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October 22, 2012

Turkish-Syrian Border,Antakya (Antioch), Turkey,Hatay Province, Turkey

Author: Kevin Appelby

Four members of the USCCB delegation arrived in Antakya, Turkey, October 19th to look at the situation of Syrians and Iraqis from Syria on the Turkish-Syrian border.  (Other members went to Yalova, a satellite city near Istanbul, to speak with Iraqi families.)   There has been much publicity regarding this border, including the shelling of a Turkish village and the death of 5 Turkish citizens.  There are 14 border camps along the Turkish-Syrian border, ranging from southern Hatay province to the city of Ganziantep about three hours northeast.  Two more are scheduled to open soon.   According to Turkish authorities, more than 100,000 Syrian refugees reside in the camps and another 40-50,000 reside in local communities, some with family and/or friends.  The Turkish government has received deserved praise for the conditions of the camps, which include kitchens, air conditioning, and other amenities usually not found in a refugee camp.

There are signs, however, that the strain on Turkish resources is beginning to take a toll.  Turkish authorities pointed out to the delegation that Turkey has spent $300 million on the refugees to date and has little or no support from the international community.   Syrian refugees are currently being held at four points along the border, with some refugees waiting a month or more to be allowed to enter.  In the meantime, they find shelter where they can, some sleeping outside in the elements or under some sort of natural (tree) or makeshift shelter.  They have no services.  Finally, tensions in Hatay province, where a large population of Alawites reside, are rising, as local prices for commodities are increasing and the refugees are consuming more resources.  As has been reported, some refugees have not paid their restaurant bills and crime has risen in the area.  There is potentially volatile political mix as well, as supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime occupy the Hatay area.

The highly publicized exchange of mortar fire between Syria and Turkey occurred about 40 kilometers southeast of Antakya.  Although there were conflicting reports about how it happened and why, the local residents did not express concern about the incident.

Despite these factors, the Turkish government has kept international NGOs, except the International Red Crescent, from providing services to the refugees.  UNHCR is playing a consulting role in managing the camps, which are overseen by the emergency response agency of the Turkish government.   The delegation met with local Turkish authorities to better assess the situation, but were referred  to the Red Crescent for more information and told about the process for applying to enter the camps (a very long one), even though the delegation did not express such an interest.  It is clear that the government does not want NGO involvement in the camps and prefers bilateral contributions from the international community, not funding through UNHCR.  This policy could inhibit the services provided in the future.  Current needs include psycho social support, clothing, and school support.

The group traveled to view three refugee camp sites.  Two were located near the Syrian border and featured rows of tents, but no refugees could be seen from the road.  The camp was guarded by Turkish guards.  A third was located at the edge of a local town and had more permanent structures, but did not have an apparent military presence outside the camp and refugees could be seen outside the camp.   High fences surrounded all of the camps.   The border had a strong Turkish military presence, with a border station high on the mountain with a tall lookout tower.  Armored vehicles were on the road.  The delegation could not see any Syrian military presence on the Syrian side.

Syrians with passports crossing the border are permitted to reside in local communities and rent houses, but are quickly spending down their savings.  Those without papers are sent to the camps.  Although the refugees are permitted to leave the camps during the day, we were told that in the third camp a local resident needed to sponsor a refugee to ensure that the refugee returned to the camp by nightfall.  Some local residents hire the refugees for the day to work in the olive groves.  As for the camps near the border, it was clear that entry and exit were tightly controlled.

Antakya is the ancient city of Antioch, home to some of the earliest Christian communities.  St. Peter met here with early Christians in a cave with an escape tunnel, for fear of the Romans.  Such persecution of the Christians continues in the Middle East today.  During the mission, the delegation heard many stories from Christian refugee families about threats to Syrian Christians in Syria.  In both Turkey and the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, Syrian Christian refugees are afraid and live in local communities with help from the local church and others.  There is great fear among these refugees that targeted sectarian violence will emerge in Syria, as it did in Iraq.

While the situation in Hatay is stable for now, it could deteriorate as the Syrian conflict continues, as economic and political pressures mount.  The international community must focus more attention on the refugee crisis generally and seek ways to end the conflict through negotiation as soon as feasible.  The delegation of Cardinals and bishops, including Cardinal Dolan, being sent to Syria by the Holy Father is a sign of hope.

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