Turkey© UNHCR

Kurdish refugees struggle to adapt to hard conditions in the camps in Suruç


“Kobani, spelled with an i. Yes, that’s it. Write your Facebook down and I will add you as soon as I can. Do you have a pen?”

Mehmet (17) has been living for almost one month in the Suruç refugee camp, one of the first to be built after Kurdish refugees arrived en masse to southern Turkey following an assault by Islamic State’s militants on the northern Syrian city of Kobani in late September.


Mehmet Shahin, 43, is a Kurdish refugee who fled Kobane following YPG instructions.

Mehmet’s father rushed to find a cushion for me and to grab some tea from the tent next door, the 81. “We used to have a beautiful house which might be destroyed by the time we go back,” he said, “but I really hope we will have the chance to return.” The local People’s Protection Unit (YPG) had advised them to leave the city after the violence began to escalate, Mehmet explained. Islamic State’s attacks in the region of Rojava have so far displaced some 200,000 people into Turkish territory, according to data published by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The population of Suruç, 20,000 inhabitants, tripled over the course of late September and early October. One of the coordinators of Suruç camp explained that even though the situation is stable now, difficulties remain. A number of families are still living in the streets and the camp is experiencing shortages of medicine and food.

While women and children queue to receive their families’ daily rations of rice and bread from the Red Crescent, men tend to spend the day at the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) headquarters, the epicenter of news and emotions for Kobani.
Suruç Municipality, governed by the BDP, coordinates humanitarian aid and manages the camps. According to BDP representative Ismail Shahin, Suruç will never stop hosting people coming from Rojava (northern Syria/southwest Kurdistan) “since they are our people.” Many Kurds refuse to recognise the Turkish-Syrian border established after First World War and that divided tens of thousands of Kurdish families. Some of them are hosted by relatives in Suruç, while others have occupied empty houses. The Avesta Dugun Salonu, a wedding and ceremony hall, has been converted into a mass sleeping area and many families have taken shelter in the Ahmed-I Bican mosque.

The municipality has so far done its best to fulfill refugees’ needs. Local organisations have taken over coordination of the camps, and humanitarian goods have been stored in an improvised warehouse that was, until recently, a garage for lorries. Dozens of Turkish and Kurdish volunteers from across Turkey now work in that warehouse, which has become a hub of activity in recent weeks.

“We are now more organised, but it is difficult to calculate the amounts we can distribute. We do not know for how long will the conflict last”, says Deniz Dilan, one of the volunteers at the warehouse. According to Dilan, the worst is yet to come. Winter is imminent, and the weather in Suruc can become bitterly cold. “We need warm clothes and medicines,” Dilan said.

“Two of my brothers are already sick”, said Mehmet, “during the night is freezing in the camps”. Mehmet, like many other youngsters, spends his days strolling the city to pass the time, helping out his family where he can. “I am going now to get some aspirin from the Cultural Centre. Do you want to come with me?” The library, which probably for the first time has long queues of people waiting to enter, is now used as a makeshift dispensary for refugees.

Suruç has turned into a symbol of Kurdish resistance. It is an improvised rearguard, where thousands of people attempt to maintain their humanity even as they watch their houses being destroyed only a few miles away. Despite the hospitality of the neighbouring city, all of them concur in one fact: their home is on the other side of the border.

Over 1 million Syrians have taken refugee in Turkey since the outbreak of the crisis in March 2011.

Around 30 percent of these live in 22 government-run camps near the Syrian-Turkish border (see visualization below). The rest do their best to make ends meet in communities across the country.

Such a response has come with substantial cost, and by May 2013 the Turkish government had spent around $1.5 billion (€1.6 billion) on accommodating Syrian refugees. The rising price tag has now forced the Turkish government to seek international support for an operation that, at the beginning, was guarded as a government responsibility. Now UNHCR and other groups have much greater access to the refugees than they did at the beginning, but the Turkish government still maintains a large degree of control over the camps.

Turkey has accorded temporary protection to Syrians on their territory, which precludes forced repatriation, however legally they are not refugees in Turkey but ‘guests’. Turkey is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, however because of a geographic exception written into the original document it is only obligated to accept refugees from European nations. Thus, Syrians in Turkey do not have access to all the legal safeguards accorded to refugees elsewhere, and those seeking permanent resettlement must look to a third nation. Turkey long-maintained an open border for fleeing Syrians, although that policy has changed somewhat as the crisis has grown. For this reason, a substantial number of people are now camped on the Syrian side of the border, waiting for an opportunity to cross.

In September 2014, attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant against Kurdish towns and villages near the Turkish border caused hundreds of thousands of Kurds to flee to Turkey. See our timeline for more info.

Turkey country study

Researcher Şenay Özden used qualitative research methods, conducting open-ended interviews with Syrian activists, Free Syrian Army members and collected the life stories of displaced Syrians residing in the camps and in cities in Turkey, in May 2013.

Download the full Turkey case study (298 KB)

With the influx of huge numbers of Syrians into Turkey, anti-immigrant, anti-Arab discourses have surfaced among the Turkish public.

Senay Ozden, May 2013