As Turkish government keeps 22 refugee camps concealed from the press and NGOs, refugees from Syria try to survive in Ankara, paying rents to part-time ISIS jihadists

By Dogu Eroglu – Jan 23 2015

On November 5, 2014, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus asserted that the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey exceed 1.6 million, yet, PM’s estimate is far greater than that. While AFAD’s (Turkey Prime Ministry Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency) numbers indicate the same with Kurtulmus, on December 2, 2014, PM Davutoglu pointed out at least 2 million Syrians sought shelter in Turkey. He further elaborated that estimation; 400 thousand left their home country due to ISIS, and the rest became refugees due because of atrocities of al-Assad regime, he says. It should be noted, NGOs’ best guess is far beyond 2 million. The total number of Syrian refugees in Turkey had soared after ISIS’ reign started in late 2013. Further immediate influxes of hundreds of thousands refugees is imminent, if ISIS aggression stretches to other settlements close to Syria-Turkey border.

AFAD, the governmental agency responsible of 22 refugee camps installed in Southern Turkey, suggests that 221,447 refugees reside in camps whereas the remaining continue their lives in urban areas as of November 7, 2014. All of them without exception, however, are frightened of government’s refugee policies in action.

The Regulation of Temporary Protection –legal framework attempts to define the intricate relationship between Turkish government and refugees from Syria– was introduced on October 22, 2014. Still, the regulation falls short of explicitly describing the rights of refugees and the obligations of the state. Vast numbers of refugees from Syria are still considered as “guests” in Turkey –indicating that Turkey is willing to offer conditional, if not temporary, protection, and has no intentions of providing legal status, whilst the promised secondary regulation is yet to come– and the only certain right that has been entitled to the refugees so far is the right to health.


Especially UN officers and foreign statesmen or dignitaries underscore how great the resources in camps installed for refugees from Syria. But so far, no one from international or national NGO community, representatives of advocacy groups, or a member of press has ever gazed an eye to interior of a refugee camp, as governmental agencies do not allow civilians enter the facilities for an inspection. So, there is no valid explanation or justification for the widely acknowledged account of “the conditions of camps in Turkey being great,” which everybody seems to agree upon for some reason.

The indefinability of the material conditions of camps, concurrently makes Turkish government’s refugee policies unobjectionable. Policy making or lobbying whether for better conditions at camps, or for refugee protection and solutions in urban areas[1] becomes unfeasible, as government imposes imperfect information to the rest. Unable to examine the refugee camps, Amnesty International’s report on refugees from Syria in Turkey demonstrates how the organization is forced to take its policy making decisions blindly, based on second-hand information: “Camp conditions are reported to be acceptable. Although Amnesty International –along with most other international and national NGOs– has not been granted access to the refugee camps, Syrian refugees and other credible sources affirm that material conditions are good.”[2]

The right to health for instance, has been granted to all registered refugees from Syria on September 2013.[3] Nonetheless, government decrees or AFAD circulars granting free healthcare for refugees do not imply this right has been enjoyed uninterruptedly.[4] According to AFAD,[5] only 60 percent of refugees residing outside the camps had enjoyed access to free healthcare. For them, the low figure indicates “their [refugees’] lack of identification number necessary to utilize hospitals in Turkey,” yet, the fear of being taken away by the officials –first to under custody, then ultimately to the refugee camps– is not felt only among unregistered refugees. Considering the fact that many refugees residing outside the camps try to survive in destitution, deprived of minimum levels of economic and social rights, they are horrified by the prospect of being forcefully taken to refugee camps.[6] That fear haunts the new residents, over a thousand refugees from Syria, of Hacibayram, Turkish capital Ankara’s famous district for ISIS recruitment.

Before my first visit to the neighborhood in June, I had braced myself for the worst; expecting to witness a serious tension exacerbated, after the first wave of media reports mentioning ISIS activity in Hacibayram. I presumed, socially and politically divided groups –locals without any allegiance to Salafi jihadism, ISIS sympathizers, and refugees from Syria– would have been at each other’s throats. Yet, the scenery on the ground was rather indicating to an unprecedented outcome, a silent consensus in other words. It was only later that I discovered different groups’ tacit consent to coexist in the same small neighborhood was out of fear, urge to survive, and an itchy palm.

Identical to the rest of the refugees in Turkey, those who live in Hacibayram, Ankara[7] are afraid to approach the authorities as well. General administrative opaqueness expands not only to right to health, but right to labor and education, public assistance to refugees, security, sheltering, and so forth.

