Plight of the Syrian Refugees in Turkey

Interview With A Turkish U.N. Worker

Written by Andrew Arnett

All photos by Andrew Arnett

GAZIANTEP— I spent the past week visiting Syrian refugee camps in the Turkish city of Suruc. Suruc is less than ten miles from the Syrian town of Kobani, sight of a three months long battle between ISIS and Kurds.

The resulting conflict has sent thousands of ordinary Syrians fleeing into Turkey, seeking safe haven.

The massive influx of refugees coming into Turkey from Syria and Iraq is resulting in a crisis situation for Turkey and the United Nations.

On December 12 in Gaziantep, I spoke with Turkish United Nations worker Ms. Meltem, about the refugee situation here.

ARNETT: The refugees that are coming in now, where are they coming from exactly?

MELTEM: Mostly, at the moment, the people are coming in from Syria. The people from Iraq, they’ve already been settled in.

When I say “settled in,” it’s not like being a citizen of course. They’re settled in terms of being a refugee in refugee camps. They are not, let us put it this way, the ones in crisis right now. The people on the move all around Turkey at the moment are Syrian refugees.

Driving to Suruc December 9. Photo © 2014 Andrew Arnett

ARNETT: What is the scope of the problem?

MELTEM: They are huge in numbers. There is around 1.5 to 2 million refugees in Turkey at the moment. Some of them are registered with the Turkish government as well as the United Nations.

In Turkey, there’s a duel system. They have to be registered both by the Turkish Minister of the Interior as well as the United Nations.

But some of them are not registered. They try to get into the territory without being registered, seeking ways to go to other places.

The problem is that these people are huge in numbers. There are many camps established in the border areas but it’s not that easy to live in a camp and most of them are not really happy.

They’d like to be at their homes, of course, because they were ordinary people, used to their ordinary lives, and being in a camp is difficult for them.

They can’t go back, they can’t go somewhere else, so they are stuck. And it is a big problem for Turkey to satisfy them. Most of them are looking for opportunities to go into big cities for employment purposes.

In fact, Turkey has granted residents permits and work permissions. They’ve taken steps, recently, in the legal framework, to change many things so that these people can find ways to be accommodated into Turkey through legal means but still, it’s not that easy because unemployment is a problem for Turkish citizens as well. It is not a problem for only the Syrian people, and especially when we talk about this region like Gaziantep, it is now becoming a social problem as well.

The refugees are given certain allowances, either by the government or by the United Nations. They have to survive some way and of course sometimes they work illegally and this means the jobs of the Turkish people living in this area are taken from them. It has become a little bit of a complicated issue.

ARNETT: You have been invited to a conference in Istanbul on December 14. What is the purpose of this conference?

MELTEM: It is a conference by the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants. It will be focusing on the way the refugees are living in Istanbul and the surrounding areas of Istanbul.

It is a rapid needs assistance conference to find ways to meet the needs of those refugees who are living in the city’s residential areas and urban settings.

These people do not want to go to the camps, and they prefer to be in the big cities.

They think they will be able to find jobs in the big cities, but unfortunately, as we have mentioned, most of them cannot. They really do suffer financial problems. They gather in large families, live together in one apartment, trying to survive.

This will be a meeting of associations and NGO’s coming together to help those people.

ARNETT: What do you feel is the attitude of the Turkish people towards the refugees?

MELTEM: There is tension, because there are all of a sudden two million people at the border of Turkey. It is a huge problem, I would say.

And it is not only a problem for Turkey of course, but for the United States and the European Union, who would like to keep them here.

They don’t want to touch the problem other than by giving them money. Of course, that’s the way they always try to get rid of their sins. The Middle East is always their playground, as you can imagine.

ARNETT: Oh, that’s interesting. Well, you can’t argue with that. The U.S. has a lot of problems with their own border with Mexico, and there’s a lot of tension there. So what is the long term goal for these refugees? Is this temporary for them?

MELTEM: Yes, this is defined by the government as a temporary humanitarian assistance program. They are expected to go back, and you must remember that it is the goal of the refugees themselves to go back. They’d like to go back to their homes someday. I don’t know how this will happen but they would like to go back.

Kurdish refugee camp in Suruc Dec 10. Photo © 2014 Andrew Arnett

ARNETT: They’re not looking for citizenship? That’s not part of the assimilation process?

MELTET: No, but it also depends on what the situation will be like in the future. I mean, if they cannot go back, and if they have to stay here for a longer time than expected, what will happen?

At the end of the day, they have to be given other solutions.

ARNETT: What do you think the future holds?

MELTEM: The situation is going to deteriorate. The Middle East has always been a problem and it is more of a problem now, more than ever. Before we had Al Qaeda but now we have ISIS, cutting the heads off of the people.

I don’t believe in the coming year the situation is going to be sorted out. So the number of refugees coming to Turkey may increase, and it’s going to be a big problem for Turkey to accommodate all of those people.

This is because I don’t believe that Turkey is taking the necessary measures. I believe they keep the borders open intentionally so that everyone can come and go as they wish. The borders are not secure enough, that’s what I’m trying to say.

I don’t know what the government is doing, wether they are helping the opposition party in Syria or something else. That’s something that is a secret to us. Nobody knows. But the result seems to force more people across the border to Turkey, and thus increase the tensions here.

We’ve heard many stories, I don’t know wether they’re true or not, but we’ve heard stories of smuggling of weapons and other things across the border.

There have been many reports of trucks being stopped with weapons found inside.

ARNETT: Stopped by who?

MELTEM: By regular border control.

ARNETT: On who’s side?

MELTEM: On the Turkish side. Recently, a couple of months ago, a truck was stopped and many arms were found inside. It was stopped by the Turkish police, just regular border patrol, and then all of a sudden the Turkish government stated that it was part of a deal, and then the government detained the policemen who stopped that truck. They accused the police of not following orders.

ARNETT: I’ve heard there’s a pipeline whereby guns, oil, and even drugs are being moved. Have you heard anything about drugs being smuggled over the border?

MELTEM: Sure, of course.

ARNETT: What have you heard about that?

MELTEM: This is not a new thing. The PKK have been smuggling drugs and weapons for so many years, for a very long time. That is how they’ve been earning money.

ARNETT: PKK the terrorist organization.

MELTEM: Yes, that’s how they were making money and laundering money in Europe. The drugs that are going to Europe and to the States are mainly traveling this route.

They start in Afghanistan, passing through Iraqi and Iranian borders, then through Turkey and on to Europe.

This is not something new, this has always been like this. That’s how they’ve been making money.

ARNETT: What about ISIS? Do you think they are using this route for the same purposes?

MELTEM: Yes. Obviously.

ARNETT: There’s been a lot of pressure for Turkey to militarily go into Syria, in places like Kobani. Do you think that would help the situation?

MELTEM: No, I don’t believe it is the duty of our army, first of all. Also, I don’t like the Turkish government poking its nose into everything which is not their business. We didn’t make this chaotic situation.

The countries that are responsible for this chaos should undertake this responsibility, not Turkey.

ARNETT: Thank you for your time.

MELTEM: Thank you.