REYHANLI, Turkey -- Turkish government officials, alarmed by a surge in refugees from Syria, have told Syrian activists in Reyhanli and other cities in southern Turkey that their movement and activities will be restricted, an apparent change in policy toward the thousands of Syrians who’ve sought refuge here.
The effort to force Syrians into refugee camps or to move further from the border comes as Turkish opposition politicians begin to question apparent government support for the rebels who are battling to topple President Bashar Assad in neighboring Syria. On Sunday, a group of opposition Parliament members tried to visit the Apaydin refugee camp and were refused entry. The Apaydin camp, between Reyhanli and the city of Antakya, which has become a virtual center of rebel activism, is home to the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, the umbrella group under which many of the rebel militias in Syria fight.
News accounts have said the Turkish government has allowed the rebels to use refugee camps to train and launch cross-border attacks and that the government has facilitated deliveries of weapons and ammunition across the border. The alleged government support has roiled relations between Turkey’s Alawite religious minority, the same sect to which Assad belongs, and its Sunni Muslim majority, of which Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who’s called publicly for Assad to resign, is a member.
On Tuesday, the governor of Hatay province, which borders Syria, denied that Turkey is assisting Syrian rebels. But Celalettin Lekesiz’s denial was undercut by the scene near the border, where a rebel encampment that helps refugees across the border sits just a few hundred yards inside Syria, in plain view of the Turkish military. On Monday, the camp flew both Turkish and the Syrian rebels’ flags, an apparent acknowledgement of the Turkish government’s support, which has included the free passage of people, weapons, supplies and fighters.
The number of Syrian refugees in Turkey is approaching 100,000, a number that Erdogan has called a “red line,” and Turkish authorities have slowed the entry of more refugees, keeping thousands waiting at official and semiofficial border crossings. The authorities also are seeking to limit the freedom of anti-Assad activists and fighters, Syrian activists in Reyhanli and Antakya say.
The activists said Turkish authorities had asked them to leave apartments in the border area and either to move away from the border or into the camps. Turkish authorities say they’re just enforcing the rules.
“There is no change in the policy; there are just people who have broken the rules,” said Suphi Atan, a representative of the Turkish Foreign Ministry in Killis province, where the largest number of recent refugees have fled the fighting in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. “We are inviting them to go to the camps to take advantage of the assistance there.”
Atan added that preparations were being made to increase the camps’ capacity to 110,000. There are already 16 refugee camps spread along Turkey’s border with Syria.
Turkey is expected to call for international action on the conflict in Syria and the refugee crisis at a United Nations Security Council meeting Friday.
As of Tuesday, the Syria coordinator for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said the agency had registered 218,000 Syrians in Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Thousands of refugees also reportedly are waiting to cross the southern Syrian border into Jordan, as airstrikes and fighting intensify around the southern city of Deraa.