By John Uniack Davis, CARE's Country Director in Turkey
Two days ago my colleagues and I heard reports of a large population influx from the Kurdish enclave of Kobane, Syria, fleeing to Turkey. In response, a colleague plus our driver and I drove to the border on Saturday to assess how CARE can respond to the pressing humanitarian needs. Turkish Government statements and media reports state that this is a major humanitarian emergency, with over 60,000 people having fled to Turkey in the past 24 hours. Along the 10 km stretch of the border that we visited, we saw hundreds of refugees, many presumably waiting to figure out where they can find a safe shelter. There were dozens of buses crammed with people, mostly women and children, who had fled Kobane and headed north.
From the main border crossing to Kobane city at Murşitpinar, we headed east several kilometers to the village of Kuçukenderci, the first informal border crossing that was opened to allow Syrian refugees into Turkey. We drove across a dusty, lonely plain and then suddenly came across five long, big, deep blue, rounded tents in which the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management agency(AFAD) was processing incoming refugees and providing medical care. In the distance we saw a giant, wide plume of black smoke emanating from the fighting. Across the fence, we saw a herd of cows, as only people and luggage, not livestock and vehicles, were allowed to cross the border. Here at Kuçukenderci, people seemed relatively calm and things were as orderly as one could expect, given the circumstances. Many of the people in this area, primarily Kurds, have family on both the Turkish and the Syrian side of the border, so we encountered many Turkish people who were waiting anxiously to welcome their family members who had fled the fighting.
We got back in our car and continued to the east to the unofficial border crossing at Metismail, with the spreading smoke to the south a grim reminder of the closeness of the conflict that was upending so many lives. People who had crossed here were desperate. In one scene that will forever be etched in my mind, a short, rather heavy elderly woman in a head scarf was slowly, unevenly trudging to safety, walking into Turkey; with each step looking to be painful and arduous for her. She leaned on a younger man as she laboriously moved toward her new life in Turkey.
We also saw men, women, and children carrying or pulling everything they could manage. In some case, children were dragging suitcases almost as big as themselves. Dust was everywhere, and a sense of despair was palpable in the air. Some of these people had spent the previous nights sleeping in open fields before they could cross the border. It is important to note that people seemed especially shocked to be displaced from Kobane. This majority-Kurdish enclave had been protected and peaceful for most of the Syrian war, to such an extent that people from elsewhere in Syria fled there for security. As a result, people were experiencing a sense of enormous dismay and concern at having to flee on such short notice, with this latest move being a second or third displacement in these last three years.
Some of the refugees from Syria have family members who are already in Turkey. We met one Turkish man waiting for new arrivals who said that he has 50 Syrians, mostly relatives, sleeping at his home in a nearby town. But many of the new arrivals have absolutely nowhere to go. My colleague along with our interpreter Halima spoke to some women and children who had been seated in the dust at the border for hours because "they didn't know where to go or how to get there."
The more than 60,000 refugees that have crossed from Kobane in recent days join nearly 850,000 registered Syrian refugees who were already in Turkey. According to estimates, the number has already reached a staggering one million. The Turkish Government has done a herculean job meeting the needs of refugees, but more support is needed from the international community in order to keep up with the ever-increasing burden.
In particular, urban refugees, those who have been absorbed into communities and are not living in camps, need support. With the giant influx of the past few days, CARE is assessing needs and coordinating with the Turkish authorities and other organizations to make sure that we meet the most basic needs of people who have arrived recently, often with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Some necessary assistance will certainly include access to food and safe drinking water, as well as basic hygiene. As the cold winter approaches, CARE will also aim to support with mattresses, blankets, heaters and other items as needed.
As I left the border near Kobane, I reflected on the heart-wrenching human impact but also on the generosity of the Turkish people who have accepted the great burden of over a million refugees. The international community must rise to the occasion and support Turkey in meeting the enormous need engendered by the Kobane crisis in particular and the long Syrian crisis in general.