Our delegation from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Committee on Migration drove down a dusty street in Kilis, a small city in southern Turkey. Syrian refugees were standing at street corners, in parks. They stood there with the clothes on their backs, children in tow, all looking shell-shocked and uncertain of what would come next. Most of the refugees in Kilis are Arab-speaking refugees who had fled from areas in and around Aleppo, Syria.
We travelled on to Sanilurfa, a nearby city that many associate with the patriarch Abraham. Many Syrian Kurds were pouring across the border just south of the city. They had just fled from relentless ISIS attacks in and around Kobane, Syria, just across the border. Some 130,000 members of this ethnic minority had fled from Syria since our arrival in Turkey two days before (an influx to southern Turkey that eventually rose to over 190,000).
Two days before we had arrived in northern Turkey, in the large city of Istanbul. Our delegation had met with a church full of Iraqi Christians who had fled from ISIS several months earlier. A community leader from a village near Mosul, Iraq, explained that with the Syria conflict spreading into Iraq, ISIS came to their village. They issued an ultimatum to Christians that they had to leave, pay a ransom for their Christian faith, or die. One of their fellow Christians publicly resisted ISIS, and the next day his severed head was found sitting in his doorway. Everyone fled after that.
These are among the many waves of refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict who are flooding into Turkey and other neighboring countries. With the conflict growing, Syrian refugees number over 1.65 million in Turkey and total over 3.8 million in all the neighboring host countries. The conflict continues to displace people by the tens of thousands—not only as a result of ISIS attacks but also because of ongoing attacks by the Syrian army.
The problem is that even though this is an international refugee crisis, the international community is only providing funding to meet 29 percent of the refugees’ needs. With very little livelihood, refugees—especially those who recently arrived--struggle to secure adequate housing, food, and medical care. And many refugee children, instead of attending school, work at a quarter the minimum wage under poor working conditions to help support their families. Locals in the host communities are burdened as well by the forced migration’s heavy impact on community infrastructure and resources.
One consequence of the overwhelmed neighboring host countries is that thousands of refugees have begun to flee beyond the region. As our delegation travelled on, we met many Syrian and Iraqi refugees who were fleeing from Turkey through neighboring Bulgaria and Greece to northern Europe and beyond. They were often resorting to more and more dangerous sea journeys at the mercy of human smugglers, in their search for refuge.
The refugee crisis in Turkey and the region is at a tipping point.
There is an urgent need for the countries of Europe, the United States, and other concerned countries to even more generously step up and provide full funding to support these refugees and share with the host countries the burden of hosting them. Besides providing basic support for all the refugees, we urge especially careful attention to the needs and aspirations of the up to 2 million children fleeing from the Syrian conflict. Given half a chance, they are the most resilient of refugees, and the ones who will most determine the region’s future. A glimpse of some refugee children in a child centered program back in southern Turkey, illustrates this:
“The tent is more beautiful because you are in it,” came the greeting from a 6-year old Syrian boy (translated by a bi-lingual teacher) as our delegation entered a “child-friendly space” provided for him and other refugee children through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and implementing community partners. Guitar music came from a teacher sitting on a chair surrounded by a circle of children on the floor singing traditional, Syrian folk songs. Three smaller children played on the floor on the other side of the tent, stacking colorful blocks. It was an island of music and play in a sea of war and refugee flight. A place where children could be children, a place where resilience and hope can grow.
Matt Wilch is Refugee Policy Advisor for USCCB/MRS.