Thousands of Syrian refugees in Turkey lined up at a border crossing on Wednesday in hopes of returning home temporarily after Syrian border officials announced that Turkey had agreed to let them go and then return later while it copes with a disastrous earthquake.
The Syrian administration of Bab al-Hawa, one of the main border crossings between Turkey and an opposition-held territory in northwestern Syria, announced via social media that Turkey would allow Syrian refugees living in the earthquake zone to return to their homeland for three to six months. By late morning on Wednesday, some had begun to cross the border.
If confirmed, this would be a policy shift by Turkey, albeit under extraordinary circumstances. Turkey has tightly controlled the border with Syria for years to prevent more refugees from coming in. Most Syrians who have returned to Syria risked not being allowed back into Turkey.
Turkish officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Mazen Alloush, a spokesman for the Syrian side of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, said there were about 1.7 million Syrians living in the Turkish areas devastated by the earthquake, which killed more than 40,000 people in Turkey and Syria and left millions homeless in the two countries. Turkey hosts about 3.7 million Syria refugees in total.
Deadly Quake in Turkey and Syria
A 7.8-magnitude earthquake on Feb. 6, with its epicenter in Gaziantep, Turkey, has become one of the deadliest natural disasters of the century.
- Near the Epicenter: Amid scenes of utter devastation in the ancient Turkish city of Antakya, thousands are trying to make sense of an earthquake that left them with no home and no future.
- A Flawed Design: Residents of a new upscale tower in Turkey were told it was earthquake resistant, but the building collapsed anyway. A close look offers clues as to why.
- Humanitarian Aid: For the first time since the civil war in Syria began, the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has agreed to the cross-border delivery of humanitarian relief to opposition-held territories badly hit by the quake.
- A Hard-Hit Corner of Syria: As residents of one town, al-Atarib, continue to scour the rubble for personal possessions, they speak bitterly of feeling abandoned by the world.
The Bab al-Hawa crossing is administered by a Syrian opposition group that controls part of the country’s northwest. Mr. Alloush said that over the past few days, the local government, which is linked to the opposition group, had met with Turkish officials. Turkish officials then decided to allow Syrians to go home temporarily, then return later, as Turkey recovers and rebuilds, Mr. Alloush said.
Mr. Alloush said that he expected about 3,000 Syrians to cross through the Bab al-Hawa a day and that more would go through other border crossings.
On Wednesday, many of those who had lined up at the border crossing were carrying suitcases, plastic bags and potato sacks containing whatever personal belongings they had been able to salvage from destroyed homes.
Some said they would spend a few months in Syria until Turkey emerged from its state of emergency and made cities and towns inhabitable again. But others said they had no intention of returning to Turkey: They said they had come to Turkey years ago to flee war and destruction in Syria, but with parts of Turkey now in a state of destruction, they might as well return home.
“We are going back because we no longer have a place to shelter here,” said Mohammad Mohammad, 40, who was lined up with his wife and two young children. They carried with them a potato sack stuffed with clothes.
Neighbors had pulled the family members out of the rubble of their collapsed home in the southern Turkish city of Antakya hours after the earthquake struck. Mr. Mohammad had a fractured leg but said that he had struggled to find a hospital that would treat a minor injury given the overall scale of others’ wounds.
With no place to live, they had gone a nearby town, but he said that they had been refused a tent for three days because priority was being given to Turkish people. He said he had also heard from friends trying to rent homes elsewhere in southern Turkey that landlords were seeking unaffordable rents.
The family plans to stay with relatives in northwestern Syria and then return to Turkey in a few months, Mr. Mohammad said.
“At least in Syria there are tents and we have family and friends,” he said. “People will help us.”