During the final days of Ramadan, I flew to Turkey's border with Syria to report on how Ankara runs some of its 23 refugee camps. Ankara has shown an unprecedented degree of solidarity with Syrians fleeing their country and today hosts almost 3 million of them. Yet, Turkey's resources can be stretched only so far while the country is going through one of the most restless chapters of its recent history.
When it comes to the refugee exodus resulting from the ghastly conflict in Syria, Turkey is cursed by geography. Sharing more than 800 kilometers of its border with the war-torn country, for millions of Syrians their northern neighbor is a natural fire escape from a land now buried in barrel bombs, rubble and agony.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brutal suppression of pro-democracy protests in early 2011 opened the bleeding Pandora's box that is today's Syria. With nearly 500,000 lives already lost, along with 6,3 million internally displaced people and more than 5 million refugees, the human cost of this protracted tragedy should mark a before and after in the world's collective conscience in a way that only World War II did before.
The Kahramanmaraş container city, the first camp I visited (Ankara prefers the sanitized term "temporary protection centers" to refer to the refugee sites it operates) hosts nearly 24,000 refugees, mostly Syrians from Aleppo. At its entrance, a huge photo banner with a photo of a fatherly looking Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan welcomes the visitor.
"It is a matter of conscience," reads the inscription. Fitted in gleaming two-container-high blocks, each of the accommodation units houses up to five family members and is equipped with a bedroom, a kitchen, solar power, running water, TV and even a washing machine.
Some refugees hang Turkish flags from the stairs connecting the upper and lower lodgings while the ubiquitous logo of Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (AFAD) reminds everyone that these box cities are meant to be a provisional fix to a gigantic exodus.
As I wandered around the camps, I saw small clinics (some of them attended by Syrian refugee doctors and nurses) as well as well-stocked supermarkets that would not be out of place in any American or European city. Every month, each refugee receives 100 Turkish lira ($28) for food and personal items: not enough to include vegetables, meat or fish in their daily grocery shopping. The baskets I peeked at the checkout lines spoke volumes.
Schools, small mosques, libraries, playgrounds and football pitches complete a picture I am told by the camps' management is replicated across several of Turkey's temporary protection centers – the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says there are eight container cities erected by Ankara in southeast Turkey. What is common to all these camps is the clear predominance of women and children: in many cases, the male members of the families have been killed in Syria or Iraq.
AFAD's ability to provide such degree of comfort to increased numbers of refugees may be wearing thin, as an encounter with a young Syrian man showed. Carrying a bag of pita bread under his armpit, a young Syrian man approached me. In broken English, he complained that he has to sleep in the same room with several female relatives, what he considered unacceptable. When he realized that I was only a hopeless journalist wandering around, he grabbed my wrist and bemoaned: "If you cannot help me, what are you doing here?"
"Our temporary protection centers are working at full capacity. We cannot stretch them anymore," AFAD president Mehmet Halis Bilden told foreign journalists gathered at the Osmaniye camp. This container city, located at some 20 kilometers from the Syrian border, houses around 10,000 refugees, many from the northwestern governorate of Latakia.
The United Nations puts the number of refugees in Turkey at 2,9 million, while Ankara estimates that there are 3,5 million. Today, less than 10 percent of the refugees in Turkey are housed in camps. The vast majority is spread across the country's cities and towns, mostly in the provinces bordering Syria and also in Istanbul, a city half a million Syrians call home now. This places a heavy burden on municipal services such as health care (Syrians receive it for free) and education, not to mention the increased competition for jobs. Since January 2016, Syrian refugees are allowed to legally work in Turkey, although to date, the government has issued fewer than 20,000 work permits.
My visit to the camps coincided with World Refugee Day on June 20 in which, for a third consecutive year, Turkey was praised for being the country hosting the largest number of refugees – although tiny Lebanon, where one in six people is a refugee, has the largest number of displaced people relative to its own population.
Ever since Syrians started fleeing their war-shattered country in 2011, the Turkish government, along with the country's civil society organizations, have spent a whopping $25 billion to support refugees. A recrimination repeatedly expressed by the politicians and officers I talked to in Turkey was the need for the international community to move beyond patting Ankara's back to more burden sharing.
When discussing the financial impact of Turkish hospitality, the agreement signed by Ankara and the European Union in March last year was the bull's eye. Under the deal, "irregular migrants" arriving in Greece are returned to Turkey if they do not apply for asylum or their claims are rejected. In return, Turkey was to receive financial support and political concessions. The deal has largely succeeded in stemming the flow of refugees into Europe from Turkey. However, Ankara complains that Brussels is yet to disburse more than 75 percent of the promised €3 billion ($3.4 billion) in aid for Syrian refugees.
For a country still enduring the fallout of the coup attempt a year ago, a de facto civil war against Kurdish secessionist groups in parts of its southeast, and the threat of countrywide terrorism by these separatists and the Islamic State alike, this giant refugee population could upset the intricate equilibrium in which Turkey finds itself today. Yet, Mehmet Akarca, head of the Directorate General of Press and Information, dismissed a cheeky remark I made through an interpreter: "Syrian refugees are our brothers."
"Canada took 200 refugees and got all the media focus. Turkey hosts 3,5 million but the focus is still somewhere else," Akarca lamented during a conference in Ankara, referring to a widely reported initiative by a Canadian entrepreneur to sponsor Syrian refugees to work in his company.
Without further assistance Turkey, a resigned host, may find it unbearable to manage the largest flow of people resulting from the biggest refugee crisis of our time.