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Leafy vines and potted flowers line the small plastic trailer where Abdullah Jawish has lived for two years. Planted as a symbol of optimism, they belie his despair that he and fellow Syrians will ever leave their refugee camps and return home
“Back home I was a farmer. We grew everything you can imagine,” he says, smiling. “I try to give my family just a taste of that, to remember.”
When they first arrived, the refugees thought their life outside Syria would be temporary. Now the 5,000 living in rows of identical white containers in “Nizip II”, just outside the Turkish city of Nizip, are bracing for a long haul.
After more than three years of bloodshed that has killed more than 200,000 people and forced 9m to flee their homes, few refugees believe they can return soon. Many fear they never will.
“I wonder if we will end up like the Palestinians — a people without a homeland, for decades,” says Mona, a young mother of four with deep wrinkles along her forehead. She fled her home city of Aleppo almost three years ago.
The sense of permanence is not just a worry for the 1.6m refugees in Turkey. Ankara itself is growing alarmed by both the economic and the social costs of its refugee burden. Funds are drying up.
Turkey’s humanitarian spending has increased more than fivefold since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began and escalated into civil war. According to statistics given by Ankara to The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Syria now takes up more than 90 per cent of Turkey’s humanitarian assistance funds.
While Turkey’s $820bn economy is burdened by the $1.5bn it spends each year on the refugees, it is still able to provide for the 220,000 refugees in the camps which are now full to capacity. A deeper worry for Ankara is the rising frustration of the estimated 1.4m refugees existing outside the camps.
“Either you give food and shelter to these people, or in their anger they may be much more liable to be recruited by extremists and criminals,” says Atilla Yesilada at GlobalSource Partners.
Outside the camps, refugees scrape together money to rent space in garages or unfinished buildings. Child labour and prostitution are growing among refugees not legally allowed to work in Turkey. Ankara has been working on new measures to make it easier for refugees to work, but many have already turned to crime, like the smuggling that has helped jihadi militants to flow into Syria and which authorities are desperate to stop.
Turkey says the world is not doing enough to ease a crisis that has already cost it more than $4.5bn.
“How has the world helped us? They have provided us with $200m. Meanwhile Europe has only 130,000 refugees from Syria at the moment,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in comments last week. “Why won’t European nations open up their borders to refugees?”
This week the EU said it was finalising €70m in further aid, but a nine-day interruption in World Food Programme assistance for Syrian refugees in the region highlighted the scarcity of available funds.
Amnesty International, which recently accused Turkey’s security forces of abusing Syrians fleeing into the country, said the international community has “abandoned” refugees. But it also said Turkey had not done enough in requesting support.
Privately, aid workers say Ankara does not make it easy to provide aid, arguing that the assistance spending is insufficiently transparent and that it is difficult for foreign organisations to register and operate in Turkey.
Turkish officials in border towns like Reyhanli, where the population has doubled with the arrival of Syrian refugees, say they are struggling to maintain services and ease tensions between refugees and locals.
Huseyin Sanverdi, the town mayor, says that like many border towns he is pleading for more money to deal with the refugees, but worries there is little left to give.
“As our president says — the Syrians are our guests . . . When Assad leaves, they can go back. We have almost 2m people in Turkey waiting for him to go,” he says.
When asked what Turkey would do if Mr Assad stayed, he interrupts abruptly: “Assad has to leave. If he doesn’t, we have a problem.”
Turkey, once confident that Mr Assad would be quickly overthrown, has been trying for months to keep Syrians in Syria by sending its Red Crescent to help in some 500 camps set up just across the border — areas locals call a de facto “safe zone” because they have usually been spared air raids.
Turkey still has to grapple with huge inflows every time a new military campaign erupts near its borders. In the past two months it took in another 200,000 fleeing an offensive by jihadi militants on the border town of Kobani. It is bracing for another huge influx should the Syrian government encircle the northern city of Aleppo.
In figures that outstrip other officials’ predictions, Mevlut Cavusoglu, the foreign minister, has even warned of 2m-3m more refugees if the city falls.
Meanwhile, relatively comfortable container camps like Nizip, which some Turkish officials call a “dream camp”, are turning into tiny asphalt villages — albeit ones with guard towers and metal detectors for those passing through their chain-linked fences.
Smells of Syrian cooking waft through the streets as women lay out red peppers on blankets to dry before winter sets in — just as they would in their villages, some of which are only miles away.
Cracking open her container door, Mona ushers in her children, nieces and nephews for dinner. Every month, more of her relatives flee the bombardment.
“Our container stays the same size,” she sighs. “But the number of people in it keeps growing.”