The Syrians Keep Fleeing, But Now They Hit Turkey's Closed Border

Feb 27, 2016
Originally published on February 28, 2016 7:06 pm

A whistle shrills, and a dozen boys tear across a gray schoolyard. Some are in sneakers, others have bare feet slapping the concrete. "This is a physical education class," announces Metin Yildiz, the director of education at Elbeyli refugee camp in southern Turkey.

About 24,000 Syrians have been living in this government-run camp for three years, costing the Turkish government $3 million a month, and our guides are keen to show us Turkish classes, a kindergarten, a computer lab, an art display.

But among the refugees, all the talk is of the people still in Syria, trying and failing to get to where we are. In a salon where women are training to be beauticians, Nour Mohammad stops practicing a blow-dry on a little girl to tell us about her loved ones who are on the run, north of the city of Aleppo.

"The most important thing is that my brothers and my relatives are all there," says the 21-year-old, who wears a bright headscarf and immaculate makeup.

Even as international leaders worked to wrangle a ceasefire, northern Syria has been wracked by intense fighting in recent weeks, and Russian air support for Syrian President Bashar Assad has ratcheted up. Tens of thousands of people have fled.

The truce took effect Saturday, but there is widespread skepticism and it was not immediately clear how widely it would be observed.

Since the Syrian war erupted five years ago, Syrians have been able to escape to Turkey. But the once-porous border has in recent weeks been much more tightly controlled, and tens of thousands of civilians are trapped on the Syrian side.

The clinic in this camp is a little overcrowded, but the Syrians do have access to treatment. On the Syrian side of the border, hospitals have been hit by airstrikes. Aid routes have been blocked.

A woman named Sultan, too afraid to give her last name, says her opposition-held village was besieged and then taken over by Syrian government loyalists.

"I also have relatives in the countryside north of Aleppo," she says. "Of course they want to come here but they can't." They went to the border crossing of Bab al-Salama but were stopped by Turkish authorities.

"The situation is terrible there," she adds. Camps on the Syrian side of the border have swelled. They are short of toilets and tents, and there has been heavy rain.

In the nearby Turkish town of Kilis, a Syrian aid worker named Asaad Ahmed, tells me he was over the border with the newly-displaced last week. "Most of the tents have no base whatever, so when there is rain or wind they will all be washed out," he says.

In the Syrian border town of Azaz, he says there are almost 50,000 families not even receiving bread, let alone other humanitarian aid. Hundreds of thousands of people in northern Syria rely on aid to keep going, but recent fighting and movements of large numbers of people has left humanitarians overwhelmed.

Like some international rights organizations and governments, Ahmed thinks Turkey should let vulnerable civilians over the border.

But Turkey has already taken in 2.6 million Syrian refugees, more than half of the 4.7 million Syrian refugees overall, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The governor of Kilis, Suleyman Tapsiz, points out Turkey has also been under pressure from the United States and others to tighten the border, and stop jihadists getting into Syria.

"'Please protect your borders,' the USA said to us," he says in an interview at his office. "And right now, right now we are protecting our borders very strictly."

The governor says people with the right paperwork, and the wounded, are still allowed to cross. And, he says, Turkey should be allowed to use tough measures. The U.S. does. He even visited the U.S.-Mexican border and shows me his report about the border controls there.

"When the Turkish police established a checkpoint on the highways, people were criticizing Turkey," he says. "But as you see this is the an American checkpoint on the highway." He shows a picture of a canine search of a vehicle.

Tough measures don't stop people trying to get in, but they do raise the price. I meet one Syrian refugee, Rana Hammoud, who tells me some relatives managed to get to Turkey earlier this month.

It cost the impoverished family $1,300 for each member who crossed, she says.

"People are selling the land back home," she says as she waits for a food handout from a Turkish charity. "And then they go."

That is a desperate measure for a farming family. But Hammoud tells me now even the smuggling route isn't working anymore. She can't get other relatives out. They are stuck, at the mercy of powers far beyond their control.

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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Guns have mostly gone silent across western and northern Syria following an agreement by dozens of fighting groups to cease hostilities. Several skirmishes have been reported, but the fragile truce that went into effect Friday at midnight appears to be holding, but the human suffering continues. Syria and its ally Russia bombed large areas in an effort to take new ground before the cease-fire went into effect. This led to tens of thousands of civilians fleeing for the relative safety of Turkey. But NPR's Alice Fordham says many couldn't get in when Turkey suddenly shut its borders.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: A running race tears across a schoolyard in a Turkish-run refugee camp near the Syrian border in Turkey. An administrator gives us a tour.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Now are going to the high school building.

FORDHAM: So this camp is laid out in wide, clean, gray avenues of white containers. There's washing hanging out, kids running around, it's clean and tidy. And it all feels quite permanent here.

There's lots of activities, but in a beauty salon full of would-be hairdressers, the talk is all about the people trying to get to where we are. One young woman, Nour Mohammad, tells us her loved ones are on the run north of the city of Aleppo.

NOUR MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) The most important thing is my brothers and my relatives are all there.

FORDHAM: She says some of her relatives are civilians who want to get into Turkey but have been stopped at the border by Turkish authorities, and she's so worried about them.

MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) My oldest brother's 18 and then the others are 15 and 14.

FORDHAM: They're with the rebellion and stayed to defend their town, but it's so dangerous now even they would leave if the crossing was still open. But in recent weeks, controls have been much tighter. At the clinic in this camp, it's a little overcrowded, but people do have access to treatment. Over on the Syrian side of the border, hospitals have been hit by airstrikes. Aid routes have been blocked. A woman named Sultan, too afraid to give her last name, says her village was besieged and then taken over by regime loyalists.

SULTAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: She too has relatives who tried to cross the border but were stopped. She says they're stuck just on the other side and the conditions are terrible. Camps set up there have swelled. They're short of toilets and tents and it's been rainy. In the nearby town of Kilis, I meet a Syrian aid worker named Asaad Ahmed who was in Syria lately.

ASAAD AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: In the border town of Azaz, he says, there were nearly 50,000 families not even getting bread.

AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: And the new tents are flimsy so they're damaged in the rain and wind. Like some international rights groups, Ahmed thinks Turkey should at least let vulnerable civilians in. But Turkey has already taken in nearly three million Syrian refugees, and when I visit the governor of this border province of Kilis, Suleyman Tapsiz, he points out he's also been under pressure from the U.S. to tighten the border and stop jihadists getting into Syria.

SULEYMAN TAPSIZ: (Through interpreter) Please, protect your borders USA said to us, but it right now - right now we are protecting our borders very strictly. That is the case.

FORDHAM: The governor says people with the right paperwork and the wounded are still allowed to cross. And he says Turkey should be allowed to use tough measures - the U.S. does. He even visited the U.S.-Mexico border and shows me his report about the border controls there.

TAPSIZ: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: So this is a photo of a checkpoint on the highway.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, as you see...

TAPSIZ: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Oh, yeah, with a K-9 search and everything.

Tough measures don't stop people trying to get in, but they do raise the price. I meet one Syrian refugee, Rana Hammoud, who tells me some relatives managed to get to Turkey earlier this month.

RANA HAMMOUD: (Through interpreter) They all came by smuggling.

FORDHAM: It cost the destitute family $1,300 to get each family member across. How could they afford it?

HAMMOUD: (Through interpreter) They're selling their land in Syria.

FORDHAM: A desperate measure for a farming family, but she tells me now even the smuggling route isn't working anymore. She can't get other relatives out. They're stuck at the mercy of powers far beyond their control. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Kilis, southern Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.