The Turkish Government is pushing for a buffer zone for Syrian refugees to be established on the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border, stating that they are ‘running out of space’ and ‘can’t cope’ with the number of Syrian refugees coming to Turkey.
The Turkish Prime Minister has admitted that this is, for the time being, not going to happen because doing so would require foreign military involvement and the establishment of a no-fly zone and that, taking into account Western and international stances and politics, there is currently no likelihood of their being established.
Is a buffer zone for Syrian refugees inside Syria necessary ...
... because there isn’t enough room in Turkey for them?
No, I have just travelled along almost all of the Turkish-Syrian border and there is lots of space - hundreds of kilometers of farm land and other land which isn’t farmed - all of which is suitable for the establishment of camps and much of which belongs to the Turkish government.
... because it would be easier to house the Syrians in Syria.
No, the land on the Syrian side of the border is essentially the same as the land on the Turkish side of the border, so camps would still have to be established there, and construction materials would also still have to be supplied from outside Syria, most probably from Turkey.
... because it would be easier to feed the Syrians in Syria.
No, obtaining and transporting food and other essential supplies in Syria would be much more difficult than it is in Turkey. Due to the unrest in Syria food production and the distribution of food and other essential supplies have decreased dramatically so large quantities of food and other essential supplies would still have to be supplied from outside Syria, again most probably from Turkey.
… because it would be safer.
No, there is no fighting on the Turkish side of the Turkish-Syrian border. There is also essentially no fighting happening in Syria within five or ten km of the Turkish-Syrian border, and any fighting that is happening in Syria near the border is limited to a few small areas in northwestern Idlib Governorate east and southeast of Antakya, Turkey and to a few small areas in northern Aleppo Governorate south of Kilis, Turkey. The rest of the Syrian side of the border is quiet and life seems to be going on as usual there.
… because it would be cheaper.
No, it would actually be more expensive. Materials, food, and other supplies would have to be transported farther and over worse roads, and many more personnel, especially military personnel, would be necessary.
A buffer zone might not be better, easier, or cheaper but it would:
- internationalize the care of the Syrians. The Turkish Government has spent, so far, more than $300 million caring for Syrian refugees in Turkey, and as of two weeks ago (the most recent information I have) foreign countries had given nothing more than a few promises of aid and financial assistance to Turkey for the care of Syrian refugees in Turkey.
- result in a foreign military presence on Syrian territory. The locations of any camps in Syria would have to be secured and protected by foreign military personnel and their accompanying weapons, and this could lead to accidental or deliberate clashes on Syrian territory between foreign military forces and the Syrian military. Also, rebel controlled areas in Syria are under the control of local groups who are trying to assert their own control, often religious or ethnic, over these areas and they might not be willing to relinquish that control, which could lead to clashes between these local groups and foreign military forces.
- possibly provide locations on the Syrian side of the border for the SNC and FSA to use as their bases. This, though, could cause the camps to be targeted by the Syrian military and could also raise the question as to whether or not Syrians of different ethnicities and religions would have to be housed separately, which could cause an increase in sectarian divides.
- possibly relieve some of the public displeasure in Turkey towards the current Turkish Government. Public opinion in Turkey is very strongly against Turkish involvement in Syria, and public opinion against allowing tens of thousands of non-registered Syrians into Turkey is also growing.
In a meeting held by the UN Security Council last week to discuss the establishment of a buffer zone in Syria the UN High Commissioner for Refugee, António Guterres, said in his statement:
Mr. President, Mr. Deputy Secretary-General, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Syria has a long and generous history of providing refuge to people in need of sanctuary, including Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. It is now particularly heartbreaking to see so many Syrian citizens losing their lives, uprooted from their homes, or trapped in war zones.
As of yesterday, 229,000 people had left the country and sought registration as refugees in neighboring states. Their number is rapidly growing.
The number of Syrians arriving each day in Turkey continues to increase dramatically. Thanks to the Turkish government, more than 80,000 Syrians are now hosted in camps and public buildings in the south-east of the country.
Some 72,000 Syrian refugees have now been recorded [in Jordan]. In total, the government estimates that there are now 180,000 more Syrians in the country than at the outset of the crisis.
Most are hosted with by local communities. In accordance with a decision of the authorities, over 21,000 recent arrivals are being accommodated at the newly established Zaatri refugee camp.
The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon registered or awaiting registration now exceeds 57,000. They have largely been absorbed into local communities, along with many thousands more who have not yet sought assistance.
Efforts are under way with the government to expand accommodation options, as hosting families are stretched and schools where many hundreds have been sheltered are due to reopen shortly.
