Kai Ryssdal: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave a big speech at Damascus University today. His third since the protests started last month. It was the first time, though, that he’s directly mentioned the economic consequences of continued unrest. But he kind of did it in a backhanded way. Most of the problems, he said, were psychological. That’s small solace to the tens of thousands of Syrians who’ve decided — or been forced — leave. Most have gone north to Turkey, which is where Marketplace’s Alisa Roth has been reporting the past few days. Hey Alisa.
Alisa Roth: Hello Kai.
Ryssdal: Tell me what you’re seeing there on the border, would you?
Roth: Well, here on the Turkish side, the government has set up a couple of camps for the so-called official refugees, the ones who have been registered who’ve said they’re and say they want to say. These camps are being run by the Red Crescent. They’re actually not letting journalists in, but I talked to a bunch of refugees and locals who have been in. So they’re being housed in these small white tents that you can actually see for miles. They get fed three meals a day, there’s medical care, there’s a mosque, there’s apparently a refugee imam who’s been providing pastoral services to people. But there are also a lot of unofficial refugees here. These are people who are just living informally with friends or family on this side. In one village here I met 30-something Syrians who had been divided up among four Turkish families. And their situation is pretty precarious because the Turkish families they’re living with are pretty poor. And two of those host families told me that they actually weren’t sure how much longer they could afford to feed all of these people.
Ryssdal: What about the place you can’t go, into Syria on the other side of the border. What’s it like there, do you know?
Roth: Well, by far I think the refugees on that side are the worst off. I’ve heard that there’s anywhere from five to 10,000 of these internally displaced people. They’ve fled their homes, they’re living in sight of the border in these tent cities. Standing on the Turkish side you can see these blue tarps and cardboard structures that they’ve built just out in the open. Now, security-wise, the Syrian forces have reportedly been advancing toward the border. So that’s scary obviously. But there’s also really just no infrastructure. I heard that Syrian forces have burned down the bakery that was supplying bread to all those people. And I have actually seen quite a few Syrians who sneak into Turkey to buy bread and other provisions and then sneak back across the border.
Ryssdal: You mention this family who’s housing these unofficial refugees, if you will. Who is paying the bill for all this, do you know?
Roth: Well, in that case that you’re just talking about, the families are footing the bill. The camps are being paid for by the Turkish government. Now, there may come a time when Turkey decides that it has to ask for help from the international community, but for the moment Turkey is really making a point of handling this crisis itself. It’s also trying to tread gently around what has been until recently a very close relationship between Turkey and Syria.
Ryssdal: Yeah, well that question about how long it will last, there comes a point in every refugee crisis where the host government says OK, we can’t do it anymore because the people are getting upset about people coming in and taking jobs. How long is that going to last? How long do we have until that happens, do you think?
Roth: I think nobody knows the answer to that question. I think it’s going to depend in part what happens in Syria, how many more people come over. I spoke to the mayor of one of these border towns who said you know, right now my town has been almost doubled in population. That’s fine, we can handle it. But if you start talking about quadrupling, quintupling, that’s not going to work. At a personal level, the immediate response of just about everybody I spoke to is this is family and of course we’ll do whatever it takes to help them. And in a lot of cases that is literally true — these are cousins and uncles — you know, it’s a border region. People live on both sides of the border. And so they’ve been very generous. But there is some anxiety about what’s going to happen. If you ask, you know, a few more questions, you get answers like the Syrians are only coming here because they think they can find jobs. And other more practical questions like they already have water shortages in this region, so you know, how can we support another 6,000 people on our water system?
Ryssdal: Marketplace’s Alisa Roth on the Syrian-Turkish border for us. Alisa, thanks a lot.
Roth: You’re welcome.
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