HACIPASA, Turkey—Turkish authorities closed their borders Friday to fleeing Syrian refugees after receiving more than 78,000 since the beginning of the conflict. The total number of Syrians seeking refuge in neighboring countries this week surpassed 200,000, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
This figure has already far surpassed the expectations of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who expected no more than 185,000 by the end of the year. More than 30,000 crossed into Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon this week alone.
The swelling numbers have been particularly hard on Turkish authorities and residents, who have received the highest number of registered Syrian refugees of any country, with thousands more crossing illegally to search for housing in border towns.
“The local economy is suffering,” said Ahmed Kaya, a resident of Antakya on the Syrian border. “Housing prices have doubled with so many Syrian families looking for a place to live. Tourism is down. Business is down. I know several businessmen who have gone bankrupt already since the start of the Syrian crisis.”
Over the past three days, authorities at border crossings surrounding Antakya and the nearby city of Reyhanli have stopped refugees from entering altogether, saying the camps simply cannot take any more people.
Turkey has constructed nine Syrian refugee camps so far, with at least three more under construction, but authorities have set a cut off limit of 100,000, a figure that at the current rate could be reached within a month.
One Turkish official who asked not to be named said a new camp with a capacity of 10,000 will be completed in the next few weeks, but already 6,000 refugees currently taking shelter in 10 schools among the border towns are registered, leaving only 4,000 free places.
Those waiting at the border have not been told if or when they will be allowed to enter. Turkish authorities say the gates will reopen, but how soon is yet to be determined.
Estimates place the number of internally displaced people within Syria at more than 1.2 million, with 2.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance.
Before the crisis, Syria was a destination for refugees from throughout the region. At the beginning of this year, the country sheltered 1,161,600 refugees and asylum seekers, according to UNHCR figures. The majority came from Iraq. The situation has now reversed as Iraq, along with Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey have all been inundated with Syrian refugees.
Along the Lebanese and Jordanian borders, the unexpected influx has left most refugees living in areas with inadequate facilities. Iraqi schools near the border are overflowing with refugees, even as local children are preparing to return to classes.
Life in the Turkish camps
Bassam Zerouri is the elected representative for some 2,000 Syrians sheltering in Boynuyogun camp in Hacipasa, Turkey. He fled to Turkey a year ago with his wife and four children when their village in the Idlib district came under government attack by tank and gunfire.
“We saw them taking the patients from the back of an ambulance and killing them,” he recalled. “We were all scared. The children were crying. We left everything and fled over the mountains.”
Since their arrival, Zerouri says it has been difficult as he is not able to work in Turkey. Within the camp they are provided tinned food, vegetables, bread and rice through humanitarian organizations. The Red Crescent provides tents. Each tent has a "power point" and various humanitarian groups donate small fridges, lamps and televisions to new arrivals.
"[The Syrian military] are always watching us from that tower,” Zerouri said, pointing to a structure on the Syrian hills. This particular camp has not come under attack yet, but the residents are ever fearful after hearing of gunfire directed at other camps from government posts like this one, he added.
As we spoke, several minivans pull up outside with dozens of new arrivals from the Turkish border. Some are loaded down with bags of whatever they can carry. Others arrive empty handed.
A middle-aged woman exited the bus with tears lining her face. She barely acknowledged the affection of a young boy who scurried over the high camp fence to hug her. She stared ahead at the Syrian mountains across the Orontes River.
A young man explained this woman had just returned from a trip to Syria in search of her teenage son. On arrival she was informed her son had been killed after she had fled with the rest of her children to this camp.
Zerouri explained that some from the camps do return. Many, like this woman, search for family members. Some of the young men return to fight with the Free Syrian Army.
“We all want to go back because we are Syrian. We love our country, but it is difficult because of the bombs,” he said.
The camp has a hospital and a primary school. A young woman sat reading a storybook to several small children in an open tent equipped with wooden desks and a blackboard.
Zerouri said volunteers hold regular classes, but lessons are in Turkish, a difficult adjustment for the young Arabic speaking residents.
Nearby, children played volleyball on a makeshift court. A group of women in burkas gathered water in buckets from an open pipeline that runs through the length of the camp. At the gate and along the roadside, Turkish officers stood guard.
Inside the camp hospital, Palestinian volunteer doctor Rami Eyuboglu examined a 9-month-old baby. She giggled as he tickled her.
“I have had about 15 cases today, but some days it is more than 100,” said Eyuboglu whose team consists of himself, one nurse, a translator and two ambulance personnel. “We are only a polyclinic so we can only treat the minor injuries. For anything more than this we send them by ambulance to the state hospital.”
For Seid Hassan, an FSA fighter who was shot in the leg during a clash with government forces, the treatment at the camp far exceeded that of the state hospital.
He said the hospital itself was not clean, the dressing of his wounds was sloppy and never changed and he acquired a serious infection. On returning to the camp the treatment from Eyuboglu and his team had been excellent, he said, adding that Dr Eyuboglu is a very kind man.
Hassan said he arrived from Turkey six days ago.
“My commander died right next to me,” he said with sadness. His friends cleaned and dressed his wounds and then set about arranging a safe passage across the border, he said. “At first they carried me through the forest on their backs. After this I was able to go by car at about 3 am. It was a long journey.”
Hassan says as soon as he heals he will return to fight again.
Many other young men have left the camps to join the Free Syrian Army.
When Hassan al-Aslan’s brother defected from the army and joined the FSA in the rebel stronghold of Jabal al-Zawia, government forces began searching for family members to take revenge. The 23-year-old said he fled with his family to the Turkish camps, but after his brother was killed in battle he returned to take his place among the FSA.
“Life in the camp is very difficult for my mother,” he said, “but the journey back is not secure. Here there are too many dangers.”
He says he will soon return to the camp to visit his mother and bring his 17-year-old brother back to join him in the fight.
Back in the Boynuyogun camp, Zerouri explained why he, and so many others, began protesting against the government.
“I see Europe, the way people are living, and what our country is capable of, and then I see how we live under the Bashar regime.”
When asked what the people of this camp need most, Zerouri answered without hesitation: “The death of Bashar and a better Syria to return to.”