Degrees and Needs of Refugees – Insights from the Syrian Border

By S. Syed, TMO


A Syrian refugee (2nd L) embraces a U.N. worker as U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Rajiv Shah (R) looks on during his visit to the Za’atri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria September 5, 2012. REUTERS/Majed Jaber

KILIS, Turkey – Syrians from all walks of life are seeking refuge in Turkey from the conflict. Many are guests of the Turkish people and formally registered as refugees, while some are self sufficient and staying in Turkey as visitors or temporary residents. Others fall through the cracks. The level of support each group requires varies considerably.

Extended visitors:

At one end of the spectrum, the most fortunate Syrians have been able to afford hotels in Turkey. In a few cases, they are able to leave for other regions and stay with family abroad. Otherwise, hotels in Kilis and Hatay are full of Syrians, and even in Istanbul, the Syrian accent is clearly audible in tourist areas like the Blue Mosque or Grand Bazaar. For the most part, this group is waiting out the conflict and should be able to survive the crisis without assistance.

Temporary residents:

Then there are the ordinary, middle-class Syrians. These Syrians are either staying with friends or family or have let a flat or house in some nearby city, such as Antakya, Rayhaniye, or Kilis, sometimes living with dozens of extended family members in a single residence. The lucky ones have begun to participate in the booming Turkish economy, either by starting businesses or finding a job. However, most are shut out due to the language barrier and are simply drawing down their savings.

Most Syrians who have left Syria to Turkey fall into this category (as in Jordan and Lebanon), and for now, this group is self sufficient. However, as the conflict continues for another three months or six months, the situation of this group is expected to become increasingly precarious, and no formal support mechanism yet exists. In Hatay, which has an established Syrian expat community and which started receiving an influx of Syrians relatively early in the conflict, an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood has started to step in and support this group of informal refugees on an ad hoc basis. In Kilis and Gaziantep, where the influx of Syrians from Aleppo is relatively recent, even such a limited safety net is lacking. This group will require increasing support over the coming months.

Formal refugees:

The documented refugees are typically the poor or paperless (i.e., without documents), who never expected to leave Syria before having to head for the border with nothing but the clothes on their backs. This group is largely taken in and provided for by the Turkish government, as guests in the known refugee camps (e.g., Kilis, Hatay). The Turkish government is responsible for the basic needs of these refugees, from shelter to food to healthcare, and generally speaking, this group does not have an acute need for additional support.

Informal refugees:

One group of Syrians that has mostly slipped through the safety net are those that have entered Turkey as visitors (i.e., with documentation) but have either run out of funds or have been unable to find a place to live. For example, in Kilis, there are several hundred Syrians who are spending their nights either in local mosques or parks. The IHH is providing this group with one meal a day (compared to three meals in the camps), but otherwise, this group is not receiving support and they are not formally recognized as refugees. On the surface, these Syrians could have been enjoying a summer evening in the park. However, these refugees have next to nothing, and when an aid group made a small delivery of nutritional supplements and basic hygiene products, the sense of desperation was palpable. This group requires immediate assistance with the basics – i.e., food, shelter.

Pending refugees:

Another group of Syrians that are falling through the cracks are those that are waiting to enter Turkey, just inside the Syrian border. Thousands of pending refugees await permission from Turkey to enter (on average 4-5,000 are waiting at the Kilis border crossing), but in the meantime, they also lack access to the basics like food and shelter. IHH has stepped in again and is providing one meal a day (lunch) to this group (with the reported support of the Qatar Red Crescent). When possible, an informal group of Syrians (now based in Kilis and affiliated with the FSA group controlling the Syrian side of the border crossing) are also providing another meal (breakfast, at a typical cost of ~$2,000 per meal). For example, on Friday, this group prepared 6,000 hardboiled eggs in its rented kitchen facility and delivered a basic, easy-to-eat meal to the thousands of refugees waiting in what is known as “hangarat” (the hangars) at the Kilis border. This group of refugees requires immediate assistance for their basic needs until they become formal refugees, and even then, those that follow them to the border will likely face a similar situation and have similar needs.

Some Syrians taking refuge in Turkey need no support while others need everything – these needs will evolve as the crisis continues. Many groups are working to support the refugees. However, despite the intense coverage this conflict and its victims have received, many Syrians are still without food, shelter, or safety. Despite the millions donated so far, the need is greater.

Of course, while hundreds of thousands of Syrians have left their homeland, millions more remain inside the country and theirs is the most serious plight. As the conflict continues, the Syrian economy is grinding to a halt and each day more neighborhoods are destroyed. The food, fuel, and financial resources of many Syrians dwindle. Even if food is available, it is unaffordable given the inflation. In some senses, Syrians are living in a country they do not know and they are refugees in their own homes. The FSA, activists, and relief groups are taking supplies from Turkey for distribution in Syria, but if the humanitarian situation at the border is so difficult, the unfolding internal crisis might be even more challenging to address.


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