ISTANBUL: Authorities in Istanbul are working on plans to clear the streets of Syrian beggars and house them in camps like those on the border, as Turkey struggles with an influx of over a million refugees and the hospitality of locals starts to wear thin.
Beggars have become increasingly visible in Istanbul, many of them Syrians displaced by their country’s 3-year-old war, including women and young children, passports in outstretched hands, tapping on car windows in the city’s dense traffic.
They represent a tiny fraction of the Syrians sheltering in Turkey, some housed in well-equipped camps along the border, others living with friends or family or in modest rented accommodation in cities in the southeast, Ankara or Istanbul.
But what feels like a growing number are living in derelict buildings or sleeping in parks, eking out a living by begging – illegal in Istanbul – and raising the concern of locals and other Syrians trying to integrate seamlessly into Turkish life.
“We warned them continuously and told them not to beg, but they’re insisting. If they don’t give up begging we will take an administrative decision and send them to a camp,” the city’s governor, Huseyin Avni Mutlu, told Reuters.
“Istanbul residents have demanded this. We receive complaints,” he said, noting that Syrians too were unhappy with a situation that they say gives their countrymen a negative reputation in the eyes of Turks.
Some, Mutlu said, had already volunteered to go to camps, leaving behind the abandoned buildings they had made home, often with no electricity or running water. Others had yet to be convinced and, if necessary, would be taken against their will.
“We always help them if they want to go. We pay their fees, hire vehicles and send them, give them all support they need,” Mutlu said, estimating that of 67,000 Syrians in Istanbul only a few hundred were persistently begging.
Turkey has spent billions of dollars sheltering refugees and kept an “open-border” policy throughout the war in its southern neighbor. But, like many in the international community, it made an early bet on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s rapid demise, and little anticipated a humanitarian crisis on such a scale.
The government and civil society groups have given many Syrians access to education and health care, and turned a blind eye to them gaining informal employment, but there are growing concerns about their long-term integration.
There have been isolated protests in the country’s southeast against refugees accepting lower wages and pushing up prices for accommodation and food.
After arriving 20 days ago from the Syrian city of Homs – taken by government forces following a year-long siege – 36-year-old Turkmen Abdel’s family is among several who live in a run-down two-story house in Istanbul’s Fikirtepe suburb.
Old carpets hang in the place of doors and windows. They have been told to leave to make room for a huge gentrification project in a neighborhood so decrepit it was, ironically, recently used as the set of a film about Syria’s war.
Neighbors donated food and turned on the tap water for them, but privately say they often call the police to complain about the noise and dirt.
“I don’t want more Syrians in Turkey. There are other countries. Why do they come here?” said a young woman next door to the Abdel family’s home, declining to give her name.
“They bother us. I want them to leave. It’s dirty and we get sick from them,” she said.
But those who have found jobs and accommodation in Istanbul, the vast majority, are grateful for Turkish hospitality.
In Fatih, the historic heart of the city, many traditional Anatolian restaurants are staffed by Syrians. In one of them, more than a dozen are without work permits.
“In the Arab countries people used to tell us to go back to Syria. In Istanbul no one bothers us on the street and they are trying to help,” said Bilal, who left Damascus more than 18 months ago and first went to Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.
He said he had been promised a residency permit by the authorities after only a month in Istanbul.
Turkey has built new camps – officially called “temporary protection centers” because it does not consider the Syrians as refugees – in its southern border provinces to meet additional demand, complete in some cases with facilities such as supermarkets, schools and even a cinema.
Yet as they fill up, Syrians complain of being turned away and many families such as Abdel’s prefer the chance to earn money and fend for themselves in its big cities.
A centralized plan to register the urban-dwelling majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey has faltered, meaning officials have little idea exactly who is in the country and what their needs are, leaving them at risk of exploitation and dependent on the goodwill of their hosts.