ANTAKYA, Turkey — Turkish police are going house to house in this border province issuing an ultimatum, Syrian refugees say: Either move into a refugee camp or go back to Syria.
More than a half-dozen Syrian refugees living in rented homes in Antakya and the nearby town of Yayladagi offered similar descriptions of the stark choice recently imposed by local Turkish authorities.
“I told one cop, ‘What if I don’t leave?’ ” said a male Syrian refugee who asked not to be named to protect him from Turkish and Syrian government reprisals. “He said, ‘We will take you to the police station and force you to evacuate’ ” your home.
“The first time the police came, they asked for my passport, took a look at it, and then one of them said, ‘You have three months, you can stay here for three months,’ ” said another Syrian man who asked to be named as Abu Ahmed to protect his family members still living in Syria.
“Then 20 days later they came back,” he said. “I wasn’t home but my wife was, and they made her sign a paper to evacuate ourselves from this house within four days.”
At least a half-dozen other Syrian refugees have told similar stories of Turkish police ordering them to abandon homes they have rented in Turkey.
Turkish officials at the local and national level of government confirmed authorities were pushing Syrian refugees toward the camps.
“We are trying to guide and suggest people who arrived legally or ‘illegally’ to go either into the camps, if they have arrived illegally, or suggesting the others to move to nearby or different cities,” said a Turkish official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to be interviewed by the press.
“The local authorities ... they have to do such things in the interest of regularizing the presence,” he added.
Officially, more than 93,000 refugees currently live in a network of camps spread along Turkey’s long border with Syria.
But Turkish diplomats estimate there are another 40,000 to 50,000 unofficial Syrian refugees who have chosen to live in Turkey outside of the camps. Tuesday, the United Nations refugee agency said the number of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries has more than tripled since June, to more than 300,000.
Most of the refugees are housed in camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, the agency said.
“Based on recent trends, the plan estimates there could be up to 710,000 refugees in need of assistance in the region by the end of the year, the majority women and children,” the agency said.
Cross-border travel between Turkey and Syria has been easy, in part because in 2009, Turkey and Syria agreed to allow “visa-free” travel for citizens across borders. And, after the anti-government protests first erupted in March 2011, Turkey announced an “open border policy” for Syrians fleeing the subsequent government crackdown.
The once-cozy relations between Damascus and Ankara have all but collapsed over the past year and a half. Subsequently, a near-freeze in cross-border trade hit the local economy in the Hatay region hard.
Now some Antakya residents say Syrian refugees are no longer welcome here.
“Of course people need to be given humanitarian protection,” said Refik Eryilmaz, a member of parliament from Hatay province.
“But then you protect those people in camps. You don’t allow them to rent houses in the middle of city centers and let them mix with the locals.”
Over the past month, Turkish authorities have partially shut their “open door” policy to Syria, leaving thousands of displaced Syrians languishing at the border. Turkish officials said more camps had to be built before new waves of refugees could be let in.
And, in a sign that Ankara recognizes the growing political tensions in Antakya, a Turkish official acknowledged it is time to redistribute the refugee population to other provinces around the country.
“We are trying to see that all provinces in Turkey share the load of the Syrian nationals in a more equitable way, so we can have more sustainable assistance to all people,” said the official in the Turkish capital, who asked not to be named.