ANTAKYA, Turkey – Already host to 80,000 Syrians in refugee camps, Turkey is now seeking to relocate some of the tens of thousands of others living outside the shelters to relieve pressure on local communities and better handle security in its tense border area.
Many Syrians who have fled violence in their country are living near the border but outside the dozen camps, either staying with relatives or renting apartments, a large number of them in Antakya, the largest city in Turkey's southeast Hatay province. The influx since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad began 18 months ago has strained municipal resources and tested the ability of the Turkish government to monitor cross-border traffic amid concerns about sectarian tension and militant activity in the region.
Turkish authorities, who support the Syrian opposition in its war with Assad's regime, now want the refugees living outside the camps to either enter them or move to other provinces. Up to 40,000 Syrians are living in Turkey outside the shelters, according to some estimates, while the U.N. refugee agency puts the number at up to 60,000. Hundreds of thousands of other Syrians have also fled to neighboring countries, including Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon.
"A few days ago, the police came and told us we had a week to leave Antakya. They gave us the names of three or four places we could go," said 35-year-old Syrian refugee, Mahmoud Mohammed. He, his wife, their 2-year-old son and his brother's family are living in a two-room apartment for $150 (€116) a month.
Samar Mohammed, Mahmoud's wife, said they had tried to live in a refugee camp but found the conditions difficult.
"My son has bronchitis and suffers from complications. He needs special food and a clean environment," she said. "Our needs weren't met in the camp and his condition got worse. We've been living in this apartment for two months and it would be very hard to go back to the camps."
Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, and Hollywood star Angelina Jolie, a special envoy for the U.N. refugee agency, visited camps near the Syrian border this past week and thanked Turkey for welcoming and providing for Syrians who had fled their homes, while urging donor countries to do more to help. Turkey has pressed in vain for the United Nations to set up "safe zones" inside Syria where civilians can shelter, but divisions within the international community and the security risks of such a project preclude any move to implement it for now.
Antakya's mayor, Lutfu Savas, said there are sectarian tensions along the Syrian-Turkish border, and security concerns and potential discord were the main reasons for plans to relocate refugees who are outside the camps. Many Turks in Hatay province belong to a minority sect that is linked to the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that dominates the Syrian regime and is fighting an insurgency comprised largely of Sunni Muslims. Turkey is concerned that the sectarian tone of the conflict could exacerbate tension in its own communities.
"In the interest of maintaining order and protecting everyone here, our government wants our (Syrian) brethren to move and live somewhere else," Savas said. "First and foremost, they're being asked to move into the refugee camps. But if they have the means and if they entered (Turkey) using their passports, they're being asked to move out of Hatay. I think it's a valid argument."
A Turkish government official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with policy, said Turkey was doing everything it can to help Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey.
"Every country has the right to regulate or arrange the accommodation or duration of the stay of foreigners, including Syrians," the official said.
Sali Al-Bounni, a Syrian teacher and assistant principal at a school in Antakya that taught 800 Syrian children, said it was recently closed because of the government's decision to move refugees out of Hatay province.
"The day we closed the school, everyone — students, teachers — was crying," he said. "Now the families are calling us and asking where we'll be relocating because they want to move to where the school will be. But we have no idea where to go."
Chris Torchia reported from Istanbul.