The pandemic did not make the refugees disappear… it hid them
Just because a pandemic has overshadowed everything, does not mean that pre-existing problems have magically disappeared or been solved. They remain there to torture, torment and test the endurance of people in their quest to survive not from COVID-19, but from hardship, living conditions and security. Issues that a western society has long solved and are no longer a concern.
The headlines of the media in the last year deal exclusively with the coronavirus pandemic, vaccinations, salvation from a virus whose mortality according to statistics by force exceeds 2% of confirmed cases.
Fear of the disease, restriction of personal freedoms, such as movement and assembly and insecurity for the next day at work are the major issues of Western societies, making them even more introverted and causing them to forget basic European principles and values such as humanity.
Introversion in Europe has removed refugees from the front pages of newspapers and television, but the same people who left their homes because of the conflict remain in the same predicament as before the coronavirus. The only difference that clearly makes their situation worse is that they have been forgotten by everyone, or almost everyone.
The journey started from Antakya in the province of Hatay, about 40 km from the Turkish-Syrian border, to cross one of the few open passages to Syria near the city of Reyhanli.
First stop at AFAD Regional Headquarters (Disaster and Emergency Management Agency of the Turkish Presidency). Hatay’s Deputy Governor Eyyüp, Batuhan Ciğerci, responsible of AFAD in the region, informs the news team about the organization’s activities in building 7,500 houses with the necessary infrastructure for the Syrian refugees who were displaced inside their homeland, when their homes became the focus of armed conflict. The 27-year-old deputy governor speaks passionately about this project, something that also became evident later during our visit to the AFAD settlements.
The money for the construction of houses and infrastructure come from donations, he explains to us. Donations from Turkish citizens and not from the state budget. Syrians work in the construction for a fee and all the building materials, as well as the necessary utensils are from the local market, thus strengthening the local economy which is collapsing.
The next stop of the press mission is one of the centers of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), where the humanitarian aid trucks for the Syrian refugees in Syria and the Idlib region leave.
The trucks that are lined up in the courtyard, which is protected by high walls, most with Syrian license plates, are loaded by Syrian workers here for a fee, Paul Thomas, deputy head of OCHA’s office in Turkey, told IBNA. More than 50 trucks make the Reyhanli route to Syria every day with more than 20,000 trips having been completed in 2020. We take pictures but the UN asks us to hide the faces and license plates of the trucks for security reasons. The concrete barricades in front of the UN office remind us that even a few kilometers away inside Syrian territory nothing is considered safe.
Our next stop is the Cilvegözü border crossing. Humanitarian aid trucks form a queue, while a citizen carrying a bog in a trolley crosses towards Syria. We stop and change car. We are getting ready to get on a small bus again, but this time its interior is different. It is armored. The large windows that are visible from the outside are small square windows inside as if one was inside a tank. Two armed men are added to our escort for security. The Dutch colleague is the most prepared as he wears his bulletproof vest on which the words press are written, while in his belt he carries a first aid kit.
We have already crossed into Syrian territory and the landscape is changing. Stone hills dominate right and left while trucks are the only vehicles we encounter and there are also motorcycles that appear near settlements.
The towns and villages that were once here have disappeared among the tens of thousands of tents, as well as the houses built by AFAD and the Turkish NGOs that coordinate and undertake the settlement of refugees in homes.
AFAD coordinates the Red Crescent, as well as the NGOs, the IHH, the Deniz Feneri Association, the Turkish Religious Foundation, the Aziz Mahmud Hüdai Foundation, the Fetih-Der, the Sadakataşı, the Yedi Başak Association, the Hayrat Humanitarian Relief Association, the Beşir Association, the Kiryamr Der, the Turan and the İddef.
The AFAD and Red Crescent operation aims to create about 53,000 houses that will house more than 300,000 refugees. The distribution of the houses is based on criteria and are given free of charge. So far, 28,000 houses have been built, while the rest will be delivered in the near future. More than 2,000 Syrian workers are working on the construction of the houses, while so far more than 18,000 families have settled.
The stops are consecutive, in order to see up close the settlements that have been created. The first image is from the Kah Ahrabat hill where the Atmeh refugee camp stretches out with the irregular layout of the houses and tents. The next stop in the Meshed Ruhin area where AFAD and the Turkish Red Crescent have created two settlements at different places. The settlement of AFAD where it accommodates people with disabilities and their families is full of life, while the houses of the Red Crescent are waiting for the first inhabitants until the end of February.
In the area of Der Hassan, which was the next stop, we saw the buildings under construction, while at the end we visited a refugee camp in the area of Hezreh, who are still living in tents, in tragic living conditions. According to the AFAD people, no refugee should stay in the tents for more than 2 months and be transferred to homes, but this is not possible, as a result of which they stay in the tents even for years.
Throughout this journey accompanied by soldiers, of unknown identity, for our safety, the absence of the West and Europe was deafening. Maybe they were in other areas and we did not see them. Maybe. Although it seems improbable for the EU not to leave its mark wherever it goes./ibna