In Iraq, a country striving to make its own transition from conflict to stability, the number of Syrian refugees is now more than 18,000.
The refugee exodus is having a significant impact on the society, economy and security of host countries.
Thousands of Iraqi, Jordanian, Lebanese, and Turkish families are sharing their homes and their increasingly meager resources with relatives and friends, but mostly strangers, who have been rendered homeless.
The large-scale arrival of refugees brings a significant economic cost, leads to complex social consequences, and has a serious impact on local infrastructure and the environment. The acute pressure on water resources in Jordan is just one example.
All this takes place in countries also affected by the national security implications of the current crisis.
The commitment of those countries to refugee protection has upheld the internationally recognized principle whereby all human beings have the right to seek and enjoy asylum in another state.
This is a right that must not be jeopardized, for instance through the establishment of socalled ‘safe havens’ or other similar arrangements. Bitter experience has shown that it is rarely possible to provide effective protection and security in such areas.
But evidently, more effective humanitarian assistance inside Syria might well reduce the numbers forced to flee across borders.
According to the Turkish Government there are currently a little over 80,000 registered Syrian citizens housed in Turkey by the Turkish government. They are housed in 10 camps and also in schools, school dormitories, and sports facilities. There are also at least three more camps under construction.
The biggest camp is maybe 80,000 square meters big, which is about 20 acres. For Americans to visualize this imagine an area about 40 football fields big.
Then imagine 10,000 or 15,000 people living in tents in about two-thirds of that area. The rest is for security zones and administration zones. This means that there is about four to six square meters (square yards) of space for each Syrian in these camps.
Of the five countries which border Syria (Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Iraq), Turkey is in the best, though not particularly good, position to aid Syrian refugees.
Lebanon is small country and very fragile politically and the uneasy peace which currently exists in the country would probably not survive an influx of large numbers of Syrian refugees. There are also already a large number of Palestinian refugees in Syria. Recently the Lebanese government has begun to force the Syrian refugees who are being housed in schools in Lebanon to leave the schools so they can open for lessons. As far as I know there are no Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon.
Israel will never open its borders or the occupied Golan Heights to Syrian refugees.
In Jordan, Syrian refugees would have to be, and currently are, housed by the government in desert areas because the amount of usable or arable land in Jordan is very limited. Jordan also does not have the financial resources to deal with large numbers of refugees or the infrastructure, especially the water, which would be necessary. Additionally Jordan already has a very large number of Palestinian refugees and the Jordanian Government does not want to become involved in the unrest in Syria which could easily spill across the border.
Putting aside the facts that Iraq is very far from almost all of the population centers in Syria and that most of the Iraqi-Syrian border is a large harsh desert, the fragile political situation in Iraq could probably not tolerate a large number of Syrian refugees. Iraq is also not very eager to allow most of the million or so Iraqi refugees who are currently in Syria to return to Iraq.
Turkey has the land, the water, the food, and other materials needed to house large numbers of refugees. However, Turkey does not have enough trained personnel who have been prepared to care for or deal with the psychological needs of large numbers of refugees or the money to pay for it, and so far has not received much or any outside financial or material support. The political situation in Turkey is also not open to receiving large numbers of Syrian refugees, not so much because of the refugees themselves but because of the resentment caused by the government’s policies and the behavior of the non-refugee rebels who are in Turkey.
There is also one other historic aspect. Turkey has a long history of having to care for, at least to some degree, large numbers of ‘asylum-seekers’ and has seen just how slowly western countries accept refugees. If 100,000 or 200,000 or more Syrians come to Turkey as ‘asylum-seekers’ it could take generations for them to be placed in western countries, which could result in the creation of a huge under-class of stateless persons in Turkey and could end up in a situation where Turkey is denounced for having this under-class of stateless persons because the world has forgotten or doesn’t find it convenient to remember just how this situation came to be.
According to media reports, and what I have observed at the Turkish-Syrian border seems to confirm this, the Turkish Government is now trying to limit the number of Syrians who come to Turkey and has stopped allowing Syrians who do not have passports from officially crossing into Turkey, and those with passports are reportedly only allowed to enter Turkey as tourists.
The EU is also reported to be making plans to deal with and to try to limit the number of Syrians who are reportedly now making their way illegally from Turkey to EU countries.
Some Syrians are reported to still be secretly trying to cross the border into Turkey, often through the mine fields which stretch along the Turkish side of the border. Four Syrians were reported to have been killed last week when one of them stepped on a mine while they were trying to cross a mine field to get to Turkey.
