Syrian war transforms Turkish border towns

The influx of Syrians has boosted the local economy but also heightened competition and social tensions.

Antakya, Turkey – This city has all of the ingredients to be a perfect tourist town. Positioned at the base of imposing mountains and split in two by the Orontes River, Antakya boasts a rich history stretching back into antiquity – a beautiful old town with famous cuisine.

In the past, its location less than 20 kilometres from the Syrian border ensured a steady stream of visitors from the Arab world. Many came from much further afield, too.

But recently Antakya has been in the news as a destination for tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing the violence in their homeland. The city became, for a while, the effective logistics base of the Syrian opposition. Vacationers have, for the most part, vanished.

As residents both new and old adapt to the circumstances, Antakya’s economy has been dramatically transformed.

The decline in tourism has been precipitous. At the Hatay Archaeology Museum, which houses one of the biggest collections of Roman and Byzantine mosaics in the world, a worker, Turkan Kaya, estimates that there are 60-70 percent fewer visitors compared to three years ago. “Before the war, we would get a lot of visitors from Syria, from Lebanon, from everywhere,” she says, glancing around the empty gift shop. “But not any more.”

Syrian army drops barrel bombs in Aleppo

At the upmarket Buyuk Antakya Hotel in the town centre, Levent Cimcim, who has been the front office manager for 12 years, says there has been an 80 percent drop in the number of international guests since the conflict began. The hotel’s clientele now consists mainly of business travellers and people on personal business. “We used to have lot of foreign groups from Europe, but they know the area and they’re afraid to come,” he says ruefully.

Provisioning the fighters

Syrian rebels and foreign fighters are a common sight in Antakya’s streets now. Some are being treated in one of the many makeshift field hospitals; others are taking a break from the front lines. Shops have adapted to the new clientele by offering military supplies. In Uzun Carsi (“the Long Bazaar”), a tangle of covered lanes and cobblestone alleys in central Antakya, clothing stores now sell camouflage gear next to their usual wares.

Another store near the bazaar sells army supplies of every type and size, with every imaginable camouflage pattern. Tellingly, there are even T-shirts featuring the logo of an Islamist opposition brigade. The bearded men who run the shop are all Syrian. They asked not to be identified, and did not allow photos to be taken. They said the shop has been open for just over a year, and that its goods are sourced in Turkey.

Other Syrians in Antakya have resorted to less lucrative enterprises. Mohammed, 41, a former Syrian football player, runs a mobile kebab stand. He once scored goals in stadiums packed with fans. Now he ekes out a living making kebabs and tea over a sparse array of charcoals.

In the past, Mohammed had played at the club level in Greece and fondly remembers visiting the surrounding islands. “It was all beach,” he smiles. Life in Antakya, by contrast, is difficult and expensive – and the local population, he claims, “have no heart”.

‘Taking back’ Reyhanli

The nearby town of Reyhanli – located next to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing into Syria – is now said to be home to at least as many Syrians as Turks, though reliable figures are unavailable.

“Some Syrians say we took it back [the area had been disputed by Turkey and Syria], others [say] we invaded,” jokes Subhi, a humanitarian worker from Syria’s Idlib province. He adds that Syrians now have names for the main landmarks and meeting points in the town, because they cannot pronounce the Turkish ones.

Inside Syria – Syria: A future as foreign as its fighters?

Here cars with Syrian license plates can often be seen carrying goods like blankets and non-perishable food across the border to be sold for a healthy profit rather than distributed to the needy. This is affecting the work of humanitarian operations in the area. Mulham al-Jundi, who manages the Reyhanli operations of a Syrian NGO called Watan, estimates that at the border crossings there are four times as many trucks carrying goods for sale as trucks carrying aid. This, he explains, seriously delays Watan’s work. “There is a need for the movement of goods between Syria and Turkey – there are people there who need to eat, to work – but at the same time, it’s really, really affecting us.”

The trade goes both ways, local residents say, with Syrians smuggling low-priced petrol to the Turkish side.

In Reyhanli, too, businesses are adapting to their new clientele. A shop near the town centre now advertises sales of stamps featuring the logos of armed opposition brigades. Some are prospering. Alice Hotel is favoured by Syrians who do not have proper paperwork, because its staff doesn’t ask for passports when checking in, refugees and fighters say.

The town’s NGO presence is also a striking change. Orient Humanitarian Relief, for example, operates out of a large building in Reyhanli and employs dozens nearby in a clinic, a school and a sewing workshop. Watan has set up a fabric operation where 80 women work. Co-founder and manager Marwa Sayd Essa says her goal is to transform it into more than a charitable project. Products are already shipped and sold at a good price, she says. Branding and a website are being developed, along with plans to expand elsewhere in Turkey.

Heavy competition

The influx of Syrians has led to competition between businesses and heightened social tensions. But Syrian business owners are keen to highlight the good treatment they say they have received in Turkey, and Jundi, the NGO manager, says opportunity has increased along with competition.

“Syrians cannot live here without work, so [they] are opening restaurants, markets… It’s a kind of a rivalry but at the same time there’s more people here.” He adds, however, that he believes established businesses have been trying to capitalise on the influx of new residents without allowing Syrian businesses to operate.

A generation of Syrians may end up living and working in Turkey’s border towns, with no end in sight to Syria’s civil war. In the meantime, the area’s people and businesses – whether established or new – have little choice but to adjust to the new reality.

Source: Al Jazeera