Home About Jonathan News Parliament Campaigns Gallery Links Contact

Volunteering in Syrian refugee camp in Turkey

15th January 2014

Joining a delegation of European Conservatives, together with eight MP colleagues and some 40 more politicians from across Europe, I travelled to Gaziantep Turkey, close to the Syrian border. We were to visit a camp containing some of the 2.3 million refugees living outside Syria, to which can be added some 9 million displaced persons within Syria. This is out of a total Syrian population of 22 million.

Our mission: to learn more of the needs of the refugees of the Syrian civil war, by volunteering in a refugee camp and also to meet with moderate Syrian opposition representatives to better understand what is happening on the ground - prior to the Geneva peace talks.

During our stay we had discussions with a number of senior members of the Syrian opposition, including their Prime Minister and senior army commanders. The moderate Syrian opposition are effectively fighting on two fronts; against government forces and also extremist Islamist militants. We had actually arrived during a major FSA offensive against the extremist Islamist forces, such as Al Queda and ISIS, whose HQ in Raqqa had just been taken by the moderate opposition. The opposition have been unhappy at the lack of military support received from the West. However, they did recognise and very much appreciated the very significant non military support that the UK has been providing. This has cost the UK taxpayer some £530 million to date.

In fact, this represents the most significant humanitarian support project ever undertaken by the UK. Indeed, even if no asylum seekers were to be accepted by Britain, we will still be paying for the upkeep of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. This represents the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The scale of the human tragedy here is simply staggering and growing by the day.

The refugees, opposition members, NGOs and FCO people that we met all recognised Turkey as setting the standard for supporting displaced Syrians. Turkey has an open door policy along its 900 km border for Syrian refugees, whom they refer to as "guests". There are 600,000 official refugees (with many hundreds of thousands more unofficial ones), of whom some 250,000 are in camps whilst the remainder are free to move around, live and work in Turkey as they please. This has placed a huge burden on Turkey who, it is estimated, will have some 1.2 million Syrian guests by the end of this year. The direct costs to Turkey to date, of $2 bn, should be added to any number of indirect expenses, from medical needs, to children's education and so on. It has to be said that the camp we visited was very well run, clean and relatively free from the corruption and crime that we had heard exists in other countries. In fact our whole group was very impressed with Turkey's commitment to its neighbour's citizens and their humanitarian needs.

We received briefings from Turkish ministers and officials, NGOs such as AFAD and UNICEF and our own DFID. As far as the UK contribution goes, 50% of our money is spent on getting aid into Syria and the rest is spent in surrounding countries, such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. It was explained to us that the delivery of internal aid was becoming increasingly difficult, with five aid workers having been killed in the last few days alone. A delivery from Turkey to Damascus, for instance, would have to negotiate some 50 check points. As a result many enclaves of Syrian civilians were starving, the wounded were not getting treatment and diseases, such as polio in children, were becoming more common.

Of those refugees that had made it to Turkey, the majority live outside of the camps. But as UNICEF explained, this itself creates complexities as whilst those in the camps receive (Syrian curriculum) education, the majority of Syrian children not in camps have received no education at all, for up to three years. As a result problems, such as child labour and child marriage, were seeing an upsurge.

In the Gaziantep region there are 154,000 official refugees of whom 35,000 live in camps. A further 250 arrive per day from Syria. As we mulled over the enormity of the figures and their resulting challenges, we made our way to the Nizip2 Container City camp. This camp, generally regarded as amongst the best, housed some 6,000 people living as families in some 950 containers.

Conditions in the camp were clean and ordered. People were well fed and clothed and the Turkish administrators were fair and efficient. Everyone that we spoke to was pleased with their treatment and pleased to be away from the carnage in their own country, although all wanted to return home once safe. Most adult men were learning Turkish and many left the camp by day to find work, where possible. There were good social, religious and health facilities. There was also an efficient cash card system that allowed refugees to buy their own food in a super market, that had been funded by the UK. Children received lessons from Syrian teachers and the living conditions in the metal roofed containers were basic, but clean and dry.

Certainly, I came away feeling that our aid money was being put to good use; at least in this location. But we were not just visiting to hear and see. We had also volunteered to do; in this case that meant building an astro-turf football pitch in the camp. I do think many constituents may have found it amusing to see their elected representatives heaving bags of sand and painting goalposts etc. But systems were soon established and gallons of the local strong and bitter tea kept us refreshed as we toiled in a strong sun. Lucky as, only the week before, they had heavy snow. Finally, the pitch was completed and a game was played between the European conservatives/ Turkish AK Party team and the Syrian team who won the game narrowly.

During the weekend we worked, I had many conversations with the refugees. Generally, they were delighted to see us. For them, our visit was confirmation that neither their cause nor the suffering of their families had been forgotten. Many had harrowing stories to tell. For instance, the mother and her children who struggled out of Syria after their village was destroyed by bombs; her husband eventually joined them several months later, sadly, having lost both legs in the war. Indeed, many of the families had their main breadwinner injured. However, despite their deprivation and suffering, everywhere the refugees welcomed us into their spartan tiny container homes and offered hospitality. My lasting memory shall be the thousands of children, who face a very uncertain future in the limbo of the camps . I came away convinced that we are right to support these homeless people. But what about military support?

The moderate Syrian opposition's key objective remains a democratic united Syria, with full and equal rights for all minorities including the Alowites, but with no role for Assad or his clan. Ultimately, the opposition were aware that only a political solution could resolve the civil war, even though they did not feel that they had been receiving enough support from the international community; especially when it comes to military support.

But here I still came away unconvinced. Firstly because the moderate opposition forces are frequently not united or in the same chain of command. For instance opposition members operating inside Syria generally rejected the Geneva talks, whilst those outside wanted to participate. In the same way, different FSA units received funding and equipment from different sources. That being the case, any provision of weapons would require a deal to be done with the individual commander on the ground - hardly ideal. Secondly, why should we fight if Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other local countries are not prepared to lead the way with their own, very significant, forces?

In the meantime however, the humanitarian crisis continues and represents, in my view from what I saw, a cause that we should continue to assist as best we can.

| News & Crier, 'Staggering human tragedy' - Huntingdon MP Jonathan Djanogly visits Syrian refugee camp

Volunteering in Syrian refugee camp in Turkey


Jonathan's Campaigns

Fair Votes for All Petition

A428 Petition


Broadband Access

Cotton Farm Wind Farm

Hinchingbrooke Hospital

Local Post Offices


Search this site