It has also been reported that Turkish government will not house or allow Syrians to live in the areas of Turkey which are predominately Alevi.
Turkey maintains the geographical limitation of the 1951 Geneva Convention (The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees) so only aliens who come from European countries to seek asylum in Turkey can reside permanently in Turkey with ‘refugee’ status under Turkish law.
Aliens who come to Turkey from non-European countries, such as Syria, to seek asylum, either legally with a passport as tourists at a border crossing point or in some illegal manner, have to register with the Turkish government within “the shortest reasonable time”, which is defined as:
“Within the shortest reasonable time” defines the first possible time from the moment you entered Turkey. Please remember that the shorter time you apply, the more credible your application would be considered.After registering with the Turkish government they are given ‘asylum-seeker’ status and temporary residence permits. Those with ‘asylum-seeker’ status cannot legally work in Turkey, are provided with limited assistance by the Turkish government (health care and primary and secondary education), and have to live in the town, city or camp which the government assigns them to. They also have to sign in, usually daily in the camps or weekly at the police station responsible for the neighborhood they live in, in order to retain their ‘asylum-seeker’ status.
Following registration with the Turkish government, those with ‘asylum-seeker’ status have to register with the UNHCR who then determine whether they will be given ‘refugee’ status, and if they are, they are later relocated to other countries - which accept a very limited number of refugees every year - in a process which can, and usually does, take years. The UNHCR and other organizations such as the Turkish Red Crescent Society and the ICRC sometime provide very limited aid during this process.
At the beginning of this year there were about 22,000 people registered by the UNHCR in Turkey with ‘asylum-seeker’ or ‘refugee’ status.
According to the latest press release of the Disaster and Emergency Management Office of the Turkish Government, dated August 29, 2012, there are currently ten camps for Syrians in Turkey; five in Hatay Province, two in Gaziantep Province, one in Kilis Province, and two in Şanlıurfa Province.
The press release states that as of August 29, 2012:
113,312 Syrian citizens had entered, and been registered, in Turkey,
32,898 of the registered Syrian citizens had returned to Syria,
There were 11,164 registered Syrian citizens in the five camps in Hatay Province,
There were 12,653 registered Syrian citizens in the in Gaziantep Province - 8,286 in the İslahiye camp, 875 in the newly opened Karkamış camp, and 3,495 temporarily housed in schools, school dormitories and sports facilities,
There were 13,058 registered Syrian citizens in Kilis Province - 12,273 in the Kilis camp and 785 temporarily housed in schools and school dormitories,
There were 26,526 registered Syrian citizens in the camps in Şanlıurfa Province - 16,603 in the Ceylanpinar camp and 9,923 in the Akçakale camp,
There were 7,757 registered Syrian citizens temporarily housed in school dormitories in Kahramanmaraş Province,
There were 3,026 registered Syrian citizens temporarily housed in school dormitories in Adana Province,
There were 959 registered Syrian citizens temporarily housed in school dormitories in Adiyaman Province,
There were 1,447 registered Syrian citizens temporarily housed in school dormitories in Osmaniye Province,
There were 2,938 registered Syrian citizens temporarily housed in school dormitories in Malatya Province,
There were 763 registered Syrian citizens hospitalized in Turkey, with 119 family members accompanying them.
Notes: The registered Syrian citizens currently being temporarily housed in schools, school dormitories and sports facilities in Turkey are being moved to the newly opened Karkamış camp (on the west bank of the Euphrates a few kilometers north of the border) because schools will open in Turkey in about two weeks.
There are three groups of Syrians in Turkey, especially in Hatay; Syrian refugees who live in camps (and are essentially never allowed to leave them), Syrians who come to Turkey as tourists with passports and live in hotels, in rented homes or with relatives or friends, and Syrian rebels who constantly come and go across the border and stay in Antakya without any, or very little, control.
It is the existence, behavior and actions of the rebels and other foreign fighters, along with their logistical and political supporters, who come to Antakya for training, medical treatment, R % R, or to stay out of range of the Syrian military which is causing unease in Turkey - not the Syrian refugees in the camps.
I am at home again for a while. My trip was generally very safe except for having my car rammed by someone who didn’t seem to like my being there and a terrorist attack and bombing on a road a short time after I passed the place where the attack happened.
The car is being repaired and my shoulder which was bruised and aching seems to be OK now.
I am not going to discuss what I have observed in the Syrian refugee camps in Turkey for the time being, because I am involved in sensitive discussions about providing aid for the children in the camps and don’t want to do anything which might in any way jeopardize these discussions.