GAZIANTEP, Turkey: Turned away three times since fleeing the bombardment of the city of Aleppo in January, mother of eight Faten Darwish has given up on getting her family into a refugee camp in southeast Turkey.
Instead, the 33-year-old lives with her husband and children in a dingy storage space made of breeze blocks with thin dirty mattresses lining the floor and just a single tap to wash from. Some of her young children shower at communal baths, she said.
“We lost our house in the barrel bombings in a village near Aleppo. My husband got injured and now he roams the streets like a crazy man,” said Faten, struggling to make her miserable surroundings hospitable.
The battle for Aleppo – just 50 km from the Turkish border – ebbs and flows but the Syrian military ramped up its offensive in December, pummeling civilian areas with the barrel bombs – oil drums packed with explosives and shrapnel that cause massive and indiscriminate destruction.
In six weeks, they killed more than 700 people, mostly civilians, and forced tens of thousands more from their homes. Many of them have joined the hundreds of thousands who have fled Syria since the civil war started three years ago.
Turkey began building its refugee camps near the border in mid-2011, little knowing that the war would last so long and bring such vast numbers of people, many of them women and children.
More than 220,000 Syrians are living in the Turkish camps, but some three times that number struggle to exist outside them. Some try and eke out an existence around southeast Turkey, the country’s poorest region.
Others have traveled as far as Istanbul, where groups of Syrians begging on street corners or amid roaring traffic, their passports outstretched, have become a sadly familiar sight.
The number of officially registered Syrian refugees has hit 900,000 and no matter how quickly Turkey builds new camps it can never keep up with demand. It now has 22 camps in 10 provinces.
Each time Faten tried to seek a place she was turned away.
Some of her muddy-cheeked children now go out to sell biscuits to supplement the tiny income they get from charities.
Most of that income goes toward the 150 lira ($67) monthly rent for the room, a sum contested by her landlord, 62-year-old Mehmet Gulsere. Leaning back on an old motorcycle outside, he said he just wanted to help and charges 75-100 lira a month.
Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) said some spaces were still available in the camps, adding: “New camps will be built if deemed necessary.”
But AFAD conceded the squeeze had worsened since the Aleppo bombing increased, swelling camp numbers by 8,000 since Jan. 12.
“If people come, we put up extra temporary tents but then we try to find them somewhere else,” said Mahmut Alagoz, director of Nizip container camp, admitting he did not know of any camps in the region where there was space.
The 17,000 refugees in tents and containers at the Nizip camp, 30 minutes outside Turkey’s southern city of Gaziantep, have access to facilities such as hospitals, supermarkets and even a cinema. Children line up for the simple, windowless classrooms where bookshelves neatly display rows of brand-new toys and books, beaming as cheerful staff usher them in.
But for all the attractiveness of such facilities, Syrian refugees in Turkey often choose the harsher conditions outside over the restrictions imposed on them by the camps, where they have to adhere to a curfew and are not allowed to work.
“We didn’t want to go to the camps because we work in the field farming olives,” said a 39-year-old Turkmen Syrian who did not want to be named and lives in a muddy makeshift camp just outside Kilis.
Zaki Harmoush, 48, whose family is one of six living in a basic pre-fabricated house in a field near Kilis where women cook on a fire outside, also shunned the camp.
“You have to be ruled by them if you go to the camps. It’s like a prison,” he said.
Outside an abandoned ruin in central Kilis where window glass has been replaced by blue plastic sheeting, Saleh identified himself as the “father” of a big family of around 35 that lives in six derelict rooms.
Watching two toddlers play in a dried-up and cracked decorative pool, his weathered face looked much older than his 62 years as he explained that they had come six months ago from Aleppo where their poor neighborhood had been targeted.
One in four Syrians living outside the camps lives in makeshift accommodation like this or in crumbling ruins, often huddled together in groups of seven or more, according to AFAD.
“All my family is here and some of us try to work,” he said, adding that he had received some support from charities.
One of the children, 11-year-old Fatima, who does not go to school, said she was grateful to the locals.
“People in Turkey have been kind. But I want to go back. It’s not as pretty as Aleppo,” she said.