Ghettos of Syrian refugees in Istanbul

More than one million Syrians are now living as refugees in Turkey.  The intention was to house them in camps along the Turkish-Syrian border.  But the war has already been dragging on for three years with no end in sight.  Apart from the usual hardships of living in refugee camps, abuse by Turkish guards are rampant and the threat of traffickers a growing menace.  The refugees are now fleeing the camps and going into Turkish cities.  So far, Istanbul has been their favorite destination with the hope that it might also be easier for the more ambitious ones to slip into Europe.  According to statistical estimates, more than 200,000 Syrian refugees are now living in Istanbul. 

Some refugees who are sympathizers of the rebels are using Istanbul as a propaganda base and a center of resistance against the Syrian government.  While Mr. Erdogan's government is ruthlessly cracking down on the Turkish media to muffle all news of corruption within his government, he has allowed a group of Syrian supporters of the opposition to operate an independent media, Radio Al-Kul, from atop a building in one of the commercial hubs of Istanbul.  Obi Sukkar, who is the founder of Radio Al-Kul, states that the channel is strictly uncensored and independent and reaches an audience of at least 100,000 in Syria.  The purpose is to win the support of the Syrian people, turning them against their government. While Obi Sukkar runs an independent channel on Turkey's proxy war and on Turkish soil, the poor Turks have no such privileges.

However, ones like Obi Sukkar who are happily rebuilding their lives in Istanbul are few.  His radio station is welcomed and supported by wealthy Syrians.  But most other refugees have a very different story. They are of modest means or poor who are yearning to return to their simple and normal lives which were destroyed by the invading marauders.  Cost of living being exorbitant in Istanbul, they are struggling to survive.  Even odd jobs are difficult to find.  Many of them live on charity meals distributed by mosques in Istanbul.  Syrian women and children begging in shopping centers and parks are no longer uncommon sights in that city.  A middle-class Syrian woman who fled the refugee camp near the Turkish border with her two children mentioned that she left Syria after her brother was kidnapped by a group of terrorists.  The entire village became unsafe.  She couldn't bear to stay in the refugee camp indefinitely which was like a prison.  She assumed it would be easy enough to find a job in Istanbul which might also serve as a gateway to Europe.  But the reality was very different from what she imagined.  Some of the Islamic charities in Turkey have taken upon themselves the task of moving all such refugees who are living on the streets back to the camps but to no avail.  They keep coming back .. for the simple reason that the conditions in the camps are even worse than living on city streets.

As expected, living as refugees is having a devastating affect on the upbringing of Syrian children.  A harrowing story that appeared on Turkey Pulse of Syrian refugee boys as young as five or six smoking cigarettes, playing on the streets and around trees near the parks all
day with no access to schools. The adults of their families caring for them are women – mothers, sisters, grandmothers and aunts – who are seen sitting together huddled in groups with their backs resting against the stoned walls of parks.  Many of them don’t even have the protection of tents.  They use cardboard pieces torn from cardboard boxes as shelter along side big plastic bags filled with their essential belongings of clothes, blankets, pots and pans.  At other times these women are cited begging silently at busy marketplaces.  Their children sell kleenex or paper handkerchiefs, usually at car windows when the traffic stops at intersections.  The male adults of their families are seldom seen.  It’s also hard to guess what might have become of them.  Many have been killed by the destruction of the war.  Others are trying to make a living as refugees wherever they can find some prospects of earning whatever they can.  They try to seek odd jobs that don’t require speaking Turkish.  Those who find work at sweatshops consider themselves fortunate.  The more common odd jobs are washing cars, carrying bricks, pulling out weeds or just waiting and hoping to find a few hours’ of work at some construction site close by.  Thus, they’re seldom able to spend time with their families.

Majority of the refugees in Istanbul appear to be Alawites.  Some reports have stated that they feel uneasy staying in the camps with the Sunni refugees.  Though it isn’t possible to verify their authenticity, quite many Alawite refugees in Istanbul have narrated uncanny stories of people getting bribed in refugee camps at the Turkish border with a tent, some food and blankets .. and at night they are given guns and told to fight.  Others complain that the camps are in constant danger of being attacked by rebels fighting in Syria.  They also frown that their children stay hungry in camps with not enough food.

All of their stories are distressful in unimaginable proportions!  They have been fleeing to Turkey in truckloads only to find themselves in a different type of hell.

An attitude that isn’t helping the refugees is the resentment of local Turks who have begun to express their dissatisfaction and anger at the presence of so many Syrian refugees in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey.   Comments like "they are everywhere .. I’m tired of Syrians coming here .. they beg and their kids are always on the streets .. tourists will stop coming to Turkey .. the government should keep them in camps" are commonly heard from almost all segments of the Turkish community.

Though a huge political embarrassment for Turkey's ruling AK Party, there is little it can do to handle the growing number of Syrian refugees on the streets of Istanbul and other cities of the country.  Obviously the Turkish government never envisaged such a situation as it initially thought that President Assad's government would collapse within a year.   Many Turkish analysts and columnists living outside Turkey have bluntly described it as AK Party's "failed policy" and look upon it as a very threatening economic and security concern for Turkey’s future, particularly considering the possibility that the war in Syria could go on for years.   Turkey has been training and sending the foreign fighters to Syria for the last three years, almost.  With already over one million Syrian refugees on Turkish soil, most of them in Istanbul and the number rapidly growing, the Turkish government has yet made no plans on how to tackle this huge human tsunami steadily flowing from the Syrian-Turkish borders.   What dreadful oversight and incompetence by a government that often boasts of being full of "visionaries!" 


  1. I have just returned from Istanbul. It is so sad to see the plight of Syrian children (and their families) People need to remember that they did not choose to be refugees and do what they can to help!

  2. Yes, it's very very unfortunate. To make matters worse, the world isn't taking it half as seriously as it should. All international power players are involved in the slaughter in Syria. Why would they care for the negative fallout? That affects the media approach which is full of misleading news.


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