Refugee-hit Turkey’s new Syrian Kurdish Dilemmas
Refugee-hit Turkey’s new Syrian Kurdish Dilemmas
What to Expect from Five More Years of President Erdoğan in Türkiye
What to Expect from Five More Years of President Erdoğan in Türkiye
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 9 minutes

Refugee-hit Turkey’s new Syrian Kurdish Dilemmas

ŞENYURT, Turkey: Fleeing from fighting and hunger in north-eastern Syria a year and a half ago, Abdullah’s family found refuge in a crowded refugee camp in Turkey. Nine months later, his three-year-old son Mohammed caught meningitis. Fearing for the health of his other two children, Abdullah rented a room in a mud-brick house here in the small town of Şenyurt, joining the little-seen Kurdish minority among Turkey’s one million Syrian “urban refugees”.

As Mohammed lay immobile, Turkish hospitals tried to treat him. But doctors’ advice was largely unintelligible to Abdullah’s Kurdish- and Arabic-speaking family. Above all, Abdullah felt that the Turkish medicines weren’t good enough. So he returned to the country from which he had escaped, even taking the daily Syrian Airways flight from the northern town of Qamishli to Damascus in search of “stronger” medicine. “At least his eyes are open now”, Abdullah said.

A three-year-old Syrian Kurdish refugee lies paralysed with meningitis in Şenyurt, watched by his family. Following the subsequent intervention of a Turkish journalist, the Turkish government took the boy off for new treatment in a state hospital. CRISIS GROUP/Hugh Pope

Abdullah’s journeys are just one of many paradoxes on the eastern end of Turkey’s 911km-long border with Syria. Many stem from Turkey’s conflicted and evolving view of ethnic Kurds, who are the majority on both sides of the frontier here in Mardin province. Some in Turkey challenge the legitimacy of the border itself, which, drawn a century ago by imperial Britain and France, cuts a once united town in half along the railway line – Syria’s al-Darbasiya to the south, Turkey’s Şenyurt to the north. Others believe Turkey would be mad to do anything to open up the border and empower the Syrian Kurds who dominate three cantons south of the border. They believe they have a mortal enemy in the main Syrian Kurdish militia, the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, PYD), the Syrian sister party of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkarane Kurdistan, PKK), which has waged an insurgent war against Ankara for three decades. (For more on the PYD, see Crisis Group’s 8 May report Flight of Icarus: The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria.)

Şenyurt represents a compromise between these two positions: little aid ever gets across the Syrian Kurdish sections of the border, but most days Turkish soldiers allow 500-600 Syrians, mostly Kurds, to cross each way between an improvised chicane of sandbags by a railway siding. Just ten metres away flies the flag of the PYD’s first checkpoint. To many Kurds in the region, such normalisation is a glimpse of hope that a peace process sporadically under way since the late 2000s between Turkey and the PKK may be leading to more relaxed policies, not just in Turkey, but also towards the PYD.

Further on inside al-Darbasiya, officials and armed elements loyal to the regime of Bashar al-Assad remain in their posts. This is the case in most other PYD-dominated towns, adding another layer of complexity for the Turkish government, which has vowed to do everything to see Assad removed from office. But for now such complications – not to mention the turmoil close by in Syria and Iraq – seem a long way from the pleasant tea garden Turkey has arranged for families to sit in while waiting to cross. On the mid-June evening I visited, a pair of young Syrian Arabs wanting to go back home had arrived after the border had closed, and were settling down to spend the evening in the lee of a railway building with a few beers.

As the Syria crisis enters its fourth year, this mix of Syrian Kurds coming and going, politics and ethnic strains make Mardin province an increasingly sensitive part of Turkey’s massive refugee burden. Overall, there are now 220,000 Syrians living in camps and – according to Veysel Dalmaz, Turkey’s “Coordinator Governor” for Syrian refugees – perhaps as many as one million more living in towns. At least one quarter of urban refugees are completely unregistered, and most are outside the scope of humanitarian assistance. Many are very poor. With only 23 per cent of registered refugees being male and over the age of eighteen, and usually much older, the lack of working-age menfolk can be a grave disadvantage for many families.

