The streets of Reyhanli, Turkey, have a false sense of calm. The Turkish border with Syria is just a few kilometers away, and with Turkey officially engaged in the conflict with ISIS and the Kurdish PKK alongside the United States, the already enormously complex conflict appears on the verge of completely spilling over the border. Syrian residents seem secure here until you start talking to the refugees living in Reyhanli, known as “Little Syria.” It only takes a few moments to realize how tense the situation is, even for those living in relative safety.
Reyhanli was the site of the worst terrorist attack in Turkish history when two car bombs killed at least 51 people in 2013, igniting resentment toward Syrian refugees. The bitterness in Reyhanli is directed more at the Turkish and international community, both of whom the Syrian refugees depend on for support.
International media attention has simplified the Syrian revolution into a numbers game that portrays the conflict between world powers on the macro level and the dozens of militant factions involved in direct fighting on the micro level. But behind the numbers is a human rights failure that most of the world seems to be missing. That failure is not happening across the sea in Greece or at the borders of Hungary, but right here in Turkey.
For the Syrian refugees who are now inside Turkey, the financial burden and violence is hardly over.
Since 2011 when the revolution began, Turkey opened its borders to Syrians fleeing the conflict, but the last open borders have been closed since March 9, 2015, after an estimated 2 million Syrians have fled the violence. The Turkish government has spent more than $6 billion to aid Syrian refugees, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. But since the border was closed at Bab al-Hawa, several refugees in Reyhanli, who have recently crossed over the border with the aid of smugglers, said they must pay between $200 and $400 per person in order to be smuggled into the country – some say up to even $1,000. Even at that steep cost, the smugglers cannot protect them from being shot by Turkish military forces. When refugees are crossing, border agents usually fire a warning shot to deter them before shooting to kill.
In November 2014, Amnesty International reported 17 people killed by Turkish border guards between December 2013 and August 2014, but the number killed by Turkish border guards in 2015 is certain to increase considerably now that all borders are closed between the two countries. The recent border closures and a greater number of Syrians living without official “guest” status in Turkey could mean that the number of Syrians in Turkey is much higher than the estimated 2 million.
For the Syrian refugees who are now inside Turkey, the financial burden and violence is hardly over. Families that hadn’t obtained a passport before the conflict, which was normally only valid for two years even before the conflict, must purchase a new one from the Syrian government for $400 if they want to leave Turkey legally. But few Syrians want to give any money to a regime that has brought so much suffering to fellow Syrians. So the alternative, if you know the right people, is to buy a passport distributed by the Free Syrian Army for $200. It is unclear if these are the same passports that are reportedly fueling terrorism in Europe.
Nevertheless, Hasan (whose name has been changed for security), a young Syrian applying for a job with a US aid organization, International Medical Corps, was faced with an opportunity to purchase a passport he said was legal (but from the Free Syrian Army) when the organization said that he must have a valid passport in order to take the job. He noted that nongovernment organizations like the International Rescue Committee, Médecins du Monde and Doctors Without Borders require both a valid passport and Turkish residency in order to be in compliance with Turkish government policy. Hasan is one of many highly skilled Syrians left with limited options in his new home in Turkey because Syrians in Turkey are not official refugees.
Turkey’s previous open-door policy was both a boon and bane, as refugees were free to enter the country, but received none of the official refugee rights under the 1951 UN convention that outlines international law for refugees and asylum seekers. The Turkish government has granted limited rights for Syrian refugees that include access to work, education and health care, but stops short of the rights that the official refugee status provides. Not surprisingly, those are the rights that most Syrian refugees in Reyhanli need. Young men and women attempting to apply for Turkish university are met with a number of obstacles, not to mention difficulties with the Turkish language requirement.
The Turkish government has been reluctant to allow a university specifically for Syrians to be organized in Turkey, but so far, one has been approved in Gaziantep. However, it will only serve a small percentage of the estimated 50,000 refugees at university age. In Reyhanli, many primary and secondary schools are available and being built, but the marginalization of Syrians remains, especially for young girls.
The families that have been living in Reyhanli for months or years have many grievances toward Turkey and the West.
Young girls in Reyhanli are subject to rising rates of child marriage, up to 37 percent by some estimates. Save the Children documented this rise in hopes of raising awareness and to discourage Jordanian men from taking Syrian girls as young as 14 as second wives in a report titled “Too Young to Wed” – but the problem remains the same for all Syrian refugees. The Turkish government does not recognize second wives and the girls are often sold into marriage by family members, meaning they do not receive any of the rights a wife in a legal marriage in Turkey would hold. With many of the young Syrian men staying in Syria to fight, or having already died doing so, a higher proportion of young girls are residing in Turkey. If these young girls are not given the opportunity to gain an education, and instead get married to older men, it essentially amounts to the enslavement of a generation of Syrian girls. Without protections within the more rural communities in Turkey and those close to the Syrian border like Reyhanli, girls are subject to the opportunistic nature of a conflict region. Groups like ISIS have been the focus of media and government attention for crimes against women in Syria, but preventable crimes like forced marriage of rape victims are taking place in Turkey as well.
