ISTANBUL, TURKEY —
Turkish officials said they will be unable to cope with any new influx of refugees from the civil war in Syria, warning that Europe could be faced with growing numbers of Syrians trying to reach its shores aboard people-smugglers’ boats.
“Turkey has reached its total capacity for refugees. Now, there is talk that a new wave of refugees may emerge … and it would put the EU face to face with more migrants," said Volkan Bozkir, Turkey’s European Union Affairs minister during a trip to Brussels.
Bozkir is calling on the Europeans to provide more financial support for his country, host to nearly 2 million Syrian refugees.
'$6 billion so far'
“We have spent $6 billion so far,” he told Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper. “The total amount that the EU has provided is 70 million euros and it is still just a promise, it has not yet arrived.”
Turkish officials are bracing for fresh waves of Syrian refugees, with battles seesawing between Kurdish militias and Islamic extremists in north and northeast Syria, and redoubled fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels in Aleppo.
Turkey’s disaster agency (AFAD) has started to build a second camp for up to 55,000 refugees in Kilis, a border town of 108,000 where an existing camp already holds 123,000 Syrians.
Last week, Turkey’s National Security Council predicted the government of President Bashar al-Assad would allow, where it can, free passage to Islamic extremists for them to redouble their attacks on rebel groups and sow greater chaos in northern Syria.
Turkish authorities have been reluctant to add to the 28 camps already established.
“We are not very keen to announce new camps, because it would be regarded as encouraging Syrians to leave their homes even if there is no need,” AFAD chairman Fuat Oktay told reporters.
United Nations agencies announced midweek yet another grim milestone in the Syrian refugee crisis, saying more than 4 million people – a sixth of the country’s population – had been driven to seek shelter in neighboring countries.
The U.N. estimates at least 7.6 million more have been forced from their homes inside Syria.
Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said the exodus was the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation.
“It is a population that needs the support of the world but is instead living in dire conditions and sinking deeper into poverty," Guterres said.
That can be seen in the Turkish border provinces of Gaziantep, Kilis, Şanlıurfa and Hatay and even further north in Istanbul, where increasing numbers of Syrians can be seen begging or hustling for casual jobs and where the socio-economic impact of the refugee crisis is clear – from a jump in crime to overcrowded housing.
More than 200,000 Syrian refugees are estimated to be living in Istanbul.
In recent weeks, shopkeepers and business owners in popular Aegean and Mediterranean resort towns have complained to authorities about the presence of thousands of refugees, fearing that they will scare off tourists.
In Bodrum, local authorities have set up a temporary shelter to coax refugees away from sleeping in public gardens.
“It is sad, it isn’t their fault, but what can we do we are already having a difficult time and there are fewer tourists around,” said the owner of a clothing store in Bodrum, who asked to be identified only as Ahmed.
Many of the refugees are searching for smugglers for clandestine trips to the neighboring Greek islands.
The number of illegal immigrants seeking to get to Europe via the Aegean and Mediterranean has been increasing each year.
According to the official data, a total of 11,919 illegal migrants, mostly Syrians, were caught attempting to travel from the Turkish seacoast to Europe in the first six months of 2015 alone. That is double the number intercepted the same period last year.
In Antalya, the government prohibits Syrian refugees from residing or working in the town, but landowners and farm operators in rural areas troubled by labor shortages have secured a deal for thousands of Syrians to work temporarily on farms.
Syrians argue the agribusiness managers were keen to employ them because they will work for less money than Turkish laborers.
Driving down wages
Locals also complain the Syrians are driving down wages because they are willing to work for a pittance. Manual laborer wages have dropped by up to two-thirds.
“Turkish businesses don’t treat us well,” said 42-year-old Mohammed, a refugee from Aleppo and father of four, who rents a ramshackle apartment in a run-down district of Gaziantep.
“At the end of a day they often won’t even pay the wages they agreed. But we can’t argue – if we did, they might not give us any work," he said.
Rents have also skyrocketed – in the border town of Kilis by 100 percent. Turkey’s 28 camps are full and house only 278,000 refugees.
The Turkish authorities see the camps as temporary housing, providing refugees the opportunity to adapt to new lives and find accommodation in residential areas.
But while camp life is difficult, trying to make headway outside is a huge challenge. With rents high, refugees are forced to share apartments, with often seven to 10 people sharing two rooms.
This year, Turkish officials acknowledged for the first that most of the refugees who’ve arrived are likely to stay long-term.
During the June parliamentary elections some opposition politicians accused the government of having no serious plan to integrate refugees.
Others called for the expulsion of Syrians, arguing demographic changes would cause social unrest and be a drain on Turkish resources.
Turkish family life is also affected, with an increase in the number of Turkish men marrying young Syrian women, often as second or even third wives.
Rights workers say the marriages are highly exploitative, often abusive and generally don’t last, leaving the Syrian girls who are discarded in an even more vulnerable position than they were before getting married.
İbrahim Halil Demircioğlu, a lawyer in Kilis, told Turkey’s Zaman newspaper that divorce rates in border towns had increased dramatically, with Turkish men ditching their Turkish wives for young Syrian women.
A coalition of think tanks in Turkey’s border cities found last winter that 39 percent of the marriages between Turkish men and Syrian women were informal and that the average age of Syrian women entering formal or informal marriages with Turks ranged from 15 to 18 years old.