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TURKEY: In Border Province, Syrian Refugees Live in Limbo

ISTANBUL, Oct 14 2011 (IPS) - Four months ago, the international media were replete with reports of Syrian civilians fleeing Bashar al-Assad’s regime into southern Turkey. Today, media both in and outside of Turkey appear to have forgotten the plight of these refugees.

In June, when the Syrian army seized control of the border city Jisr al-Shughour, an estimated 10,000 Syrians fled into the southern Turkish province of Hatay.

Turkish authorities believe that an additional 9,000 refugees have arrived since June. However, many fled only temporarily and have already returned to Syria. In a press release originally dated Oct. 11 and updated Thursday, the Turkish Directorate of Disaster and Emergency Management put the total number of Syrian citizens currently in Hatay at 7,580.

Meanwhile, as the Syrian government continues its brutal crackdown on dissidents, relations have noticeably soured between Damascus and its long-time ally in Ankara.

After the United Nations Security Council failed to pass a resolution condemning the violence and threatening sanctions against Syria last week, Turkey decided to press ahead with its own unilateral set of sanctions.

In response to the controversy around this decision, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an repeatedly assured that the sanctions would affect Assad’s government and not the Syrian people.

“The Turkish government first began dialogue with the Syrian government, relying on their cordial relations,” Meltem Müftüler-Baç, professor of international relations at Sabanc? University, told IPS.

“When this did not seem to work, the Turkish position began to shift towards sanctions. Turkey has been careful (to ensure) its sanctions do not penalise the Syrian people.”

However, while the international media has fully dissected Turkey’s diplomatic sanctions, it has seemingly forgotten about the thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled north across the Turkish border.

An uncertain fate

Hatay’s population is neatly divided between ethnic Turks and Arabs, with sizeable Christian minorities of various backgrounds.

Because Hatay was historically part of Ottoman Syria and, later, the French Syrian Mandate, Arabic is commonly spoken throughout the province.

Through a series of agreements with France, Turkey annexed Hatay in 1939. Until recently, Syria maintained that the annexation was conducted illegally and continued to lay claim to the border province.

This contested history has forged strong connections between many Syrians and their families, relatives or acquaintances in Hatay. Some Syrians even own second homes in the city of Antakya there.

One such individual is Rami Suleiman, who fled to Hatay three months ago to become a refugee twice over: born in Damascus to Palestinian refugee parents, Suleiman is now himself a refugee in Turkey, having fled Assad’s violent repression.

Suleiman said that he had worked as a financial manager in Damascus until the uprising, when he began providing demonstrators with cell phones to coordinate with each other and contact the media.

“I came to Hatay when I felt it was no longer safe for me in Syria,” he told IPS.

Although Suleiman lives in his own house in Antakya, he is able to visit the camps during an hour-long window each day, the only time slot during which refugees are allowed to travel outside the camps.

“If I tell a camp director that I want to visit a specific person inside a camp, such as a friend or family member, they let me in,” Suleiman said.

“But if someone in the camps wants to go out they have to give a specific reason and be back within the time period, otherwise they may not be allowed to go out again. (So) most people just stay in the camps.”

Journalists have not been allowed into the camps; only NGOs working closely with the Turkish government have access.

Suleiman believed that “the Turkish government is definitely trying to control the information coming out of the camps”, though he assured IPS that camp conditions were “excellent”.

“There is an abundance of food, water, and medical supplies. People are treated well. But you have to understand that (the majority of the more than 7,500 refugees) have been in these camps for four months,” he said.

“These (may be) good conditions for a refugee, but it’s not a life for a human being,” he added.

After the initial wave of army violence in Syria, particularly at Jisr al-Shughour, many citizens have returned to their homes. Others flee only temporarily to better conditions across the Turkish border.

Still, if or when the bulk of the refugees will be able to return is unclear.

In an apparent acknowledgment that the camps may have to exist longer than anyone foresaw or hoped, the Turkish government has established schools for the over 2,300 school-aged children in the camps.

Suleiman told IPS that the authorities are outfitting the camps to make them habitable for long-term stays.

“They have laid internet cables in some places. The schools look excellent. There are classes in Arabic as well as a Turkish language course.”

The latter indicates that the government is anticipating the possibility of Syrian citizens experiencing protracted stays in Turkey.

Although the conditions in the camps are laudable, the refugees are ultimately longing to return to their homes. When most fled, they did not imagine living in tents or formerly abandoned buildings for months on end.

“We are waiting for the regime to come down,” Suleiman said. “We want to build a new Syria. We are just waiting.”

While the world waits for Assad’s regime to either crumble or institute reforms, these refugees are stuck in limbo, neither incorporated into Turkish society nor able to return home.

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