Kilis shows extent of Turkish-Syrian refugee drama | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 19.02.2016
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Kilis shows extent of Turkish-Syrian refugee drama

As Brussels feverishly scrambles to get a grip on the refugee crisis, the Turkish border town of Kilis is at the heart of real drama. Anna Lekas Miller reports from there.

A Syrian boy rides his bicycle in circles under a beating February sun in front of the Öncüpınar Border Crossing in the southeastern Turkish city of Kilis, just a stone's throw away from the Syrian border. While the border crossing has historically been one of the busiest - the corridor to Aleppo is one of the main thoroughfares for refugees leaving Syria, as well as fighters, humanitarian aid workers, and business men going inside - in recent weeks it has been distinctly quiet, as the border remains closed.

However, just on the other side, tens of thousands of refugees are hoping to cross after fleeing a regime offensive on the city of Aleppo, a key symbol of the Syrian revolution.

"It is so bad," Zakariah, a lanky 12-year old who recently arrived from the nearby Bab al-Salemah refugee camp inside of Syria, tells DW, while leaning against a makeshift coffee stand set up next to the border.

"People are pissing in the street because there aren't enough toilets," he continues, describing the conditions in the camp just a few minutes away from the crossing. "You have to register even to be given a mattress to sleep on."

Waiting and waiting

Unlike most refugees, Zakariah was lucky enough to hitch a ride across the border on the back of a truck, undetected. However, his family is one of thousands of families still in the camp, waiting for the border to open - an increasingly unlikely prospect. For now, Zakariah is sleeping in the streets, spending his days at the coffee stand which has scant customers these days.

people sitting on a bus copyright: Ahmed Deeb

Tens of thousands of refugees are amassing on the border, hoping to cross into Turkey

"I guess I'm going to try to find work here now," he shrugs.

In the distance, a plume of black smoke plumes drifts over the countryside, most likely from the Syrian city of Azaz, where an on-going Russian-Syrian regime offensive has forced thousands to flee to the camps along the border, hoping to cross into Turkey. While the Turkish government has permitted ambulances to cross into Turkey and aid trucks to cross into Syria, authorities have staunchly reiterated that the border will remain closed to the majority of refugees.

"Our doors are not shut," Kilis Mayor Salesman Tapsiz told the media, countering the negative press the country has received by referencing the extreme medical cases that have been allowed to enter Turkey by ambulance.

'No need to take them in'

"There is no need to take them [refugees] in because all of their needs are being taken care of," he continued, referring to humanitarian aid that the Turkish government has orchestrated on the Syrian side of the border.

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Turkey: Kilis and the influx of refugees

However, as the violence continues and the amount of citizens becoming refugees multiplies, this aid is quickly dwindling, particularly in Bab al-Salemah, whose proximity to the border makes it a convenient option for refugees hoping to cross the border into Turkey, were policies to change. As of two days ago, the camp - now stretched beyond capacity - began turning away families, sending them to other camps in the north.

Even smugglers - the traditional last resort for those who have enough money to pay $1,000 or more to sneak through a loophole or bribe their way through an officially closed border - are experiencing unprecedented difficulties facilitating crossings.

"Really, it is becoming impossible to take people out of Syria," Ali, a 24-year-old smuggler from Azaz, told DW sitting in his makeshift office in a small trailer on the Kilis side of the border.

"Both the Turkish police and the Turkish military have become hyper-focused, trying to find anyone who is breaking the rules."

Ready to shoot

While in the past Ali would orchestrate his clients to either sneak through the barbed wire that snakes through the countryside, delineating the Turkish-Syrian border, or use higher fees to bribe the authorities at the crossing, lately neither of these strategies have worked. Since the fighting has escalated in Aleppo, Turkish authorities have been intently monitoring the border, ready to shoot at any suspicious movement.

view of smoke over a town Copyright: Ahmed Deeb

The Syrian regime's offensive backed by Russia is destabilizing an entire region

"Yesterday four people were killed when Turkish authorities saw them crossing illegally," Ali continued. "There are more soldiers along the barbed wire and if they see any movement at all, they shoot almost immediately.”

As the battle for Aleppo rages on and engulfs the nearby cities of Azaz and Afrin, neither the war nor the refugee crisis shows any sign of abating.

"We are still receiving ammunition from outside - and this is the only reason why Aleppo and Azaz have not immediately fallen," Abu Nasser, who fights with the Jabhat al-Shamiya brigade of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Aleppo, told DW.

The ammunition is part of a increasingly slow trickle of international support for the FSA, but Abu Nasser is concerned about the Russian and Iranian influence on the war, and how this assists both the regime, and groups such as the "Islamic State" (IS).

"The difference between us and IS is that they want to build an Islamic state and they will behead anyone against this," he said, refuting a rumor that, in an act of desperation following the battles of the following weeks, several former FSA fighters had defected and joined IS.

"We want a country that has justice, and justice for everybody - Kurds, Arabs, Christians and Muslims," he said. "We will continue to fight for this."

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