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Syrian refugees flocking to Turkey push the limit

Government closes some border crossings

by Linda Gradstein, The Media Line

October 16, 2012 | 1:44 pm

For weeks now, the Ankara government has been saying that the number of 100,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey was a “psychological limit” – the point at which the border crossings would be closed. This week, the Turkish Disaster Management Agency, Afad, announced that there are now 100,363 Syrians at 14 camps along the border between Turkey and Syria, increasing speculation that no more refugees would be allowed in. Despite the threats, the influx shows no sign of slowing down.

“The 100,000 figure was truly a threshold for us, but we always said it may exceed 100,000,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters. “We are now currently working on this issue.”

The actual figure is even higher. In addition to those living in the government facilities, there are an estimated 70,000 Syrians who have fled the fighting but choose to rent apartments rather than live in refugee camps. In the camps themselves conditions are reasonable.

“The Turks have done an extremely good and professional job of setting up the camps,” Gerry Simpson, the refugee coordinator for Human Rights Watch told The Media Line. “Refugees are allowed to leave the camps for days or even weeks so they’re relatively free to move which is more than can be said in Iraq and Jordan where the authorities are refusing the refugees the right to leave the camps.”

The weather is already turning cold in Turkey. Simpson says officials are preparing for the change in temperature, with extra blankets and heaters for the refugees’ tents. Where Human Rights Watch is concerned, he says, is the situation on the Syrian side of the border, where an estimated 15,000 people fleeing the fighting are waiting to enter Turkey. At least two border crossings have already been closed.

“We are concerned about the thousands and soon to be tens of thousands who are stuck on the Turkish border as a result of the border closure,” he said. “In some of these places people are living under trees, in makeshift tents, or in schools where they are out in the open. They have little access to assistance. As winter approaches, it will become more urgent for Turkey to stop playing games and open the border crossings for Syrians fleeing violence.”

Tensions have increased as the once warm relations between Syria and Turkey have grown colder, and the two countries seem almost on the brink of war. This week, Turkey banned all Syrian flights from its airspace and ordered a plane to land after fears it was carrying weapons to Syria.

But most Turkish citizens differentiate between the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, which they see as the enemy, and the Turkish refugees fleeing the violence.

“I don’t think there’s a real problem with the refugees --- these people will eventually go back to Syria,” Faruk Yalvach, a professor of political science at Middle East Technical University told The Media Line. “If eventually Assad goes, then Turkey will have a good position with all of these refugees thanking Turkey for taking care of [them].”

The total number of refugees is over 300,000 according to the United Nations. Besides the ones in Turkey, some 210,000 are in Jordan, straining that country’s resources. In Turkey, too, officials say the international community must provide more money for the refugees.

For many years there have been close relationships between families living on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border.

But as the refugee flow continues, attitudes are likely to change. Turkish officials say they are willing to shoulder part of the burden of dealing with the influx frorm Syria, but they cannot be solely responsible. Now that the figure of 100,000 has been reached, it is likely that Turkish officials will move to stem the flow of refugees.

“We understand the problems and we want to help,” Professor Yalvach said. “But it has to end somewhere.”

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