Syrian refugees in Turkey: Police are forcing us from homes

Tuesday, October 2, 2012 - 7:18pm

By Ivan Watson and Gul Tuysuz

CNN

 Turkish police are going house to house in this border province issuing an ultimatum, Syrian refugees say: Either move into a refugee camp or go back to Syria.

More than a half dozen Syrian refugees living in rented homes in Antakya and the nearby town of Yayladagi offered similar descriptions to CNN of the stark choice recently imposed by local Turkish authorities.

"I told one cop, 'What if I don't leave?'" said a male Syrian refugee who asked not to be named to protect him from Turkish and Syrian government reprisals. "He said, 'We will take you to the police station and force you to evacuate'" your home.

"The first time the police came, they asked for my passport, took a look at it, and then one of them said, 'You have three months, you can stay here for three months,'" said another Syrian man who asked to be named as Abu Ahmed to protect his family members still living in Syria.

"Then 20 days later they came back," he said. "I wasn't home but my wife was, and they made her sign a paper to evacuate ourselves from this house within four days."

At least a half dozen other Syrian refugees have told similar stories of Turkish police ordering them to abandon homes that they have rented here in Turkey.

Turkish officials at the local and national level of government confirmed that authorities were pushing Syrian refugees toward the camps.

"We are trying to guide and suggest people who arrived legally or 'illegally' to go either into the camps, if they have arrived illegally, or suggesting the others to move to nearby or different cities," said a Turkish official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to be interviewed by the press.

"The local authorities ... they have to do such things in the interest of regularizing the presence," he added.

Officially, more than 93,000 refugees currently live in a network of camps spread along Turkey's long border with Syria.

But Turkish diplomats estimate there are another 40,000 to 50,000 unofficial Syrian refugees who have chosen to live in Turkey outside of the camps. On Tuesday the United Nations refugee agency said that the number of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries has more than tripled since June to over 300,000.

Most of the refugees are housed in camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, the agency said.

"Based on recent trends, the plan estimates there could be up to 710,000 refugees in need of assistance in the region by the end of the year, the majority women and children," the agency said.

Cross-border travel between Turkey and Syria has been easy, in part because in 2009, Turkey and Syria agreed to allow "visa-free" travel for citizens across borders. And, after the anti-government protests first erupted in March 2011, Turkey announced an "open border policy" for Syrians fleeing the subsequent government crackdown.

The once-cozy relations between Damascus and Ankara have all but collapsed over the past year and a half. Subsequently, a near-freeze in cross-border trade hit the local economy in the Hatay region hard.

Now some Antakya residents say Syrian refugees are no longer welcome here.

"Of course people need to be given humanitarian protection," said Refik Eryilmaz, a member of parliament from Hatay province who spoke to CNN by telephone.

"But then you protect those people in camps. You don't allow them to rent houses in the middle of city centers and let them mix with the locals."

Last month, Eryilmaz, who is a member of the opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, was among more than 1,000 demonstrators who gathered for a rare protest in Antakya against the Turkish government's Syria policy.

Clutching signs that said "No to war," "Turkey Syria Brothers," and "Damn American Imperialism," the crowd accused the government of allowing foreign jihadists and members of al Qaeda to travel through Antakya to join the rebel movement in Syria. Demonstrators also demanded the closure of the Apaydin refugee camp, which for more than a year has housed defected Syrian army officers who now claim to lead the rebel Free Syrian Army.

At some points during the protest, demonstrators were heard chanting "We are ready to die for you Bashar" and "Allah, Syria, Bashar, nothing else," in Arabic in support of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Eventually, helmeted Turkish riot police fired tear gas to disperse the angry crowd.

After more than a year and a half of violence and the deaths of more than 20,000 people, the struggle inside Syria has increasingly devolved along sectarian lines.

That violence continued Tuesday, with at least 150 deaths reported by the Local Coordination Committees of Syria. That included 50 in Damascus and its suburbs, 29 in Daraa, 30 in Aleppo, 21 in Deir Ezzor, 12 in Homs, 3 in Hama and 5 in Idlib. Seventeen of those killed in Damascus suburbs were victims of shelling in Harasta, the LCC said.

Rebels from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority frequently accuse al-Assad of favoring other members of his Alawite religious minority, particularly when it comes to promotions and perks within the Syrian military.

Those sectarian tensions have been growing in Antakya, which is also home to a sizable Arabic-speaking Alawite community. Months after U.N. officials publicly accused the Assad regime of committing crimes against humanity for repeatedly using deadly force against unarmed protesters, shopkeepers in Antakya were still selling souvenir carpets with the portrait of the Syrian president.

It was also not unusual to hear local merchants praising the secular "modern image" of al-Assad and his wife, Asma, particularly in contrast to Turkey's pious Sunni prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose wife wears an Islamic headscarf.

The appearance in recent months of foreign volunteer fighters headed to Syria has also added to local discomfort. Some of the volunteers moving through Antakya's provincial airport come from Libya and the Gulf and wear the long beards and shortened pants or robes preferred by Salafi Muslims.

"There are Chechen, Libyan and Afghan fighters coming through Hatay to fight in Syria and they don't even try to hide it," said Eryilmaz, the opposition lawmaker.

"I cannot say that the armed fighters coming through Hatay have a very good attitude concerning the mixed mosaic demographic nature of Hatay."

Meanwhile, Sunni Muslim Turks living in the border region tend to express more sympathy for the Syrian refugees. Some Turks who share close family ties to Syrian communities that have repeatedly been attacked by government tanks, artillery and warplanes criticized the police crackdown on refugees.

"I had (Syrian) people staying in my house. The police came and told them to leave," said Mehmet Tuncel, a resident of the Turkish border village of Guvecci. "I want them to stay. It's a pity for these people."

"They want to clear this area out because Alawite Turks live here as well as Sunnis," said Abu Ahmed, the Syrian refugee who had been ordered to leave his rented apartment. He spoke in the living room of his house, next to his brother-in-law, who was still hobbling on crutches after suffering a bullet wound to the leg in Syria months ago. Abu Ahmed's sister also sat in the room, cradling her 2-week old baby, who was born in Turkey.

"The Alawites are with Bashar al-Assad and the Sunnis are against him, so the Alawites don't want Syrians here. They are upset with us," Abu Ahmed said.

At a rally for his political party on Sunday, Prime Minister Erdogan continued to denounce the Assad regime. He also vowed to continue supporting the Syrian opposition.

But there are signs the government is growing increasingly uncomfortable with the growing criticism coming from Antakya.

Over the past month, Turkish authorities have partially shut their "open door" policy to Syria, leaving thousands of displaced Syrians languishing at the border. Turkish officials said more camps had to be built before new waves of refugees could be let in.

And, in a sign that Ankara recognizes the growing political tensions in Antakya, a Turkish official acknowledged it is time to redistribute the refugee population to other provinces around the country.

"We are trying to see that all provinces in Turkey share the load of the Syrian nationals in a more equitable way, so we can have more sustainable assistance to all people," said the official in the Turkish capital, who asked not to be named.

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