2014-11-25

As winter approaches, a scramble to help refugees

Refugees from Syria and Iraq need urgent assistance to survive the cold, officials say.

By Ethem Cagir for SES Türkiye in Diyarbakir -- 25/11/14

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After fleeing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's (ISIL) massacres this summer, hundreds of thousands of refugees are gearing up for a new challenge: surviving southeastern Turkey's famously bitter winters.

  • Refugees warm themselves around a fire in Suruc, Sanliurfa province. [Ethem Cagir/SES Türkiye]

    Refugees warm themselves around a fire in Suruc, Sanliurfa province. [Ethem Cagir/SES Türkiye]

  • Syrians fleeing ISIL's attack on Kobane wait to enter Turkey through a border crossing in Sanliurfa. [Ethem Cagir/SES Türkiye]

    Syrians fleeing ISIL's attack on Kobane wait to enter Turkey through a border crossing in Sanliurfa. [Ethem Cagir/SES Türkiye]

Since September, approximately 180,000 civilians have fled to Turkey from the northern Syrian town of Kobane, which has faced a prolonged attack by ISIL. Most of them are women and children, vulnerable to illness as the cold sets in, and the assistance of local people and civil society groups is simply not enough to combat the unprecedented humanitarian disaster.

Housed in icy tent camps, Kobane refugees in Suruc urgently need food, shelter, and warm clothing, according to the Suruc Crisis Table, a co-ordinating body of local officials and NGOs.

"Due to the onset of winter, humanitarian campaigns are in need of stronger support, especially winter clothes and blankets," the group said in a statement to SES Türkiye.

Kobane farmer Ahmed Mustafa, 48, is worried about what the winter holds for his son and three daughters.

"The tent I stay in with my family finally got hooked up to electricity, but there's nothing to heat it up. I don't know what we're going to do," he told SES Türkiye.

Meyda Ali, 18, fled to Suruc in September. One of her brothers remains in Kobane, where he is part of the anti-ISIL resistance.

"We could get by in the summer since Suruc was hot. Now, the nights are frigid. We were told that each tent camp would get a heater, but later that idea was scrapped because the heaters were considered unsafe. It hasn't been settled yet. Most children don't have winter clothing. We're waiting for help," she told SES Türkiye.

Before their wounds had a chance to heal, tens of thousands of Yezidi refugees escaped Sinjar to Silopi, before spreading onward to Diyarbakir, Batman, Mardin, Izmir, Istanbul, and beyond.

Diyarbakir co-Mayor Gultan Kisanak told SES Türkiye she has discussed the plight of Yezidis with the national disaster relief agency, AFAD, and recommended a joint working model for national authorities, local municipalities, citizens, and civil society. Meanwhile, in a tent camp 15 kilometres from the city centre, Yezidi refugees shiver through grey winter days.

"Those who have arrived don't have a formal legal status. For example, they can't get health services. Now, all health problems are being attended to by voluntary doctors," Kisanak told SES Türkiye.

This summer's refugee flights came on the back of a massive humanitarian crisis that has seen 3.2 million Syrians flee to Turkey. To date, the government says it has spent $4 billion to help the refugees, while less than one-third of promised global support for Syrians has materialised, Amnesty International wrote in a recent report.

"Turkey is clearly struggling to meet even the most basic needs of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees," Amnesty International Turkey researcher Andrew Gardner said in the report. "Turkey has shouldered a significant part of the financial burden on its own. The reluctance of wealthy countries to take greater financial responsibility for the refugee crisis as a whole and the paltry offers of resettlement are deplorable."

The flow of humanitarian aid to the region has slowed since the world's attention shifted away from Sinjar and Kobane, local officials said.

"Officially, international aid is first processed by the government. This slows down the process," Kisanak said. "International institutions should directly contact municipalities or civil society groups and provide assistance through those channels."

Many Kobane refugees in Suruc are living in five tent camps, while seven city neighbourhoods and 206 villages are also hosting refugees. Peoples' Democratic Party Sirnak deputy Faysal Sariyildiz, who works on the refugee co-ordination committee in Suruc, said "we need to help these people with everything we have."

"Winter has arrived. More than 10,000 people stay in these tents, all of them needing supplies for winter. There's no heating in tent cities. Most people survive by setting fires at night," Sariyildiz told SES Türkiye. "Most children don't have winter boots."

Sariyildiz added that the poor conditions could cause health problems for refugees.

"Vaccinations urgently need to be done for diphtheria, whooping cough, influenza, lockjaw and polio. When nutritional problems join up with harsh winter conditions, defenceless people are exposed to illnesses like this, which can spread quickly. For example, even when there's a basic flu, almost everyone gets impacted. We also need medicine, not only winter tents, winter clothing, and stoves," he said.

The Iraq-Turkey border town of Silopi has taken a different approach. Instead of maintaining tent camps, local officials called on citizens to bring refugees into their own homes.

"The tent camp we originally had wasn't suited for winter," Silopi co-Mayor Seyfettin Aydemir told SES Türkiye. "When winter came, most of the population dispersed into homes. Everyone opened their doors. Some Yezidis returned to Duhok and Zahko. Currently, there are about 1,000 people living in 134 different homes here. We're meeting their needs. Because winter has come and assistance has been reduced, we need help."

How can local and national officials work together to support refugees? Share your thoughts in the comments area.

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