REYHANLI, Turkey: Turkish authorities have begun taking steps to stop Syrian refugees and rebels from passing freely across the border with the conflict-torn country.
“Police have come knocking on our door,” said Hasan, an illegal Syrian immigrant in the border town of Reyhanli, where he lives with about 20 fighters “on leave,” as well as wounded people and refugees.
All of them, living on what he calls “apartment rest,” have crossed the border illegally, mostly at night, through a hole in the fence.
Their presence in Reyhanli in Hatay province along with hundreds of other illegal Syrians was until recently tolerated by the authorities, which took a rather benevolent attitude toward the rebels and refugees.
But things are changing.
“Police gave us 24 hours to leave,” said Hasan. “Those who don’t have a visa, papers that are in order, must go to the refugee camps. Or else go back to Syria,” added Hasan, who did not give his full name.
Others, who have a valid residence permit, must leave Hatay province and live elsewhere in the country, he added.
Turkey is officially hosting more than 80,000 refugees in a dozen camps concentrated in the Hatay border province, but there are also thousands of illegal Syrians immigrants, the majority Sunni Muslims, who have been living rough for months.
This steady stream has provoked growing concern among the local population, and at times there is tension – in particular in the cosmopolitan provincial capital of Antakya where many people are Alawites.
Syrian President Bashar Assad is also from Syria’s minority Alawite sect.
For the past three weeks the Turkish army has stepped up its patrols along the border, which Syrians had previously been able to cross on a daily basis.
“It means that from now on we have to cross in the middle of the night, with the greatest of care. No cigarettes, no mobile phones, headlights off, no noise,” one man said.
“It is becoming difficult not to get caught,” he added.
In the Syrian village of Atme, a rear base of the rebellion, the population has grown from 6,000 to over 30,000, according to medical sources who have been alarmed by the deterioration of sanitary conditions.
Nearly 3,000 other refugees are camping there in the fields and olive orchards all along the barbed wire border fence.
On the Turkish side, at Reyhanli, where the local population of Sunni and bedouin origin has greeted the refugees with open arms, identity checks have increased.
“This time, it’s serious. The police stopped a minibus carrying seven refugees right in the center of town,” said Hasan , a deserter from the Syrian army, himself without proper papers.
“I’m going to have to leave,” he grumbled. “If not, I will have to resign myself to going to a camp.”
The prospect of moving to a camp appalls Syrians used to crossing the border when they wish to visit relatives or fight.
Officially, Ankara denies any hardening of its attitude toward the refugees, but admits to having reinforced security measures.
“We have not changed our policy regarding the Syrians,” said an official at Turkey’s disaster agency (Afad), who asked not to be identified. “But I admit that the security measures are now more strict than in the past.”
Pressure was growing along the border, added a Syrian activist in Antakya, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
“There are more police interventions, more arrests,” she said.