Syrian refugees torn between death and refuge
This week, I spent a few days in southern province of Şanlıurfa, which hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees (estimated to be around 450.000) in Turkey in order to observe the impact of the outcome of the June 7 elections on Syrians.
However, my visit coincided with the seizure of a key Syrian town of Tal Abyad on the Turkish-Syrian border by the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD)’s military wing, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), from ISIS militants.
Tal Abyad is a strategic town for both YPG and ISIS. For ISIS, which controlled the town for nearly two years, the loss of Tal Abyad means the cutting of a vital supply route to its self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa. For Kurds, the capture of Tal Abyad means connecting the other two cantons in Syria – Kobane and Cizire. The control of Tal Abyad is also significant for Ankara, which considers both ISIS and YPG as a threat and is alarmed by the developments on the other side of the border.
During the fierce fight between Kurdish and ISIS forces in the past few days, more than 23.000 Syrians fled to Turkey, some escaping from the U.S.-led air strikes, some from the fear of Kurdish forces and some from the atrocities of ISIS militants. However, the moment that the fight stopped and the Kurds gained control in the town, Syrians, who could think of nothing but to go home, started to return back to Tal Abyad. On Wednesday, more than 1000 Syrians crossed back to Tal Abyad from Turkey’s Akçakale border gate of Şanlıurfa.
But on Thursday, I personally witnessed some 200 refugees who had fled from the fighting in the town of Tal Abyad had to wait on the Turkish side due to YPG’s closure of the gate on the other side of the border, although YPG denies such a case. According to reports, the border is expected to be open on Monday; however, this is not a confirmed yet. This means already existing humanitarian crisis across the border seems to prolong during the holy month of Ramadan.
Leaving without explanations
The Syrian refugees to whom I spoke in the Akçakale border gate were frustrated, wishing to spend the holy month at their own homes. My personal observation is that Syrians in general have no clear, or in other words diverse, answers on what really happened in Tal Abyad and who forced them to leave their homes; therefore, it is an open matter to speculations and manipulations of media. Several of them told me that they left their homes and fled to Turkey as they were said that to leave without any explanation.
The difference of opinion among political parties in Turkey regarding the Syrian issue is not only to gain votes
According to a 63-year-old man, who said it took six days for him and his family to finally reach the border, Tal Abyad was attacked while they were leaving; however he personally didn’t see any Kurds.
Another man with four children, who entered Turkey along with 2000 Syrians, said they left their town due to the fear of PYD, saying “Kurds drive out us from our own land. If I return back, I am not sure how the life will be under PYD’s rule”.
Some Syrians said that they fled from Tal Abyad due to the U.S.-led anti coalition forces’ air strikes. “I am afraid of the bombs than anything else”, said 26-year-old young man.
While some were saying that they didn’t have any problem with the ISIS presence, some explained the atrocities of ISIS, which was ruling the town just a few days ago. “ISIS was taking over all my money. I didn’t have a moment of peace while doing my job. ISIS was a nightmare for us,” said a 35-year-old money changer from Tal Abyad.
42-year-old Muhammad with his wife and two children said he would return back to Tel Abyad, doesn’t matter who controls the town, as long as he and his family is not under threat. “At the moment, I don’t know how is the situation in the other side, I will go and decide whether to stay or not. For me, there isn’t much difference between ISIS and YPG. I will look at my business and the well-being of my family,” he added.
Among my conversation with the Syrian refugees, the most interesting thing that I heard was from a Syrian man, who said “ If Turkey had a war like the one in Syria now, we as Syrians wouldn’t be as generous as Turks, opening our doors widely to this large number of refugees.”
Indeed, Turkey’s open door policy towards Syrians deserves a great appreciation. Turkey has become the largest refugee-hosting country in the world, hosting nearly 2 million refugees and tried its best to deal with this large number of refugees with little help from the international community. Turkey is also praised with the conditions of the camps, which are defined as “five-star.” I personally had a chance to visit some of them, which provide all kinds of health care, cash assistance, social activities and education.
There may be several aspects that could be criticized in Turkey’s Syria policy; however, we must give credit to Ankara for its refugee policy, which saved many lives, despite its social and economic challenges.
Syrian refugees, who felt comfortable until now, are concerned over their future as the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party lost its parliamentary majority in June 7 elections. What I observed was that there is a fear among Syrian refugees that the new government may send them back to their war-torn homeland.
Regardless of who forms the next government, it is clear that Syria would be the most important task in front of the newly established rule. It seems clear that if there will be a coalition government, it will pursue a different policy than AKP towards Syrians as all the four parties in the parliament have very different approaches towards the refugee influx. During the election campaign, AKP’s opponents raised their criticisms and complaints over the refugee issue.
During my visit, I also personally heard the complaints of some local residents in Sanliurfa regarding the Syrian refugees, such as the rents of the houses have soared and the unemployment rate have increased as refugees, most of whom live outside the camps, accept lower wages. Majority of the locals prefer the Syrians to remain in camps rather than working and living in the cities. While some even want them to return back to Syria.
The difference of opinion among political parties in Turkey regarding the Syrian issue is not only to gain votes but is the clear stances of the parties. For instance, the chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, in his election campaign stated that the CHP will send Syrians back to their homeland if his party takes the power. While, from Nationalist Movement Party’ (MHP) deputy Ümit Özdağ tweeted “The 500,000 Syrians will go, 500,000 tourists will come to Gaziantep,” from his account. Gaziantep is another province in southern Turkey that is most adversely affected by the enormous influx of Syrian refugees in the country. Unlike the other two parties, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which passed the 10 percent election threshold and entered as the fourth party in the parliament, didn’t adopt a harsh rhetoric towards Syrians; however its supporters have raised criticisms from time to time.
Judging from this picture, it seems it would be hard to create a consensus among the parties towards the refugee issue. With no end to the conflict in sight, both the attitude of the parties and the uncertainty over the post-election era in Turkey have created serious worries among Syrians regarding their fate.