Nizip, Turkey — More than 220,000 Syrian refugees live in Turkey, including 136,500 who live in makeshift camps on the border. Those numbers will continue to grow as long as Turkey continues its open-border policy.
Although Turkey has asked the international community for help with humanitarian aid, the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan does not want to share control of the border camps.
Neither the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) nor other non-governmental organizations have full access to the areas, for which Turkey has spent nearly $225 million to give “temporary protection” to Syrians fleeing their country.
While Turkey’s resistance to international assistance for the refugees may be puzzling, Turkey has so far shouldered these costs. But the burden on Turkey grows every day, the war in Syria continues, and there is no end in sight.
A visit to one of the newly built refugee camps near Gaziantep allowed me to experience the misery first hand. Rain poured down for the entire 70-kilometer drive from the city center of Gaziantep to the camp near Kumlu village, Nizip. The temperature hovered around 7 degrees Celsius (44 degrees Fahrenheit), a sign that this winter’s first snow is imminent.
Boys from Aleppo stand at the Nizip refugee camp as the dark sets in. Photo: Tulin Daloglu
Built next to a dam in an unoccupied area with virtually nothing nearby, this new tent camp has been operating since October, although it officially “opened” last month.
It has already exceeded its capacity of 8,600 — more Syrian refugees arrive each day. The camp was initially built for 5,000 but because it is in an unoccupied area, camp authorities keep adding new tents to the vicinity. It's also difficult to trust that authorities keep good track of the number of people staying in the camp.
The most unfortunate victims of the war in Syria — as in any conflict — are the children. The camp houses 1,200 children who require care and education. The camp has 30 teachers to assist primary school students: six teach kindergarten, three teach Turkish, and 24 are parent volunteers trying to help their kids stay current.
I saw many children wearing light clothing and open-toed slippers without socks, clearly cold as they held their arms tightly around themselves as they sat in the classrooms. Others walked and played in nearby puddles. As I watched them, it was hard not to think about the future that awaits them. The schooling here is poor. Even though learning seems like a luxury to people fighting to stay alive, this generation needs a strong educational foundation to lead their country into the future. With any luck, these refugee children will grow up grateful to the teachers in the camp who tried to help them.
A child at the Nizip refugee camp in Turkey. Photo by: Tulin Daloglu
These Syrian refugees face cultural and traditional challenges adapting to life in Turkey, even in the camps. Gaziantep is known among Turks as a conservative city, but for Syrians it’s not conservative enough.
The camp serves refugees mostly from Aleppo and the surrounding area, and many are conservative and religious and are accustomed to, for example, segregated education for boys and girls.
There are also those who left their country in the midst of their university education. One woman, Malana, told Al-Monitor that she wanted to continue her degree in English language and literature at Aleppo University. Turkish authorities did not allow her to register in the university here, she said. But in fact, nearly 20 universities have agreed to take these Syrian students as “guests,” where they could earn certificates. If they want to get a diploma though, they need to take the university entrance exam. Turkish families struggle hard to prepare their children for this exam. Therefore, Syrian refugees are at disadvantage when it comes to competing with Turkish students for the few university slots.
Education is also a major challenge for Syrians living in cities. There are roughly 2,500 families living in Gaziantep. During my visit there last week, I learned that only primary school students, in grades one through four, can attend school at an “Information and Education Center for Our Syrian Guests,” which is not overseen by the Turkish Ministry of Education. Syrian parents volunteer here as they do in the camp. “We have 293 students here from the first grade through the fourth,” Orhan Buyukaslan, the director of the Education Center, told Al-Monitor. “There are nine teachers and four assisting teachers who pick up the students from their houses and take them home. This place is completely funded by the Gaziantep municipality.”
Baraah Al-Jalloud, one of the volunteer teachers at the school, told Al-Monitor that she arrived in Turkey nine months ago, and has been teaching children here for two months. She said her husband is fighting against the regime in Syria as member of the Free Syrian Army. She said she teaches “math, Arabic, science, biology, society, religion and art.”
This education system is unsustainable, just based on the registration numbers alone – not to mention many children are kept home for fear of not having the right paperwork, such as a passport. Others have conservative parents who do not want to send their children to a co-educational facility. Soon, it will not be enough to just keep these children alive; they need, and deserve, a purpose and a foundation for their futures.
The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) does its best, but cannot work miracles.
It may therefore be time for Turkey to finally receive assistance from the international community to care for the refugees. But camp authorities are reluctant to cede any control. The stated reason is “security.”
“We’re concerned that there will be spies amongst them, especially Russians,” one camp official told Al-Monitor. “We can’t risk that.”
But this is a misguided mentality: to assume that only Turkey knows what’s best for these people — and that Turkey should decide their future.
Turkey has managed the refugee crisis so far, but the costs of the Syria war are substantial and growing. The scale of the humanitarian burden will overwhelm the threat to security from Russian or other potential spies. If the security argument carries the day, Ankara could consider closing the Turkish border. The Syrian crisis is now Turkey’s crisis. Resisting aid to assist Syrian refugees may make matters worse, not better.
Tulin Daloglu is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. She has written extensively for various Turkish and American publications, including The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Middle East Times, Foreign Policy, The Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report.