International experts say the strict security and fencing of refugee camps is normal and vital to protect them from possible predatory behaviour by outsiders. CRISIS GROUP/Hugh Pope

One of the camps is in Mardin province, near Midyat. Guiding our group of visitors around the immaculately maintained tents and shipping container-sized metal huts in which refugees live, Governor Dalmaz said Turkey was on a learning curve. At first, he said, Turkey supplied refugees with cooked food, but then realised “it was expensive and unsatisfactory to them”. Instead, it has allowed a system mostly funded by the UN’s World Food Programme to give families 85 lira ($42) every month to buy and cook their own food. “It ended a lot of waste and reduced our costs by 70 per cent of what we spent in the past. It reduced stress, and halved the number of people going to hospital”, Dalmaz said. “It’s a first in the world, and all our 22 camps are run like this now”.

The Midyat camp is set in stony, near-desert hills 50km north of the Syrian border. Unlike similar camps visited by Crisis Group in Hatay at the western end of the border in 2013, in this camp few families said their menfolk were active opposition fighters (see our blog “For now, Turkey Copes Well with Syrian Influx in Hatay Province”). The camp is currently just half-full – it was originally set up for refugees from Syria’s Syriac Christian community, but few stayed in Turkey, and not in camps – and refugees have only minor complaints. Standing in the camp’s neat supermarket, where refugees are able to use their new credit cards to buy food, Ahmed, director of the camp’s 1,000-pupil school, listed just three demands: asphalt on the roads between the tents and containers, to keep down the omnipresent dust; new covering material for the tents; and new clothes for the women and children. One refugee complained that the fresh food on display in the camp shop was “just because you’re visiting”.

Reflecting the shock of lives suddenly turned upside down, other refugees complained that they even wanted more air conditioners. International aid worker Anton Vanzupten, a veteran of far more impoverished African emergencies, explained: “We have to understand it as a question of where they were, and where they are now”. Still, many camp residents were grateful for what they’d got.

“I can work ten days a month in town, and look what I can buy in town, and at half the price of the camp shop”, complained Ali, a refugee who dragged me off to his immaculate tent to show off a fridge full of fresh produce. “Still, the administration of the camp is fine, and my kids like the kindergarten. It’s good”.

Aid workers said the card system only started in this camp in May, and that more competition and control would soon bring prices down.Governor Dalmaz said Ankara needs longer-term policies, as it is unlikely there will be a quick return home for the Syrian refugees. He said he was seeking his government’s official endorsement of refugee school certificates so school graduates can go to Turkish universities. He wants work permits issued “at least temporarily so refugees can get by, not sit around”. Unusually for senior Turkish officials, he also called for more Turkish engagement with international NGOs. “If we can have international NGOs, then let them help! All we need is a roadmap [from Ankara]”, he said. Such ideas are also principal recommendations made by Crisis Group in its 30 April 2014 report The Rising Costs of Turkey’s Syrian Quagmire.

A refugee in Midyat camp shows off his Turkish-supplied tent kitchen in the ancient town of Midyat, a few kilometres from the Midyat camp. CRISIS GROUP/Hugh Pope

Few Syrian Kurds go to the camps, and the Midyat camp is nearly entirely Sunni Arab. Most of the few Kurds who did go into camps along the Turkish border left in 2012, as tensions between them and Syrian Arabs rose after fighting between rival ethnic militias broke out in Syria. Another reason is that many Syrian Kurdish refugees have relatives to stay with in Mardin. Mehmet Timurağaoğlu, president of a local NGO platform, reckons about 100,000 urban Syrians, almost all Kurds, are living unregistered new lives in the province, working as field labourers, drivers, shepherds, and in construction. This is more than double the figure estimated for the province by the UN.

Overall, Veysel Ayhan, a humanitarian activist working with the Syrian Kurds who is also president of Ankara’s International Middle East Peace Research Center, estimates that 250,000 of the Syrian refugees in Turkey are Kurds, mostly living in Mardin and other eastern, Kurdish-speaking provinces. Another 200,000 Syrian Kurds have gone to Iraqi Kurdistan, he believes. Normally there are 2-2.5 million Kurds in Syria, 10-15 per cent of the overall population.

