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Syrians Flee to Turkey to Find Shelter, Food

BY Larisa Epatko  June 14, 2011 at 3:45 PM EDT

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Thousands of Syrians have fled to neighboring Turkey to escape the fighting between anti-government protesters and Syrian security forces, with more crossing the border every day.

As of Tuesday, an estimated 8,500 refugees have taken up residence in tent cities in the southern Turkish border province of Hatay, reported the state-run Anatolia news agency, and thousands more have entered Lebanon.

“Terrified” residents continue to leave the Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour, where the Syrian army regained control Sunday after an uprising left at least 100 security personnel dead, according to a video report from the Associated Press. Local residents described random shootings by government forces and the torching of farmlands. Restrictions on foreign journalists within Syria make it difficult to verify the accounts.

We spoke to Carol Batchelor, representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Turkey, about the refugee situation there:

At what pace are refugees filling the tent cities?

CAROL BATCHELOR: It’s fairly rapid. In the space of the last week, we have had almost 9,000 persons arrive. And the tent cities are accommodating — four are almost filled and a fifth one is under construction. So the space is being reached rather rapidly.

Turkey has said at the highest level that the borders with Syria will remain open, that anyone seeking protection will receive it and no one will be forcibly returned. And this is what we’re seeing on the ground.

Are the refugees able to bring anything with them?

CAROL BATCHELOR: Some do. Many are fleeing the town just over the border, called Jisr al-Shughour, which is just a 15 km distance, so it’s fairly close to the Turkish border, and people were able to bring certain things with them. Largely to some extent this was a proactive undertaking by people who were very fearful. Some had actually been in demonstrations, some had been in situations of unrest, but others were very fearful about what might happen. Some took flight before circumstances worsened in this town, so to some extent people were able to bring things with them. But largely they were just moving very quickly to seek safety and shelter.

Are they getting the medical, food and water supplies that they need?

CAROL BATCHELOR: I have met with Turkish officials, and we’ve been discussing it for some time. While we hoped this situation would not occur, this has been a possibility for some time. The Turkish Red Crescent, which has very good experience both in Turkey and elsewhere in the world, is on the ground. They have contingency plans. They have good stockpiles of tents and non-food items, and they are managing these tent cities. From all accounts, including persons who are crossing into Turkey, they are doing an excellent job.

Some people who have crossed the border are wounded and they are being taken to medical facilities and having their wounds treated. But the vast majority are women and children, and they have special needs, also the elderly. And these are being very closely attended to, and we are very pleased to see this. But of course, we are very concerned and hopeful that the situation can be rapidly resolved.

Is there any danger that supplies will run out at some point if people keep coming?

CAROL BATCHELOR: This is a concern. There are questions about the number of persons who may be at the other side of the border, some who may not have decided whether they want to cross into Turkey yet. They’re waiting to see how things will unfold in Syria. So there is a possibility that these numbers would augment.

Both within the provinces on the ground and in Ankara, authorities have contingency plans and they are very well prepared. But of course, for any substantial numbers, the local systems would have a limit. So this is where I believe that the Turkish Red Crescent has stockpiles and supplies in different locations, and they may need to call upon these stockpiles.

Certainly the international community has offered the full scope of support to the government of Turkey. For the time being, they are not in need of that, but it is available should that situation unfold.

Is there any sense of when the refugees can return home?

CAROL BATCHELOR: Of course, many are very anxious. It’s the time of year when they have planted their crops and they are emerging. They are anxious about their livelihoods. They’re very anxious about their loved ones. And given the opportunity, I think many would be seeking to return as quickly as possible. But there do need to be assurances of safety. And so this is a key element that we will be looking for.

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Jonathan Head of BBC News reports on how some residents of Jisr al-Shughour don’t want to become refugees in Turkey but are too afraid to return home, so they are camping out near the Turkish border.

The Wall Street Journal has an interactive showing day-to-day developments in Syria, including refugee movements.

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