Overall ambiguity of legal status and entitlements given to refugees make them extra-cautious, timid, and quiet. Even though they try to blend in, relentless labor market treat them worse than what an ordinary local worker gets, their children are unable to go to school, and they are forced to pay steep rents to lodge in ruined houses. More or less a thousand refugees from Syria are trying to avoid being taken away to camps while living in destitution in a neighborhood known as ISIS’ favorite recruitment spot. The most terrifying rumors among refugees tell how distant relatives or acquaintances have been taken away by mysterious government officials.

The arrival of the officials from the Governate has been followed by the evacuation the next day. Photo credit: Local sources

That fear reached a new peak previous Friday, January 9, 2015, as Governorate of Ankara ordered an immediate evacuation, for those who were trying to survive through the harsh weather conditions of Anatolia, in their self-built shacks and tent-like shelters.[8] As of December 8, 2014, an estimated 88 refugees, young and old, were living in their temporary shelters. That figure further increased to 175 at the time of evacuation.

The scenery from Hacibayram, just after the Governate ordered evacuation. Photo credit: Dogu Eroglu

Later in that day, there was an outpouring of anger mixed with expressions of dismay, however, deprived of anywhere else to go but refugee camps, refugees will grudgingly remain in the neighborhood within fear, until the officials come for them too.

Refugees trying to salvage scrap material from the ruins of bulldozed cabins. Photo credit: Dogu Eroglu

A 28-year-old Syrian man’s story provides the perfect stereotype for those who seek shelter in Hacibayram. “I used to work as a construction foreman in Aleppo before all had begun. I lost my father, elder brother, sister and niece within the course of war. Eventually, 6 months ago, I had to take my four children and wife, and cross the border to become refugees. After few months spent in camps, some of our relatives suggested we come here [Hacibayram].” When I ask about government’s social aid program, his answer turns even sourer. “Provisions? We did not receive any provision. When we first arrive here [Ankara] officials from Municipality took our photos and gave us some papers equivalent to IDs. Then no one ever wondered how we would survive.” Most families confirm this story. “They did not ask where we stay or how we make our living. Registration was the only contact we have made with state officials since we came to Ankara,” a young woman, mother to three, tells. Heating up the interiors is essential, but refugees in Hacibayram seem to manage finding some scrap wood to burn, in the debris of houses torn down due to the urban renewal plan in force. Nevertheless, food is hard to come by in the ruins.

Temporary shelters built by refugees who were unable to pay the rents. Photo credit: Dogu Eroglu

Job markets are tough too. Every refugee from Syria talks in sorrow about beggaring, which in Turkey has been identified with them for two years. “We’ve been chased away many times only because we’re refugees, even when we attempt to perform the simplest labors, such as working as porters or construction workers. Hence we beg in streets in shame, to pay the steep rents,” says a middle-aged refugee, while he shares a cup of his hard earned tea with me. Like most of the refugees from Syria residing in Hacibayram, they live in a 20-square-meter-house.

Each house has a small living room –the definition of the room takes on a literal meaning, as the room turns a bedroom at night when foam mattresses are laid on the ground– where the stove is located, a tap, and a hole designated as toilet if the tenants are lucky. Rents for those half-wrecked houses vary from 150 TRY (65 USD) to 450 TRY (190 USD).

A typical interior of a house rented by refugees from Syria. Photo credit: Dogu Eroglu

A 21-year-old man –already looks as if he’s 40, due to 3 years of war, and hardship of his journey– lashes out. “I wanted to have a regular job, anything, very badly, but I was taken for a fool everyplace I worked in Ankara. Just recently, I worked at a car-wash for 15 days, and the owner deemed fit paying me 200 TRY [Roughly equals to 85 USD] for two weeks of hard labor, from morning till night. He knew that I would be too afraid to report him to the police or any other authority, to get my fair wage,” he says. A woman who just gave birth to her second son points out another source of living; though temporary, she and her husband sort through rotten potatoes and onions from the good ones when the middlemen show up with their trucks loaded with tons of vegetable, once or twice a week. The couple receive 40 TRY (17 USD) for a day’s labor, so roughly they earn 360 TRY (155 USD) a month, just enough to pay the rent. To feed their children and themselves, they still need other jobs.

Another house, with a tap and a toilet inside it. Photo credit: Dogu Eroglu

Nonetheless, unlike many refugees from Syria residing in Ankara, exodus of the newcomers to Hacibayram district has not been originated from neither Aleppo nor Idlib. At least ten families I met since August, have recently left their homes in Azaz, a strategic town in Syria with a proximity of 6 kilometers to Oncupinar border crossing (also known as Bab al-Salam) that leads to Kilis, Turkey. And unlike the refugees arrived to the district the previous year from rural Aleppo or Idlib, their presence in Hacibayram leads to a double tragedy.

