Guterres, Jolie in Turkey to show solidarity with Syrian refugees

News Stories, 13 September 2012

© UNHCR/J. Tanner
Angelina Jolie (in black) and António Guterres (next to her in blue open neck shirt) tour a camp housing thousands of Syrian refugees in Turkey.

KILIS, Turkey, September 13 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and his Special Envoy Angelina Jolie reiterated the urgent need to help countries hosting tens of thousands of Syrian refugees after visiting two of 12 well-organized camps located near Turkey's border with Syria.

During their trip, Guterres and Jolie thanked Turkey for keeping its borders open for anyone seeking asylum; for adopting a system of temporary protection; and providing assurance that no Syrian would be forcibly returned. They also praised the role of the Turkish Red Crescent in providing aid to the refugees.

More than 80,000 refugees, mainly women and children, are staying in these camps and the government is planning four more by the end of this month to house a further 36,000. In addition, up to 60,000 people are thought to be staying with relatives or renting rooms and apartments in urban areas.

"Our gates are open to all Syrians," said Suleyman Tapsiz, governor of the border province of Kilis. "Now our biggest district is the camp," he revealed.

High Commissioner Guterres called on other countries to do more to help Turkey. "It is time for the international community to understand that with the high numbers crossing borders, they can't do it alone," said Guterres, who made similar appeals earlier this week while visiting the two other main host countries, Jordan and Lebanon, with Special Envoy Jolie.

"Syrians have a history of welcoming people in need," added Jolie. "Now it is their hour of need and I am grateful to Turkey and all the neighboring countries for their extraordinary generosity." More than 250,000 Syrians have to date registered or applied to register as refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, but the real number of those who have fled the fighting could be much higher.

At the Kilis camp, 12,000 refugees reside in converted freight containers, providing some semblance of home. Governor Tapsiz said a further 4,000 were living in the town of Kilis and receiving aid.

The Turkish government is identifying the most vulnerable refugees in all areas and providing them with aid as well as moving people from inadequate shelters to camps. Some 6,000 refugees live in hangars while waiting entry to Turkey at the Kilis border crossing. They will likely be moved to the new camps.

Turkey has also been providing vital medical care for refugees, including those with war injuries. Since the crisis began last year, Turkish doctors have performed surgery on 1,600 refugees in Kilis, many of them conflict-related. "In our hospitals, you can see wounded babies, people who lost their arms," Tapsiz said, while urging greater international help to maintain a high level of support.

During her visit to Kilis camp, Jolie talked to several families, all of whom had lost relatives. One woman told the actress that a whole family was killed in her town when their home was bombed. "We don't care about our houses," the woman told her. "We care about the blood of the people." Another woman told Jolie about the sole survivor of another family a baby found cradled in her dead mother's arms.

Education was a recurrent theme during the visit and Guterres and Jolie toured a new primary school with walls covered with children's artwork. But some families expressed concern about the future for their children. "There is no way to advance as a refugee," one Syrian said. "Life stops. Even though we are alive, life has ended."

Later on Thursday, Guterres and Jolie visited the Islahiye refugee camp in Gaziantep province. The recently established camp houses some 10,000 Syrians in tents. Under the sweltering heat, refugees voiced fears for family members back home and said they were concerned about the coming winter.

One woman told Jolie her son was risking death by staying in their village near Syria's largest city, Aleppo, to protect their home from looters. Another woman, a teacher and mother of seven, spoke of her husband, a former police officer who lost his hands in an explosion and could no longer work. She was one of 400 qualified teachers on a waiting list to teach at the camp school.

Meanwhile, Guterres also expressed concern about the welfare of displaced civilians in Syria. "I am a strong believer in improving the humanitarian assistance inside Syria," the High Commissioner told Governor Tapsiz. "More pressure is needed to make sure humanitarian assistance inside Syria is strongly upgraded."

Since the start of the crisis, 115,000 Syrians have arrived at the camps in Turkey, but 35,000 have since returned voluntarily. In April, Turkey asked the international community to contribute to the response effort.

By Melissa Fleming in Kilis, Turkey