April 4, 2013 5:22 pm

Surge in Syrian ‘guests’ fuels tensions in Turkey

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Children of Syrian refugees play at a Red Crescent camp in the Boynuyogun village of Hatay province, only 500 metres (0.3 miles) from the Syrian border©AFP

Syrian refugee children play at the Boynuyogun camp in Turkey's Hatay province, near the border with their homeland

As refugee camps go, Boynuyogun in Turkey’s Hatay province is well appointed. About 700 yards across the border with northern Syria, it has electricity and gas, water and sanitation, schools and clinics, as well as a supermarket and playgrounds for its “guests”, as Turkish officials describe the 2,300 Syrian refugees in the tent city.

They form part of a surge of Syrians fleeing the civil war wracking their homeland, after President Bashar al-Assad opted to use force to put down the uprising against his regime that began two years ago.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said last month the number of registered refugees had exceeded 1m. That is apart from the estimated 2m Syrians internally displaced by the fighting and the unknown thousands that have melted into the population of neighbouring countries.

Turkey has 187,000 refugees in 17 camps and 200,000 more Syrians in its towns. In Lebanon, officials believe there are now more than 1m Syrians in a population of just over 4m.

António Guterres, the UNHCR chief, warns that the number of refugees could double or even triple by the end of this year if the fighting keeps escalating.

One western diplomat says that with a desperate regime resorting to weapons such as ballistic missiles – and the latent menace and rumours that it might use chemical weapons – an avalanche of fleeing Syrians could engulf Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

As numbers rise, tensions have emerged. The UN said last week it was concerned about reports of alleged deportations from Turkey. Turkish authorities denied that they had forcibly deported any refugees but said some Syrians who had been facing prosecution in Turkey for disturbances had voluntarily returned to their homeland.

While Turkey insists that its refugees are “guests”, with temporary protection status, their situation is starting to look anything but temporary.

In Boynuyogun, the refugees are nearly all from Jisr al-Shoughour, a north Syrian town that in June 2011 was the scene of the first massacres that marked the slide into civil war. There are reckoned to be 10,000 people from the town pressed up against the border but unable to cross into Turkey.

The ones who have done so are luckier. In school tents equipped with computers, the children who make up about two-thirds of Boynuyogun’s population learn Turkish as well as Arabic – using a Syrian curriculum with the history component rewritten by rebel advisers, says Kaja Hijazi, their English teacher.

“We are happy here but we want to go home,” says nine-year-old Adnan.

In depth


The brutal response by the regime of Bashar al-Assad to the popular revolt is exposing failures in international policy and the wishful thinking of policy makers who believed the president was a reformer

Kamal, 13, says “We are here because Bashar is killing the people.” He adds: “the good people are the freedom fighters”.

In one tent there has been a makeshift attempt to recreate an Arab courtyard. Under a polythene extension sits a badly burnt young boy, listening to the tinkle of water in a fountain improvised from a few bricks and a length of hose, and the cooing of long-feathered doves native to Idlib in northern Syria – homing pigeons according to one of the boy’s relatives.

Nearby, Musab, 28, who lost his mother and grandparents in Jisr al-Shoughour, looks to heaven in an effusion of thanks to Turkey’s prime minister: “It is thanks to Tayyip Erdogan, may God protect him, that I have been able to marry.”

Musab also says – within earshot of a Turkish interior ministry official – that he slips across the border to fight the regime’s forces.

The official robustly denies this. “There is no question of military organisations recruiting young people”, he insists, even though barely a mile up the road lies a special camp for the families of Syrian army officers who have defected from the regime, some of whom operate from Turkish soil.

This is not the only reason for Turkish sensitivity. Hatay, with its ancient capital Antakya (Antioch), is a pluri-confessional and contested region. There is a Christian minority – the first Christian church, of St Peter, built into a mountainside cave, is here. The first mosque in Anatolia, the Habib-i Neccar, nearly 14 centuries old, is in Antakya. And while the Boynuyogun camp is wholly Sunni, about a quarter of the people of Hatay, which is claimed by Syria, are Arab Alawites, the esoteric Nusayri Shia sect that is the backbone of the Assad regime.

While accommodating as many refugees as it can, Turkey still wants to use its borders to as a shield against the increasingly sectarian conflict raging to its south.

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