Turkey empties Syrian border refugee camp

The presence of 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey has become an increasing source of tension among Turkish people and the Turkish government also appears to be losing sympathy for those displaced by the conflict.

The Interior Ministry this month closed the Süleyman Shah Accommodation Facility, which was established by the prime ministry in 2012 in the town of Akçakale on the Syrian border. But some of its 22,000 residents complained they had not received promised payments and alternative housing, and said they had simply been kicked out.   

Some of the refugees said they had been made to sign a form saying they had left the camp of their own volition. Many said they wanted to go to a camp in the nearby town of Suruç. Syrian refugees, though provided with temporary protection by Turkey, have limited freedom of movement within the country. They are required to register an address in one municipality, and then forbidden from leaving that municipality without official permission. Temporary protection is no longer granted in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Kocaeli, and Hatay, Turkey’s main economic centers.

The Süleyman Shah Accommodation Facility is located at the entrance to the town of Akçakale. In order to enter the camp, one must have official permission to pass the guards at the gate. All reporters are turned away. Though officially closed, the camp this week still contained some 200 people waiting to leave.

Passing a hole in the fence, the camp looked like a ghost-town, with trash strewn about the streets. A new school that cost $1 million to build was closed before the bell had rung on a single class. A number of people were packing their things into vehicles. On one street, a group of about 15 was waiting for the next vehicle to arrive to take them away.

One of them, 55-year-old Isa Al Arab, said he had fled the eastern Syrian town of Tel Abyad four years ago with his family of 10. He considered renting a house in Akçakale, but it was too expensive. He said he had not received any of the support promised by the Turkish government, so was not able to move. Isa said that when he and his family were evicted, they were given only travel permission rather than permission to settle somewhere else. There is an underlined statement on his permit that says he is not allowed to leave the province of Şanlıurfa. Without this permit, he said he would not be able to sign a rental agreement, nor receive any aid from the Red Cross.

Another member of the group, 45-year-old Hasan Hacı Muhammed, has been living in the camp with his family of six for six years after fleeing the Islamic State-controlled city of Raqqa. He said he not received the monthly payments pledged by the government and wanted to move to another city, but his temporary protection status did not allow it.

Sheikh Al Akta, also from Raqqa, said he had lost his entire family in the war and lived alone. He said he had considered renting a house in Akçakale, but could not afford it. He said he planned to move to the camp in Suruç and said he suspected the emptying of the Süleyman Shah site was part of preparations for a Turkish military operation against Syrian Kurdish forces across the nearby border.

A shopkeeper just outside the camp said he felt locals had lost their moral compass with landlords doubling their rents. He said that while Turks considered themselves charitable for having hosted millions of Syrian refugees for seven years, they had slowly become as cruel to them as Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Talip Akbaş, a Turkish waiter in a nearby tea-house, said crime had gone up in the area since the Syrians arrived, and said it had to be kept under control. Akbaş also said firms were more likely to hire Syrian workers since they could be paid less.