Efforts to bring aid to Syrian Kurds in Turkey have lagged behind aid distributions at the western end of the Turkey-Syria border. According to Timurağaoğlu, one promising idea in Mardin is a “twin families” program, 100 local families who have taken responsibility to pay for the welfare of a refugee family each, mostly Kurds helping Kurds. “We’ve managed to set up some schools too, but this is going to go on a long time, and we need more long-term plans”, Mr Timurağaoğlu said. Another new aid effort in the province, designed by Germany’s Welthungerhilfe and funded by the EU’s humanitarian office ECHO, aims to put 40 lira ($20) per person monthly in the pockets of the poorest 8,000 refugees. A family of five would then still only receive a quarter of the minimum amount needed to live, which would at least pay for housing, usually the biggest problem refugees face. Still, it is also only a small step towards financing the overall Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey, where UN emergency programs are only one-third funded, and the outside world has contributed less than one tenth of the $3 billion cost to Ankara.

The Şenyurt home of Turkish nurse Nadire Demircan (R), who has divided up her house and given a large room and access to a toilet to a four-person Syrian refugee family who she’d seen living for three days on the street in town. CRISIS GROUP/Hugh Pope

Problems at the eastern end of the Turkey-Syria border could get much worse. Mardin NGO leader Timurağaoğlu said the population in many PYD-dominated Syrian cities over the border had doubled due to internal displacement, and Turkey could be their next destination. Abdulrahman Suleyman, a Syrian Kurdish tribal leader, said the best way for Turkey to pre-empt any new wave of refugees would be to reverse a policy that blocks most cross-border humanitarian aid. “People fled mainly because of a lack of food, medicine and electricity”, he said. A leader of Mardin’s Rojava Initiative, set up to support the Syrian Kurdish areas, said that when they printed 60,000 schoolbooks for the area, Turkish officials refused to let them across border.

This Syrian Kurdish refugee was once a butcher in the northern Syrian town of Tal Tamer, 90km from the Turkish border. He was forced by fighting, dwindling foodstocks and lack of medicine to flee with two of his children. CRISIS GROUP/Hugh Pope

Turkey has only occasionally allowed supplies to pass to Syria’s north east, since the PYD dominates the area and the Syrian government is still present in many ways. Suleyman said that of 79 UN trucks sent over the nearby Nusaybin-Qamishli border gate in March 2014, “not a single truck came to us. It was all sent to [regime-controlled areas like] Banias and Latakia”. Turkey has allowed humanitarian and other aid to cross the border further to the west, even sometimes supplying areas controlled by the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL).

But ISIL’s threatening sweep through the territories south of this stretch of Turkish border this month are changing Ankara’s perceptions. One aid agency says it has been asked to stop supplying ISIL areas, and there are signs of further warming of Turkish perceptions towards the Kurds, especially in Iraq. (As commentator Cengiz Çandar put it in Al-Monitor after Iraqi Kurds advanced this month to take full control of the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk, “Only a couple of years ago any Kurdish claim to Kirkuk was a red line for Turkey. Now, Turkey is not only reconciling itself to Kurdish control over Kirkuk, but it is considering it the best option”.) A senior Turkish official hinted to Crisis Group that the on/off talks with the Syrian Kurdish PYD over the past year may result in more open policies towards them, “slowly, slowly”.

Veysel Ayhan, the humanitarian activist working with Mardin’s Syrian Kurds, said it would be in Turkey’s best interest to let humanitarian supplies over to the PYD areas. “We have to get the food to places where the refugee flow is coming from. The PYD areas are currently safe, and there would be no problem [with the Syrian government’s intervening] if the shipments were regular. The refugees might even go back”, he said. “But the area has had almost no aid for three and half years, and right now there’s nothing left there, no food, and maybe 2-3 million people, and those who are now coming are fleeing hunger, not fighting. And if they start moving over the border they won’t just come to Mardin, but will go on to Istanbul and to Europe too”.


The names of the refugees in this story have been changed. Crisis Group would like to thank the Delegation of the European Union in Turkey and the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Office (ECHO) for arranging visits to their projects, partners and beneficiaries in the region.

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