reports to avoid stoking xenophobia among the local communities. Just this week in Gaziantep, small numbers of nationalistic Turks circulated “anti-war” flyers against Turkish military intervention in Syria.

There is some tension in Gaziantep about the refugee crisis.

Ipek Kizil, a young female university student, expressed frustration about the housing market. Most students are forced “to live in dormitories,” she said, because private landlords have increased the price for apartments by 50 percent. 

When asked about Assad’s use of chemical weapons, one of the protesters, Tuncay Tönemis, said “the Free Syrian Army did it.”

He blamed the refugees for depressing wage levels with cheap labor, and said the refugees left a “country that was free like Turkey.”

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Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

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