The predecessors in Hacibayram district had left their country due to the escalated civil war between opposition groups and al-Assad regime, onwards 2011 when the battle lines were drawn. Yet, most of those who recently come to Ankara from Azaz, had to become refugees because of ISIS aggression. And apparently, those refugees from Syria pay rents to ISIS fighters who made them flee from their own country.[9] Newcomers desperate to find some shelter for themselves, had to take sanctuary in half-wrecked tiny houses which were forcefully seized by ISIS sympathizers in the neighborhood.[10] In accordance with the urban renewal project in force, the previous owners had abandoned their houses to municipality. The draft plan was to demolish the houses as soon as their property rights were transferred to the municipality. Despite the municipality bulldozes one or two house every now and then, the mass demolition postponed until all the title deeds are collected.

Meanwhile, ISIS sympathizers forcefully seized the houses –or what is left in the neighborhood– and started demanding rents from refugees from Syria, taking shelter in Hacibayram. The war combined with the urban renewal project, pro-ISIS families now have another source of income by renting those houses they seized. Thus, refugees from Syria weren’t able to choose anything but strengthen the vicious cycle that compelled thousands of families leaving their lands, by simply sponsoring the cross-border journeys and livelihoods of part-time ISIS jihadists nested in Hacibayram, through rents paid.

Though tenants from Syria pretend to be unaware of the identities of their landlords, common Hacibayram dwellers know who is making profit out of those abandoned houses. This far-fetched exchange between refugees from Syria and ISIS sympathizers is indeed the underlying cause of the silent and multifaceted consensus in the neighborhood. As the ISIS sympathizers make profits, locals abstain themselves from vocally declaring their discontent of sharing their neighborhood with refugees. On the other hand, due to financial gains, part-time ISIS fighters turn a blind eye to the presence of the refugees, whilst refugees paying rents to people affiliated with the organization that displaced them, endure in silence.

Azaz, currently under control of Jabhat al-Nusra subordinate Liwa Asifat al-Shamal (The Northern Storm Brigade), was “liberated” from the al-Assad regime for good on July 23, 2012, by the then main opposition group Free Syrian Army. Ever since the town witnessed several shifts of balance of power. In accordance with the expansion of its sphere of influence in Eastern Syria, ISIS attempted to challenge al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra’s presence –in form of Liwa Asifat al-Shamal, backed by Liwa al-Tawhid[11] in Marea– in Azaz several times. ISIS actually seized control over the town in late September 2013, yet, did not choose to maintain its reign subsequently.

Remnant ISIS mural from outside a youth club in Azaz that was converted into an ISIS base once the group took control of the town. Photo credit: Jawad Al-Tamimi

As researchers on the ground puts it, ISIS might have withdrawn forces and gave up control of the town only to seize it again when the time is right. “By the end of February 2014, the lines of battle had been drawn such that the town of Azaz was isolated from the rest of ISIS’ territory, and so ISIS engaged in a strategic withdrawal, allowing for Northern Storm to return,” the field researcher who spent 3 days in Azaz in December 2014, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, asserts in his comprehensive report. “In reality, much of ISIS’ pullout was a case of strategic withdrawal to focus on building an actual state in terms of contiguous territory, with major urban strongholds centered on Raqqa province, eastern Aleppo province, and southern Hasakah province.”[12]

On other accounts, militants based on Azaz, and Liwa al-Tawhid controlled southern town Marea state that ISIS might make another move to north; primary objective being seizing control of Bab al-Salam border crossing by capturing Azaz and its periphery, to cut off supply routes of Aleppo based Islamic rebel groups. Closest ISIS stronghold Dabiq town, not to be mistaken with the official ISIS magazine, may see a significant military build-up, before ISIS begins its next big conquest campaign northwards.

Northern Storm fires mortars to ISIS positions near Sawran. Source: Twitter
A Twitter account affiliated with ISIS disseminates this photo, claiming ISIS offensive to capture Sawran was successful. Source: Twitter

According to several Twitter accounts affiliated with ISIS,[13] a larger than usual assault to Jabhat al-Nusra forces in Sawran –a region some 15 kilometers east to Azaz– and Islamic Front’s Liwa al-Tawhid in Marea has already begun. Therefore, another influx of refugees to Hacibayram might be on its way, further deepening the abovementioned vicious cycle. While there is no end in sight to the conflict in Syria, it appears that the Middle East’s new wave of warfare and exodus intertwined with death, is only in its prologue.


