More than eight years after war drove millions of Syrians out of their country, a cascade of geopolitical events has hit refugees in Turkey especially hard.
Sent back to Turkey from European countries under a previous agreement with the European Union, predominantly Muslim refugees and others who have drifted to Istanbul in search of a living are now being forcibly sent back to the towns and cities of their initial arrival, the leader of a native ministry in southern Turkey said.
“We just received 20,000 refugees who have to go back to the towns where they were first registered,” he said. “And there is an economic crisis in Turkey.”
More foreigners flooding into job-scarce towns in Turkey further agitate Turks who have already derided, and in some cases attacked, Syrian refugees as Arabic-speaking trouble-makers. Unwelcome in Turkey, Syrian refugees from terrorist-infested Idlib, Syria face the threat of officials sending them back if they are suspected of association with Islamist extremist militants and rebel fighters there.
Unhygienic conditions lead to an inordinately high level of people with serious illness and disease, including children with leukemia and the elderly with kidney problems.
“Unofficially, some refugees are being sent back to Syria, to Idlib,” the ministry leader said. “Many refugees feel as though Turkey has betrayed them.”
The Turkish government has closed the border with Syria, where more than 1 million displaced people from Idlib are trying to get in, he said. One of the last rebel strongholds in the armed rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that grew out of unrest in 2011, Idlib is the site of intense fighting between Syrian government forces and about 70,000 rebel and jihadist militants.
In northwest Syria about 40 miles southwest of Aleppo, Idlib is crumbling under fighting between government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, and the rebel and jihadist factions. Last year the United Nations warned that further government offensives among the town’s then-100,000 rebels and 3 million civilians would result in massacres that would send a new wave of refugees to the border.
A series of talks between Turkey, Iran and Russia in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, have aimed to stop intense fighting in Idlib and end the war in Syria. A unilateral cease-fire in Idlib announced by Syrian forces on Aug. 1 drew approval from most rebel groups but later fell apart when one insurgent faction refused to leave as required by the cease-fire truce and a prior agreement. Military offensives began anew.
Under terms of Astana agreements, Turkey has taken a tougher stance on Syrians suspected of ties with terrorists in Idlib, and this has added to refugees’ sense that the Turkish government is turning against them, the ministry leader said.
For the war widows, their children and grandparents stuck in tent camps or crowded into one room of shared apartments, the fight for survival continues. Some are disappointed that they are unable to find work; others lament that they have been working in fields for two years and have yet to be paid, he said.
“There’s a lot of pressure, stress and trauma, and when people are hungry, they will do anything to survive,” the leader said.
Unhygienic living conditions lead to an inordinately high level of people with serious illness and disease, he said, including children with leukemia and brain cancer and the elderly with kidney problems.
“They’re dumping their trash in the middle of the tent, the middle of the camp, and burning it, so there are a lot of breathing problem due to the smoke,” he said.
Heart attacks from stress, sadness and trauma are common, he added.
He and his team of native missionaries, including some fluent in Arabic, help obtain medicines when possible, besides the regular distribution of food, clean water and clothing.
Commonly the refugees ask why the workers are helping them, the entry point for talking about Jesus, he said. As trust builds through months of providing critical aid in expressions of Christ’s love, opportunities arise to discreetly discuss sin, death, judgment and how faith in Christ frees one from judgment; those who place their trust in Him cross over from death to eternal life.
Islamist hard-liners are present in the camps, and Muslim refugees who receive Christ must be cautious about how they share the gospel with others. The native missionaries also move cautiously.
“Some of the refugees are just learning that we’re Christians, but some of them are looking at us like they want to kill us,” the ministry leader said.
The ministry has provided a safe-house for refugees who have become Christians to worship. Worship of and service to Christ is the end goal of their efforts to meet the needs of Muslim refugees, as it is for native missionaries throughout the Middle East. Please consider a donation today to equip workers to bring the gospel to displaced and hurting people throughout the region.