KARAPURCEK, Turkey (Reuters) - When 46-year-old Hamed fled bombs and snipers in the Syrian city of Aleppo, he ended up in the Turkish capital Ankara, opened a grocery store and began what he hoped would be a better life.
Two years on, he still does not speak Turkish and his dusty shop in the scruffy suburb of Karapurcek runs at a loss.
With its Arabic signs and women wearing the niqab face veil, Karapurcek feels like it could be in Syria but, like many other Syrian refugees in Turkey, Hamed faces hostility from local residents and dreams of moving on to the European Union.
“I regret coming here. If I can’t survive I’ll go back to Syria and die with dignity. We didn’t come to Turkey to be beggars,” he said though an Arabic translator, standing among boxes of Syrian spices and tea.
“I’d go to Europe tomorrow if I could afford the trip,” said Hamed, who declined to give his full name.
Nearly five years after the conflict in Syria began, Turkey has shouldered the brunt of the humanitarian burden, sheltering at least 2.3 million Syrians, the largest refugee population in the world.
But tensions are simmering between Turk and Syrians as it struggles to integrate a population that does not speak the language and is largely prevented from working. ID:nL5N11H1IW]
Turkey’s refugee camps can house only a fraction of the refugees, who prefer to take their chances in Turkish cities, where they look for low-paid employment or resort to begging.
Initial optimism on the part of both refugees and their hosts has given way to resentment and mistrust, helping fuel a tide of migrants fleeing countries that are poor or at war and hoping to reach - legally or illegally - the wealthy EU.
A few doors down from Hamed, a Turkish shopkeeper accuses Syrians of failing to pay taxes and undercutting prices.
“I didn’t think it would get this bad,” said the shopkeeper, asking not to be named. Referring to the Syrians, he said: “They only talk with each other, shop with each other.”
Turkey must make it easier for refugees to integrate, and EU member states need to take more refugees, said Piril Ercoban, director of Turkish refugee organization Multeci-Der.
And if that doesn’t happen?
“There will be increased xenophobia, attacks on refugees, and we will have to see the deaths of more people, either trying to get to Europe or here inside Turkey,” she said.
‘NO ONE CARED’
The migrant crisis was top of the agenda as President Tayyip Erdogan visited Brussels on Monday and earlier this month European leaders agreed to release 1 billion euros to help Turkey’s refugee response.
Turkish officials bristle at the suggestion they have not handled the refugee crisis effectively, saying Europe turned a blind eye until photographs of a drowned Syrian toddler washed up on a beach this summer captured global headlines.
“Let’s be clear, until that boy washed up, no one cared about this problem. We’ve been dealing with this for four years and now people are telling us what to do,” one official said.
Turkey’s response has also been hit by politics. With a parliamentary election looming in November, the government has stalled over legislation that would make it easier for Syrians to work. Some Syrian families say they have been forced to make their children work illegally just to scrape by.
Syrians who do work illegally are paid less or sometimes not at all, and if they complain to the authorities they face fines. Refugees say access to healthcare is patchy, and language difficulties making communication with doctors difficult.
One Syrian woman in Karapurcek said she planned to travel nearly 800 km (500 miles) to Turkey’s border with Syria - where Arabic is widely spoken - to find treatment for her daughter.
Turkey’s 26 refugee camps can host 330,000 people but house only 274,000 at the moment. Families there receive $40 per person per month for food, on credit cards valid only at the on-campus supermarket. Some can join classes such as carpet-weaving, with profits shared between participants.
Some refugees are put off by the reliance on handouts and by the remote location of the camps, as well as by rumors of mistreatment by Turkish officials, and a lack of privacy.
Ankara’s vision remains the creation of a safe zone in northern Syria where refugees could return, an idea which gained little international traction even before Russia’s decision last month to send jets to Syria, making enforcing the necessary “no-fly zone” even more difficult.
Western diplomats say the “no-fly zone” would not be easily implemented or sustained.
If Turkey fails to get a safe zone, it may look to establish refugee-only cities, deepening divisions in society, according to Polat Kizildag, Deputy General Co-ordinator for ASAM, which helps registers refugees arriving in Turkey.
“Even if you provide refugees with good conditions, a house, a work permit, education, they will still try to go to Europe, because the refugees’ perception is that Europe will welcome them, will provide them with money and a good life,” Kizildag said.
If Syria remains in turmoil and pressure continues to build in refugee-hosting countries, then the ramifications will be felt far beyond Turkey’s borders, one EU diplomat warned.
“If we fail on foreign policy, if we fail on co-operating with Turkey, I can easily imagine millions of people ‘invading’ Europe,” the diplomat said.
Editing by David Dolan and Timothy Heritage