Turkish border town faces economic depression | Globalization | DW | 22.08.2012
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Turkish border town faces economic depression

Fighting in Syria has led to serious economic problems in parts of Turkey that relied heavily on cross-border trade. The Turkish town of Antakya has been hit hard since border crossings were closed to commercial traffic.

Dozens of offices, mostly transport companies, sit in an industrial area off Antakya's main street. Trucking company owner Ali Ozdemir was doing great business for years. Two hundred trucks a day took furniture, food and other products from Turkey, through Syria and on to Jordan. Then last November, says Ozdemir, the Syrian military shot up his trucks.

Luckily his trucks weren't hit too bad. "Other company's trucks were extremely damaged," he said. "There is no security."

Ozdemir said the soldiers fired assault rifles at his and other trucks in retaliation for Turkish government support for Syrian rebels. They attacked despite the fact that the Syrian government collected $2,000 (1,600 euros) from every Turkish truck entering and leaving the country.

Turks sit on one of Antakya's main steets, where unemployment has soared due to the closing of the Turkish-Syrian border (photo: DW/Reese Erlich)

Unemployment has soared in the Turkish border town

"They don't like Turkish people; they hate us," Ozdemir said, adding that Syrian soldiers gave his drivers a lot of problems crossing the borders.

No security

The security problems became so serious that Ozdemir couldn't find enough men to drive and unload his trucks. So he made the drive personally through Syria to Jordan. Coming back, he would normally go to a rest stop in the city of Homs, but rebels and the military were already in a pitched battle there.

The rest stop is near the city's central square, but he was blocked by the military. He could hear the bombing by government planes and was afraid to continue. But the soldiers did not allow him to enter, he said. So he continued to drive another 300 kilometers (186 miles) straight through to the Turkish border without stopping. It was a very long night.

Eventually all the border crossings between Turkey and Syria were closed to commercial traffic. That sank the economy of Antakya. Ozdemir explains that every day affluent Syrian tourists used to easily cross the border because no visas were required.

"Imagine, everyday 1,000 Syrians came to Antakya. If everyone spends just $100, we have $100,000 every day."

And some people took full advantage of the open border to smuggle cheap goods from Syria to Turkey. Subsidized gasoline, for example, is much cheaper in Syria than Turkey. Ozdemir said Turks would fill up a minivan with cigarettes, tea, sugar and extra gasoline. "He went to Syria for touristic reasons, stays one to two days, fills his tank and comes back again."

Antakya's historic Old City (photo: DW/Reese Erlich)

Syrian tourists used to roam Antakya's historic Old City, but they disappeared

Economic depression

Ozdemir said the border closure has meant a virtual economic depression here in Antakya. "Trade was very, very big between Antakya and Syria in the past years. But after the war started, it stopped." It affected everyone from international transport companies to the car washes. "There is no work."

Despite his economic losses, Ozdemir supports the Syrian opposition and hopes Bashar Assad will be overthrown soon. He argued that Assad has violated international law. "I don't think Assad will stay as president after what he did."

But some Turkish business people have a different opinion. On Antakya's main shopping street, many store owners talked about the stability Assad brought to Syria. They fondly remember the Syrian tourists, who bought their goods and filled local restaurants.

An empty shop (photo: DW/Reese Erlich)

Business is slow for most shop owners here in Antakya

As clothing store owner Mohammad Helu puts some t-shirts in a plastic bag, he blames his economic troubles on the Turkish government's support for the rebels. He claims to be neither pro- nor anti-Assad. "I don't like the Turkish policy because my business has gone down. By backing the rebels, trade with Syria has stopped, and so has my business."

Booming medical business

But not all business people are suffering because of the upheaval in Syria. Gizam Oral owns a medical supply company in Antakya. Business is booming because people buy medical supplies and then smuggle them over the border to help the rebels. Oral says Turkish hospitals and foreign aid groups are also buying huge quantities of supplies to help Syrian refugees who have flooded into Turkey.

"Last year we were just working with government hospitals and pharmacies," she said. "But now there are lots of people here to buy things. If you compare with last year, it is better."

Oral hopes the fighting in neighboring Syria will stop. She fears Syria's ethnic and religious conflicts could spill over to Antakya. "We are all living together Sunni, Christian people, Jewish people. We are afraid of this situation."

Fear is palpable here - fear for personal safety and fear for the health of an economy that has depended on the free flow of peoples between Syria and Turkey.

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