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    Middle East
     Apr 20, 2012

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Syria, Turkey and the camp cover-up
By Erin Banco and Sophia Jones

It's like a well-choreographed play that Turkish officials have spent countless hours rehearsing. First, they helped form "committees" inside every camp to speak on behalf of the refugees. Now, they carefully scrub down the facilities only before admitting visitors, deny access to most media outlets, and even handpick refugees to speak with the press and outside organizations.

The story they've crafted is a simple narrative of suffering Syrian refugees, fleeing the bloody crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad, finding relief, commendable conditions and the chance for a new life. The trouble is, the situation often isn't that clear-cut. The government of Turkey is "hiding something", according to a prominent Turkish human-rights lawyer - a sentiment shared by many Syrian refugees inside the camps.

While reporting from refugee camps on the Turkish-Syrian border, we spoke to several people who said that they were encountering


"absolutely no problems". Many other refugees, however, describe a vastly different reality - inadequate tents, unsanitary bathrooms, lack of food, preferential treatment of soldiers, and unnecessary detention practices.

It is common, though, for refugees to be paid off by the Turkish government to refrain from denouncing its wrongdoings, according to several witnesses in the camps. The Turkish government is also denying most of those in the camps legal status as refugees, allying itself with Islamist factions and marginalizing liberal elements, locking away "problematic" Syrians in off-the-books prison facilities,and obstructing media access, while local religious and political enmities are interfering with the humanitarian response.

All of these underreported issues have conspired to place already vulnerable people in an increasingly untenable situation.

Orwa, whose last name is withheld for his personal safety, is a Syrian refugee in the Yayladagi refugee camp in southeastern Hatay province, the site of United Nations envoy Kofi Annan's most recent visit to Turkey. It was widely reported that Annan visited the camp, but according to Orwa and other Syrians residing there, he did not actually walk through and talk to refugees.

Instead, the former UN secretary general only entered the camp's visitor center and just spoke with men and women who were reportedly selected by Turkish officials. Afterward, his press conference focused almost solely on the then-impending ceasefire across the border, not about the sufferings of those inside the camp - which he had neither the opportunity to witness or hear about.

Similarly, Orwa told us the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition umbrella group based in Turkey, visited Yayladagi this week and met with the camp committee that is made up of almost entirely of Muslim Brotherhood members selected by the Turkish government. While the Brotherhood isn't a major force in Syria, what it has is money - lots of it. And it's using that clout to build stronger ties with the Turkish government and to develop more support from needy refugees.

Orwa and his friends from inside the camp were officially excluded from the conversation. Their "liberal ideas" prohibited them from participating, he said. Frustrated and determined to have input, Orwa showed up at the meeting without permission but no one listened to him. Instead, the Islamist-dominated SNC and Muslim Brotherhood are controlling the conversation about how the camps are run, while liberal Syrian voices - already stifled at home - are being similarly silenced in the camps.

According to several sources inside the Yayladagi camp, the visit by the SNC was a rare one. Their last trip to the camp was close to 20 days before and that was only used for "propaganda". Orwa said SNC members didn't even inquire about the needs of the Syrians there. Refugees in the camp told us that they thought Turkish officials wanted to paint a rosy picture of well-appointed refugee camps. But many, especially those living in Turkish-run tent cities on the border, are unhappy with the living conditions.

The SNC recently told the refugee committee in Yayladagi that they are short on funds and only had about US$5 million to distribute - most of it earmarked for efforts in Syria. But they told refugees they would give them each a one-time payment of around 20 Turkish lira, the equivalent to about $11, to buy groceries and whatever supplies they may need for the camp.

Many consider the response totally inadequate. "The SNC does not check up on the refugees to see how they are or what they need," Orwa said. "No one talks to us, no one cares about us. We at least want people to come in and see what the camp is like." This is a complaint we have heard before: refugees want to tell their stories, but they have no one to tell.

Access denied
Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, there has been limited access for human-rights groups and journalists trying to enter the camps on the border. And after Syrian refugees were targeted during a cross-border attack in Kilis recently, there has been an even greater urgency to keep journalists out of the camps.

Turkish officials as well as doctors working in hospitals near the refugee camps said the government wants to control the information given to the press because the Kilis attack was disastrous for their image. Refugees caught in the crossfire told us that Turkish soldiers who were supposed to be protecting them did little to help.

One of the injured Syrians in the Kilis hospital, Ahmed Bitar, told us the Turkish officers did not defend refugees but instead hid for their own safety. As news of the attack on Kilis spread to other camps, refugees in Yayladagi marched to the border in protest. They said if the Turkish government was not going to protect them, they might as well go back to Syria.

Several Free Syrian Army soldiers and officers likened the situation in the camps to that in Syria. The only way, they said, to get in and out of the camp if you are not a refugee, and if you do not have special permission, is to sneak in illegally. We heard all manner of stories on the lengths some have gone to - from aid workers scaling the 10-foot-tall walls, to human-rights activists slipping through holes in the fence, to women journalists wearing niqabs and pretending to be refugees. Increasingly, such extreme measures are the only available options to those seeking access to refugees.

Just one day after the incident in Kilis, we called Suphi Atan, the Turkish Foreign Ministry's camp coordinator, to verify our authorization to enter the Reyhanli camp, which we had received just one day earlier. He told us that there was simply "no more permission" for the camps. A dial tone followed. When we tried a more direct approach, we were similarly rebuffed. An officer who was guarding the main gate of the Yayladagi camp told us, "Your job is not inside the camp, it is outside of it," and barred us from entering.

Doctors inside a Hatay province hospital agreed to speak with us as long as identifying information about them and their facility's name were not used because the Turkish government has forbid them to speak to press. "You have a right to get information," one physician said, "Just not from the hospitals. Only from the government."

Halfway through our interview with the head of the medical center, a man walked in and sat down next to us, his security badge peeking out of his jacket. His presence immediately changed the tone of the interview, causing the hospital administrator to begin extolling the virtues of the Turkish government's treatment of refugees.

As the number of wounded Syrians taken from the border to hospitals in Turkey has surged in the past two months, information about them has dwindled. One Syrian man in the hospital had just arrived hours before our visit. As he lay on the hospital bed in the emergency ward, he violently shook from loss of blood, his teeth chattering as family members who carried him to the border looked on. 

Continued 1 2  

What's goin' on at the Turkish-Syrian border? (Apr 12, '12)

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