Although throughout the town of Reyhanli, locals remain upbeat and friendly, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to quickly turn to the conflict in Syria. Everyone has a story of suffering and loss.
A young man named Muhammad, only willing to provide his first name, recounted, with fear in his eyes, about the nightmares that haunt him since he woke up in the hospital after being unconscious for three days. He was a teacher at the school that became an international news story after a napalm-like bomb exploded, killing several of his young students and colleagues. On the night of his wedding, he and eight other couples were getting married in one ceremony organized by a local nongovernment organization. By our second meeting, he still had not found an apartment he could afford, and he complained that Turkish landlords are taking advantage of the conflict by charging higher rents in Reyhanli and demanding a six-month to one-year advance on an apartment, a story that was echoed by several refugees. Muhammad speaks fluent English but cannot find work as a translator, and the school where he works does not offer enough money to support a family. He wonders how long he can go on like this, but has few options.
The families that have been living in Reyhanli for either months or years have many grievances toward Turkey and the West as a whole, but the biggest question all of them ask is how can the world stand by and watch our suffering? The amateur Syrian journalists in Reyhanli expressed their desire to get the stories of atrocities out to the world. They wonder why the West, and President Barack Obama specifically, don’t help the Syrian people. They hope that perhaps if they could just inform everyone of the truth, more people may understand the gravity of the situation because even for Syrians not in direct contact with violence, it surrounds their lives.
Those trying to rebuild a life in Reyhanli are reminded daily of violence. Every family has contacts in Syria, many in Idlib, just 30 kilometers from Reyhanli. The news of tragedy arrives through social media or text messages, detailing the barrel bombing of a city’s only hospital or a relative killed by an ISIS suicide bomber. The news comes at an overwhelming rate, and the refugees continue to feel the need to tell the world.
What is now on the front pages of newspapers is the reactionary response to a crisis that has been building for over a decade.
Unfortunately, the truth is that the world knows. There are countless stories of hospitals and schools bombarded by Syrian government forces and ISIS beheadings and rapes, but atrocity has become something to which the world is accustomed, and the world has stopped paying attention. What is now on the front pages of newspapers is the reactionary response to a crisis that has been building for over a decade. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are flooding into Europe by boat and over land, seeking asylum or intending to live legally or illegally.
That journey begins somewhere. For many, it begins in Reyhanli because many Syrians, especially young people, believe the problems that they face in Turkey will disappear in Europe. For them, there is really no choice at all because without a passport, the right to higher education or a job the situation is desperate for all young people.
It would be foolish to assume that the entirety of the responsibility of the Syrian crisis rests at the feet of the West, but we must look critically at how the international community reacts to conflict. A two-year discussion about which rebel group to fund or which Frontex (the European Union agency responsible for the protection of European borders) approach to utilize to protect European countries from refugees fleeing violence was wasteful, and without concrete approaches to support the victims of conflict, the cycle of violence will only continue. Europe ignored the power of globalization and social media fueled by desperation, and now the conflict they helped fuel with weapons is leaving thousands of displaced people at Europe’s doorstep, yet still there is a reactionary response.
The European Union (EU) has failed to consider what the more than 2 million refugees living in Turkey without means to travel to plead asylum in Europe will do as the conflict continues. Turkey is a state that hopes to be part of the EU, and EU member states’ response – aside from Germany – to the amount of refugees they have seen enter Greece and Hungary in recent weeks is absurdly tepid. Supporting permanent rights for those in Turkey is in the interests of both sides, and the cost of supporting this effort would be vastly cheaper for European states than the current situation. In addition, massive losses of life and separations of families could be reduced.
As Westerners export our culture and our governments export weapons and exploit labor, we must be prepared for the consequences. A great loss is taking place outside of the Syrian revolution, a loss that could be prevented, a loss of a highly skilled and educated generation of youth, of young women unable to ever experience self-determination and of professionals blocked from work by bureaucracy and politics. Behind every conflict are the victims of violence. International human rights law was developed with the intent to address the greater good of humanity’s interest, but a narrow approach to aid has led to a few small nongovernmental organizations struggling to serve small communities like Reyhanli, under the negligent policies of the Turkish government and the international community’s support of such policies.
Note: For reasons of security, the names of people mentioned in this article have been altered out of fear of reprisals from the Syrian regime and ISIS.