Tensions rising in Turkey over Syrian refugees

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Civilians rest in a hangar at the Bab Al-Salam border crossing in Azaz Aug. 29, 2012. The refugee flow to Turkey has grown as fighting has worsened around Syria's biggest city, Aleppo. (Photo by Youssef Boudlal/Reuters.)

The number of Syrian refugees registered in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq has topped a quarter of a million, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

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Violence forced an estimated 100,000 civilians across borders in August alone. That’s the highest monthly total since the conflict began.

Turkey is hosting about a third of the refugee population. Authorities there are building four new camps to keep up. But the influx is taking a toll on the Southern town of Antakya, where many Syrian families and activists have settled.

Growing tensions with the local community have prompted authorities to take fresh action to ease the burden on the border region.

On a busy pedestrian street, a group of activists in their twenties handed out leaflets. Behind them was a banner that features the Turkish and Syrian flags locked together.

Antakya, which is just 12 miles from the Syrian border, might be teeming with refugees, but these Turkish activists aren’t on the side of the revolution.

Erkin Orcan, one of the activists, said he and other activists believe the Free Syrian Army is a group of terrorists backed by al-Qaeda — a sentiment very much in line with the stance of the Syrian regime.

Orcan said locals are worried about the unabated violence on their doorstep.

“People are not just anxious, people are angry,” Orcan said. “Syrian refugees, they’re acting like king of these areas: coming here, making some noises around there, going to a restaurant and not paying, going to a store, buying something and not paying.”

Though few locals say they’ve actually witnessed these actions, resentment of refugees is mounting.

At demonstrations like the one in early September, an odd mix of Turkish Alawites and political activists like Orcan chanted pro-regime slogans. Alawites, who come from the same religious group as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, make up half the population in the region. And they fret over the rising number of Sunni refugees. Leftist parties, on the other hand, reject Turkey’s alliance with the United States and NATO and say the civil war in Syria is the result of Western imperialism in the Middle East.

Both groups believe the Syrian president is a bulwark against the rise of Islamism.

Fatima, a Syrian English teacher who has lived in Turkey for more than a decade and has been helping refugees, says rising tensions have a direct fallout, with police raiding scores of houses over the past 10 days.

“They were kicking the doors, getting inside, trying to threaten them asking them that they have to be all leaving the cities which are close to the borders,” she said.

Syrians without passports are told they have to go to refugee camps, though Turkish authorities admit they are overcrowded. Refugees who have passports are asked to move north, away from the border.

Hanadi, a refugee from Syria, and her six children, have lived in Antakya for the past 13 months. The family was part of the first wave of refugees seeking shelter in Turkey and is now among the first to be threatened with eviction.

“When (the police) came one week ago, they said pack your stuff, you have to leave immediately,” Hanadi said. “I told them, I’m pregnant. I will give birth in no time. I can’t move with my furniture and my family to nowhere. I’ll give birth, after that we’ll move.”

She said when she returned from the hospital, the police came immediately and gave her five days to move out.

Hanadi’s extra time is up Friday, and her options are limited. She can only go to one of four designated towns, all which are between 90 and 240 miles from Antakya.

Hanadi said displacing refugees after they’ve toiled for months to adjust to life here is cruel. Her husband has found a job as a painter and they have signed a one-year lease on their apartment. The family has no savings to resettle.

“For Syrian families, there is a tradition: When you get a newborn baby, people would come and give him money. They put it in his underwear. One guy came and gave the boy 20 Turkish lira,” Hanadi said. “This is all that we have, the baby’s money.”

The legal ground for the eviction of families like Hanadi’s is murky. The document produced by police officers bears no signature, no stamp and no letter head. The governor of Antakya province himself couldn’t confirm the new course of action.

Activists like “Jihad” say the new policy is a blow to the cross-border networks they’ve built over the past year.

“We are here because this city is close to the border. And through it we can go inside Syria and go out, and we can communicate with people coming from Syria and people going to Syria,” he said. “It would be a catastrophe to go inside, inland Turkey. If we are away, we can’t do this kind of jobs.”

Makeshift medical centers have been asked to resettle as well. Jihad said scattering clinics and schools across Turkey would dismantle the support system refugees and insurgents depend on.

That said, some do admit the social environment in the region has come to a boil, and that sending refugees farther away could release the pressure on border towns like Antakya.

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