By Kevin Sullivan
The Washington Post
YAYLADAGI, Turkey — Facing one of the world’s largest refugee crises in decades, Turkish officials are urgently appealing for international financial assistance and calling on wealthy nations, particularly the United States and the countries of Europe, to start accepting large numbers of Syrian refugees.
The stance marks a shift for the Turkish government, which had long insisted that Ankara would manage and pay for the refugee crisis on its own as a matter of national pride. But with the cost to Turkey hitting $1.5 billion, an estimated 400,000 refugees in the country and a total of 1 million expected by the end of the year, pressure is building. Turkey is even willing to organize an airlift, Ankara officials said, but no country seems eager to receive the refugees.
Photo: Syrian refugees in Iskenderun, Turkey, are processed for departure to Egypt. An estimated 400,000 Syrian refugees are in Turkey, and a total of 1 million are expected by the end of the year. The crisis has cost the Ankara government nearly $1.5 billion. Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu / The Washington Post
“The international community should not only provide assistance to foot the bill, but they need to step up and open their countries to these refugees,” said Levent Gumrukcu, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. “They have utterly failed the test of providing an effective response.”
The civil war in Syria and its spillover across the region are expected to dominate President Obama’s White House meeting Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Washington has provided $44 million for humanitarian organizations helping Syrian refugees in Turkey, as part of a total of $510 million in aid for Syrians affected by the war. State Department officials said that they had received no formal request from Turkey or the United Nations to accept Syrian refugees but that they were “ready to consider” such a request. At this point, they said, most refugees would still probably prefer to wait for a chance to return home than be airlifted to a distant land.
But those in Turkey’s refugee camps see few prospects of going home soon.
Samia Faido ran from her Syrian village two years ago, seven months pregnant and terrified, just before the government bulldozed her home and torched her family’s apple and olives trees.
Now she and her husband have a Turkish-born toddler, their four older kids are learning Turkish, and they have settled into a life that is starting to feel alarmingly permanent.
“When I first came here, I thought I was going to be here for maybe a month,” said Faido, 30, sitting in her cheerfully decorated tent, within sight of the dry hills of her homeland. “Every night I go to sleep hoping that we will wake up to good news in Syria, but it’s always just more bombing and shelling.”
She and her family were among the first group of 252 refugees who arrived at the border seeking shelter in April 2011. Now they live in two adjacent white tents on the shady grounds of a former tobacco factory that has been transformed into a camp community of nearly 3,000 people.
The Faidos’ camp is less than a mile from the Syrian border, and armed officers stand at the gate, guarding against anti-refugee violence. Tall metal walls topped with coils of razor wire surround the place.
Still, life here feels settled, and measured by the rhythms of any small town: births and deaths, weddings and funerals, prayer and play.
Pretty, peach-colored buildings dot the grounds, serving as dormitories for refugees and communal toilet and shower facilities. Children play soccer in courtyards, older men play backgammon, and peacocks wander here and there in the shade of tall pine trees.
It has all the trappings of municipal life: schools, health clinics and mosques; electricity supply for every tent; and a system of local government to settle disputes. Periodic episodes of violence have taken place in some of the Turkish camps, but refugees mostly have settled into a peaceful, if monotonous, routine.
A fast-growing crisis
About half the Syrian refugees in Turkey live outside camps, often in crowded and miserable conditions. More than 700 people live in a wedding hall in the once-quiet border town of Reyhanli, and thousands are crammed into warehouses and rented apartments in towns all along the border.
Public fears about the refugee crisis deepened when a car bombing last weekend killed more than 50 people in Reyhanli. The motive for the attack is not known, but the Turkish government blamed it on forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Some critics complain that the 17 refugee camps across the country are becoming de facto Turkish towns. Government officials rejected that, saying that all the Syrian refugees will have to leave eventually.
But with the war in Syria showing no sign of ending, and anti-refugee sentiment among Turks on the rise, officials here concede that many of the 400,000 refugees now in the country could be living in Turkey for years.
Panos Moumtzis, the U.N. refugee agency’s regional coordinator for Syria, said the United Nations has no plans for a Syrian airlift. But, he added, the crisis is growing so fast — with about 3.5 million refugees expected across the region by the end of the year — that officials might have to reevaluate all options.
Kelly Clements, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, said that neither Turkey nor the United Nations had formally asked the United States to take Syrian refugees.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell, noting that the United States has the world’s largest refugee resettlement program, said, “We are ready to consider any Syrian refugee for U.S. resettlement” who is referred by the United Nations.
But Lavinia Limon, chief executive of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said the cost and logistics — including security screening for every refugee, which can take a year or longer — make it nearly impossible to imagine that the United States could take enough refugees to “make a dent” in the problem.
“If I were advising the Obama administration, I would tell them, ‘You’d be crazy to be even thinking about this,’ and I’m a refugee advocate,” said Limon, who helped coordinate the 1999 Kosovo airlift, the last time there was a major airlift of refugees, as an official in the Clinton administration.
Monotonous camp life
In their camp, Faido and her husband, Ghassan, have tried to re-create the life of their Syrian farmhouse. Brightly colored plastic matting covers the floor, where the children — four girls and a boy, all under 11 — have learned to set their juice cups carefully so they don’t tip over on the uneven ground.
The tents are about 10 feet square, big enough to walk around comfortably, with two tiny refrigerators, a small electric oven and a gas-powered stove top, and almost everyone has a television hooked to a satellite dish.
Faido said the surreal nature of life in a camp is always close by. She said that when she takes Tala, her 22-month-old, into the town outside the camp gates, the toddler is terrified by cars — because there are none in the camp.
Faido said the Turks have been generous hosts. The children’s school building is spotlessly clean and smells of fresh paint. The Turkish government and the U.N. World Food Program provide the family about $53 a month in spending money.
The government paid for Mediya, the Faidos’ 11-year-old daughter, to take a 10-day school trip to the Turkish seaside city of Izmir. The girl said that the last time she saw the sea was a week before the family fled their village; she was taken there by an uncle who Faido said was later killed by the Assad regime.
Ghassan Faido said that he struggles against boredom and that he misses his old life as a farmer. By Turkish law, the refugees are not allowed to work, but he said he met a man who hires him once in a while to help tend his olive trees. Now Faido mainly passes the days at home, at the camp mosque or talking to other men who also have lost everything.
Lately they have been mourning eight friends who arrived with them at the camp two years ago. A few months ago, the friends decided they couldn’t take the monotony of camp life anymore, so they went back to Syria. Faido said word recently reached camp that all of them were killed in a May 2 massacre by pro-government forces in the seaside village of Baida.
“I try not to think a lot about staying here,” he said. “I keep thinking that this has to end soon. But this could take a very long time.”