Turkey does its best for the refugees, but it still isn't home for Syrians
Published 24/09/2015 | 02:30
All around are olive groves, but here, Turkey suddenly runs out. A metal archway to the left of the camp's entrance announces the border gate to Syria. Too many of the world's displaced live in conditions striking for their bleakness, but what is startling about Kilis is how little it resembles the refugee camps of our imagination.
This temporary shelter for Syrian refugees is super-organised. Residents scan their fingerprints to enter, before walking through metal detectors and passing whatever bags they are carrying through an x-ray machine.
Inside are 2,000 identikit steel containers arranged in neat rows. There aren't any tents here and it's unusually well-equipped, with an art gallery, beauty salon and chess cafes, as well as the expected schools, medical centres and mosque.
Back in April 2011, some 200 Syrians crossed into Turkey, fleeing civil war at home. Overnight, the Turkish government had set up an emergency tent camp for them. Three years later, it was operating 22 camps serving 210,000 refugees, mostly along its 500-mile-long border with Syria.
Kilis, opened in 2012, was one of six prototype container camps meant to offer a better standard of shelter. Unlike almost all other refugee camps, Kilis is not run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees but by Turkey's own Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency.
It is staffed with Turkish government employees, with a few NGOs like UNICEF playing supporting roles. Every family is given a debit card when they register, and every month, they get a balance of almost €40 per person for food and €10 per person for other items.
However, most Syrian refugees in Turkey live outside the camps, renting private houses and apartments. You see, Syrians fled with more savings than the average refugee. The length of the conflict is draining their savings, so almost all of them work in Turkey and lots have set up their own businesses. This means that Kilis's population has doubled, from 100,000 to 200,000, and it now has a buzzing impromptu bazaar that is jammed with stalls and cafes set up by refugees themselves. The local economy is thriving because of them.
Also, dry food rations have been typically distributed inside refugee camps but Syrian refugees are given debit cards to buy food at supermarkets and this also injects money into the host communities. Millions of dollars from the World Food Programme has trickled into local shops so far.
Hanan (28) has two young children. She is one of the newly arrived and fled Homs just 40 days ago. Her husband remained behind, fighting with the Syrian Opposition Army.
"I am safe here," she says. "I can come and go to Syria and I will go back to visit my husband and my mother for a few days at Eid al-Adha. My brother is in France and I would prefer to go to Europe but I need to be close to my husband's work."
Outside, at the queue to the border checkpoint, I meet Mohamed. He's returning to Syria to fight, having visited family in Kilis. "I was here for one week in Kilis, visiting my parents," he says. "Now I am going back to fight after my holiday."
Besides the comforts and the cleanliness and the impressive facilities of the Kilis camp, there is one important thing to note: nobody likes living there. The Turks might have built as good a refugee camp as it is possible to build but a camp is still a camp. And if a camp becomes a shelter not just for a few months but for years, it's a substitute to a real solution.
But the fighting in northern Syria has become increasingly complex.
President Assad's regime has all but disappeared from Syria's northern border areas. However, it isn't the rebels that have taken its place. The two dominant forces along the 600-mile border now are Isil and Syria's Kurds, led by the PYD, a party allied to Turkey's own banned Kurdish movement, the PKK. They are fighting each other and the Kurds are pushing the Isil forces back. And as it is pushed west, Isil is squeezing this small area of the border north of Aleppo still held by the non-Isil, Turkey-backed rebels. Turkey's worst nightmare is that Isil will drive them out and seize the crossing at Kilis. The non-Isil rebels have to be saved and so Turkey is investing in them.
At the moment we're on a trajectory for Syria to become even more horrific than it is now. Experts expect the war to drag on for years, kill hundreds of thousands more people and lead to the migration of millions more refugees. We're likely to see street-to-street fighting soon in Damascus, lifting emigration to a new level.
And as Syria's war remains a stalemate that no side can win, the ebb and flow of the battlelines will continue to create waves of misery, as people need to make life-and-death decisions about staying, moving or returning.
Ireland should look to the Turkish response; refugees boost economies.
Supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.
Ireland should look to the Turkish response; refugees boost economies. Ireland should look to the Turkish response; refugees boost economies. Ireland should look to the Turkish response; refugees boost economies. Ireland should look to the Turkish response; refugees boost economies. Ireland should look to the Turkish response; refugees boost economies. nd should look to the Turkish response; refugees boost economies.