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Refugee crisis

June 29, 2011

In the past few weeks, thousands of people have fled the violence in Syria, straining the resources of the towns accommodating them and relations between Turkey and Syria.

Syrian refugees are putting a strain on relations between Syria and TurkeyImage: Andy Spyra

The Syrian military has made further advances through northern border towns, moving in on the village of Naija and reportedly targeting fleeing Syrians who had set up makeshift tent camps in wooded areas at the border.

Mohamed, a 32-year-old Syrian lawyer who fled with his wife and four children when their home town of Bdama was stormed, said the troops entered the town and randomly shot at people and property.

"Right now we're here, we can't go back," Mohamed, who asked that his last name not be used, told Deutsche Welle. "We're too scared to go back. Being there was being face-to-face with death every day."

For those fleeing, it is a dangerous journey.

Residents in Guvecci, a hilly Turkish village in viewing distance from Syria, reported a father and son were shot trying to flee a small tent encampment just steps from the border. Neither Turkish nor Syrian authorities could confirm those reports, and foreign journalists have been denied access into Syria from the Turkish border.

"They have no regard for human life," said Guvecci resident Abdul, who asked that his real name not be used. Many of Mohamed's relatives are Syrians who still live across the border, and he regularly risks the dangerous journey through the woods into Syria to help pick up family.

Hatay's residents have observed the situation with empathy. Yusuf, a resident of Antakya working as a bus driver doesn't know how many thousands are in the camps and does not know them personally but feels an obligation to help.

Home from home

"As Turks we always feel with and for these people, we welcome them into our country with open arms," he said.

As Syrian tanks and troops roll onwards through small towns and villages, the refugee population continues to swell in Turkey's Red Crescent camps. From Thursday into Friday alone, more than 1,500 Syrians fled into Turkey after Syrian troops occupied the town Khirbet al-Jouz.

That was the closest Syrian forces had come to the Turkish border since the military started its campaign north in the area two weeks ago. The Red Crescent announced it would start building a sixth camp which will be able to accommodate another 15,000 people.

Not enough aid is getting through to the refugeesImage: Andy Spyra

"There are as many people here as in a town," said a Red Crescent official at the Bonyuyogun camp who asked to remain anonymous. Bonyuyogun, which opened on June 12, shelters more than 3,000 refugees with over 600 tents, providing services from medical care to sewing courses and movie nights.

"So far we are not receiving help from any other aid agencies," said a Red Crescent spokesman in Ankara. "They seem to think it is enough to send Angelina Jolie."

But foreign aid agencies say they are ready and willing to help but have yet to be asked.

Aid concerns

While a small team of workers inside the Bonyuyogun camp is constructing improved bathroom facilities and a new social activities tent, the Red Crescent has remained very careful in its message to the public, calling the refugees "guests" and the camps "temporary shelter centers."

The organization has denied access to the refugee camps, forbidding journalists or aid officials to talk to the Syrians. The Red Crescent says that policy is for the refugees' privacy ands safety, but experts say Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also wary of further straining already tense relations with Damascus.

"There is huge concern in Turkey about further refugee flows from Syria into that country," said Andrew J. Tabler, a Next Generation Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It throws into question their entire policy of zero problems with neighbors."

turkish village
Turkish residents are trying to make the refugees feel at homeImage: Andy Spyra

The advance was surprising and Turkish officials said a week ago that they expected the refugees on the Syrian side of the border to be safe, that they expected Syrian security forces not to move any closer.

Strained relations

"The situation in Syria is becoming more urgent and directly affecting (Turkish) interests as Syrian refugees come over the border," said Bruce W. Jentleson, professor of public policy and political science at Duke University and a former policy advisor to the US State Department in the Obama administration.

"It's not abstract, Turkey's not a country thousands of miles away. I think it's not in the interests of either country for there to be a military confrontation but it does increase the urgency and importance of Syrian-Turkish diplomacy, to diffuse any potential crisis or confrontation."

Still, refugees who fled to Turkey say they have no plans of returning until President Bashar al-Assad is out of power.

"We don't care if (the new leader) is Muslim, Christian, black, white - we don't care. We just want a democratic leader," said lawyer Mohamed, whose wife and children are currently in the Yayladagi refugee camp, the largest of the five existing Red Crescent centers.

"I'm proud to be an Arab and I'm proud to be a Syrian but I'm embarrassed over my government."

Author: Sumi Somaskanda, Guvecci, Turkey
Editor: Rob Mudge

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