[1] Having some noteworthy reservations, UN High Commissioner for Refugees reconsidered its overall policy considering urban areas in September 2009: “The Office considers urban areas to be a legitimate place for refugees to enjoy their rights, including those stemming from their status as refugees as well as those that they hold in common with all other human beings.” “UNHCR has considered it essential to reconsider the organization’s position on the issue of refugees in urban areas and to adopt an approach to this matter that is more positive, constructive and proactive than has been the case in the past” (p.3 and p.24 respectively, UNHCR Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas)

[2] Amnesty International further reports that NGOs are discouraged to distribute humanitarian aids: “It was reported to Amnesty International that registered INGOs were prevented from distributing relief to Syrian refugees but were instead required to hand over items for distribution by AFAD.”

[3] Government has provided free healthcare to refugees from Syria for the first time on 9 September, 2013. The right has been further recognized with the introduction of The Regulation of Temporary Protection on October 2014. Nevertheless, the free healthcare provision is limited; chronic diseases or illnesses that require continuous treatment and care is not covered.

[4] For refugees from Syria, language barrier, medication and healthcare costs are among obstacles to reach free healthcare according to Turkish Medical Association. However, the Association suggests a more grim reason for refugees depriving themselves from reaching medical services. According to them, many refugees and healthcare providers are still unaware of AFAD circular granting free healthcare.

[5] AFAD suggests, 60 percent of the male refugees and 58 percent of female refugees residing out of camps received healthcare services at least once: “The low percentage of health services users among the Syrian refugees out of the camps can partly be attributed to their lack of identification number necessary to utilize hospitals in Turkey. However, AFAD officials stated that the Syrian refugees out of the camps are helped in one way or the other when they need to use hospital services.”

[6] Even though the material conditions of the refugee camps are unknown to press and NGOs, several reports point out that refugees living in camps are looking forward to leave those places. Rotten food, low standards of living, organized thievery by the personnel, forcefully teaching of Turkish or Arabic languages, and the general level of security and restrictions which makes the refugee camps very similar to a prison, are amongst most severe reasons why refugees from Syria prefer to live outside the camps. “I would go back even if the force me to eat mud,” one of the refugees who used to live in AFAD’s Diyarbakir camp designated for refugees from Kobane tells, ANF reports. Agency also claims that as of January 18, 2015, an official told them that 6 hundred families have formally approached the camp management to be allowed to leave the place for cities. Additionally, Cumhuriyet Daily reports human trafficking is a common feature of AFAD camps, based on eyewitness accounts at AFAD’s Carablus refugee camp, young women were being sold from camps as sex slaves, to whoever pays a sum around 2 or 3 thousand dollars.

[7] AFAD figures claim, over 30,000 refugees from Syria live in Ankara. As they made their first move towards dispersing them on December 6, 2014, that number is expected to drop.

[8] On December 2014, AFAD started inspecting Hacibayram. Before long, the neighborhood drew Governorate’s attention. Governorate officials visited Hacibayram on January 8, 2015, with immediate evacuation in their mind. However, at the meeting held after refugees’ protests, parties agreed upon a substantial solution. Governorate stated that they had accepted making provisions for winter, and allowed refugees to stay in Hacibayram. Nevertheless, that accord remained in force only for hours. The next morning 308 refugees (175 were living in tents, while 133 were residing in the neighborhood as tenants. All of them have been taken to an AFAD refugee camp in Islahiye, Gaziantep.

[9] See another article on ISIS recruitment in Hacibayram, Ankara.

[10] ISIS sympathizers forcefully seized the houses; the previous owners had abandoned their houses to municipality to demolish. The war combined with the urban renewal project, pro-ISIS families now have another source of income by renting those houses they seized.

[11] See another article on Liwa al-Tawhid associated medical network in Gaziantep.

[12] Researcher Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi gives the most up-to-date account on Azaz, in his report based on field research conducted between dates December 18-22, 2014. The report has been published in Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA Journal).


Explanations and photo credits to the slider images

Slider 1: An image captured from a helicopter, depicting AFAD’s one of the first refugee settlements in Kilis. Photo credit:Adem Yılmaz – Anadolu Agency

Slider 2: Refugees from Syria who try to settle in Hacibayram District, are building a cabinet from scrap material. Photo credit: Dogu Eroglu

Slider 3: Self-built shacks in Hacibayram, in front of a scenery of Ankara suburbs. Photo credit: Dogu Eroglu

Slider 4: Three kids are playing with their toys next to their tents and shacks. Photo credit: Dogu Eroglu

Slider 5: A 5 or 6-year old boy is carrying empty bottles and buckets, to be filled with clean water later. Photo credit: Dogu Eroglu