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Turkey allows limited access to Syrian refugee camp

HATAY - Hürriyet Daily News | 6/19/2011 12:00:00 AM | ERİSA DAUTAJ ŞENERDEM

Turkey finally opens the doors of Syrian refugee camps in the southern province of Hatay, which are housing more than 10,000 people. However, journalists were not allowed to interview the Syrian refugees

A Syrian displaced persons camp in southern Turkey has finally opened its doors to the media with the number of refugees exceeding 10,000, yet many international journalists complain that their access to camp residents has been limited by Turkish officials.

Journalists were not allowed to have any interaction with the refugees Saturday in the Boynuyoğun camp, located in the border province of Hatay’s Altınözü district – only photos could be taken, with the permission of refugees.

Later, fewer than 10 refugees were brought into a tent near the entrance of the camp to speak to the media, but they could not converse due to inaccurate translation services. At first, questions were not allowed, but then journalists were allowed to interview refugees face-to-face, yet, for a very limited period of time.

“We have had frank conversations with the Turkish Foreign Ministry about our professional distress. ... These people want and need to talk: they are desperate for their stories to be heard and are increasingly alarmed by having left a terrifying situation in Syria and supposedly moved to a free and friendly country, only to find themselves in detention,” Al-Jazeera English’s Anita McKnaught, told the Daily News after visiting the camp.

“This isn’t the freedom we imagined. We are in jail now but when the alternative is death, what can you do?” McKnaught quoted a Syrian woman at the camp as saying.

Turkish authorities, for reasons unknown to the media, have made access to the refugees incredibly difficult, according to a member of the CNN crew. “Independent access to refugees was prevented by trying to coordinate press movements, which creates a negative impression of what’s happening,” he said.

Selçuk Ünal, a spokesperson for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, told the Daily News on Sunday that the main reason for restrictions during the press visit to the camp was the concern for the refugees’ privacy and safety. “The Syrians in the camp reacted when we recorded them first arriving at the camp,” Ünal said.

In regards to the way refugees were chosen to speak to the journalists, diplomatic sources said the refugees had volunteered to speak to reporters. “We had to find a middle-of-the-road formula, otherwise, the camp would become chaotic. The refugees have a certain order in the camp,” said one Foreign Ministry official.

Fair conditions

Besides the restrictions on the media, the camps seemed suitable for the basic needs of the refugees.

Separate television “rooms” men and women, a playpen for children, a medical center and even a tent used for praying had been provided in the camp for 3,500 Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey following a government crackdown in Syria.

Journalists were given limited access when within the camp; communication with the refugees during the visit was strictly forbidden and only photos could be taken. The refugees, however, tried a number of avenues to convey messages to the media by creating caricatures and slogans on banners, attempting to explain things in Arabic or English, as well as through gestures and eye contact.

Syrian children also chanted slogans against the regime once journalists approached the playpen, and most of them were looking for a photograph.

Within each tent, there was an average of three to four mattresses, as well as blankets, cartons and plastic bags full of clothes.

Refugees are served three meals a day while water is provided through a well in the camp that was opened roughly 10 days ago, according to Hatay’s deputy governor, who also joined the visit.

Apart from a couple of tents serving as TV rooms, people also met with each other in shelters in the spaces between tents where they had improvised using blankets. “This is typical in Arab culture, people like being outside,” one of the representatives of the Turkish Red Crescent, or Kızılay, told the Hürriyet Daily News during the visit, adding that some even slept outside under these shelters at night.

“We will not leave Turkey until we make sure that [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad goes away, and it is safe to do so,” a teenaged boy told the Daily News in English, adding that he had fled to Turkey with all his family and relatives and that Jisr al-Shughour, his hometown, had been emptied.

Refugees tried to speak to journalists while in the campus, although most of the latter could not understand any Arabic.

Peaceful demonstrators tortured, witness says

After visiting the camp, the media representatives were allowed to listen to the testimonies of just a few Syrian refugees. No camera or audiovisual recording was allowed during the conference because of authorities’ concerns for the refugees’ safety.

“We started conducting peaceful demonstrations three months ago. Demonstrators started singing songs and making caricatures on the walls against the regime. One night, [about two weeks ago, before Syrians living in Jisr Al-Shughour started fleeing to Turkey] the army intelligence raided our houses at around 2 a.m. and detained people whom they thought had participated in demonstrations, including myself. I asked them why they were doing this; they started hitting my head and body with the back of their weapons and insulted me. Then they tied my arms around my back, blindfolded me and started hitting me with cables. Finally, they tied wires to our toes and gave us electricity – first on low and then on higher voltage,” said a male refugee in his 30s that had fled to Turkey on June 4.

He also said the army intelligence had allegedly asked the detained for 500 names who had participated in demonstrations, adding that they had been released only after many people in Jisr al-Shughour asked the governor’s office to release them.

Meanwhile, people kept participating in peaceful demonstrations, he said, adding that the situation had escalated after the armyallegedly started shooting at demonstrators, resulting in the death of two civilians.

“Then they killed one more demonstrator, called Basil al-Musri. After his funeral, masses of people started protesting, and then secret forces [allegedly] started shooting at demonstrators,” he claimed, adding that a high army official called Abu Yarubu had allegedly ordered soldiers to shoot at civilians.

High army officials allegedly said that anyone in the army refusing to shoot demonstrators would be shot themselves because they would be considered defectors.

Another refugee, Hamed Enami, 26, from Jisr Al-Shugour, said they were well taken care of by Turkish authorities at the camp.

“They have put fences around the camp to protect lots of defectors [from the army, who have also fled to Turkey],” he said, adding that Turkish authorities were concerned the Syrian army might have plans to seek retribution against defectors in the camp.

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