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.
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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.
On Tuesday, as many as 6,000 refugees were waiting to cross into Turkey. About half were in Atmay, a Syrian town near what until a few days ago had been a semi-legal border crossing where Turkish officials were allowing Syrians without passports to enter.
“The people are staying in schools,” said Koteiba, a man who’d tried to cross through Atmay on Monday and said he’d eventually found his way into Turkey illegally through another nearby route.
Koteiba, who declined to give anything more than his first name, predicted that the flow of refugees would only increase as the violence in Syria escalated. He said the city where he lived, Killi, usually was home to about 20,000 people. Only about 5,000 remain, he said.
“Before we could go to the basements, but now they’re using larger bombs,” he said, a reference to the government’s stepped-up use of aircraft to attack rebel positions.
“With the shelling from the tanks, you get a warning when the tanks are coming, and you can move,” he said. “With the airplanes. . . . ” His voice trailed off.
On Tuesday, an example of what Koteiba spoke about was on display in a video of what was reputed to be the aftermath of an airstrike in Kafr Nabl, a city south of Idlib. Activists said the explosion had killed at least 23 people. The video showed burning vehicles and at least five bodies, as well as a crater that had left half the street unpassable. At least two buildings appeared to have been damaged. One military analyst who watched the video said the damage was consistent with a bomb that weighed at least 1,000 pounds.
Koteiba also said sustained fighting had caused cuts in power and fuel and food shortages, another factor in the increasing flow of refugees.
Syrian opposition activists in Reyhanli said they were frustrated by the Turkish decision to prevent refugees from crossing, but they also were careful in their criticisms and quick to point out all the Turkish government has done to support them.
“There are people who have paid to rent apartments for six months or a year. Where are they going to go?” asked one Syrian activist in Reyhanli, who said he’d visited the crossing near Atmay over the weekend to take food and water to the people there. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he feared the Turks were cracking down.
The activist said Turkish soldiers along the border had tried to prevent him from taking pictures, but they’d allowed him to deliver the aid.
“They said throw the food and water and then go,” the activist said. “They said they would allow them in by today, but they have not yet.”