Turkey Takes Brunt of Refugee Crisis

June 30, 2016

Syrian refugee women holding children.
Syrian families sent back from Greece are swelling Turkey's refugee numbers.

No one has drowned in Turkey's Aegean waters in the past three months, thanks to a pact the country signed with the European Union that discouraged refugees from trying to reach Greece by sea – one reason Turkey now has even more refugees than it can handle.

Refugee attempts to board smugglers' boats to Greece fell by more than 90 percent after the deal signed in March allowed the country to return undocumented migrants to Turkey. Facing the certainty of being turned back, refugees desperate to start a new life in Europe realized the rewards of trying to reach Greek shores were not worth the risks. Under the agreement, the EU is supposed to take one Syrian refugee for each one sent back from Greece, besides accelerating Turkey's bid for EU membership, but the immediate effect has been to swell Turkey's refugee population to 3 million, including 2.75 million Syrians.

"There are always new people coming to the camps," the director of a ministry based in Turkey said. "Many people are returning after trying to escape to Europe by crossing the Aegean Sea to get to Greece. We are trying to provide tents for those that are returning."

While the number of migrant deaths by drowning in the Aegean has fallen, more boats have capsized en route to Italy. The sinking of two large boats bound for Italy in May killed nearly 1,000 people. In Turkey, meantime, a grim situation is quietly eating away lives. The government says only 272,000 of the 3 million refugees are living in official camps; the rest are scrambling for housing in cities throughout the country or have resorted to primitive camps such as those that have sprung up spontaneously in Adana and Gaziantep.

The indigenous ministry in Turkey makes regular trips to the two camps.

"It gets very hot in the summer months in Adana and Gaziantep, and they have no refrigerators," the director said. "In some camps, they do have electricity. We are thinking of trying to provide small refrigerators for many of our tents. It will help them be more relaxed."

Disease and illnesses are common in the camps, and the ministry is working on measures to improve preventative hygiene. The team plans to give out detergent for refugees to wash their clothes, and a recent invasion of insects on some areas' food supplies has prompted an effort to get the camps sprayed.

"We are afraid of another bug outbreak starting," the indigenous missionary said. "The mothers are especially afraid of this."

Thanks to support from Christian Aid Mission, the ministry has become known in the camps since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, and the director has seen a change in the attitude of the refugees. When the ministry first began distributing food, medicines and other relief items, desperate and hungry arrivals twice nearly knocked the director over clamoring for food, he said.

"Culturally, they did not trust us, because they did not know our hearts and who we were," he said. "Now that they know us, they are finally lining up in an organized way. It makes me very happy to see this change. There were two new families getting in the line and yelling, 'Give some to us, give some to us, too.' But we heard someone say in the crowd, 'They are are Christians – wait. They will distribute everything equally.'"

Child carrying sack in refugee camp.
Food for children and infants is in high demand at refugee camps in Turkey.

Without the ministry team saying anything about the Christian injunction not to discriminate, the predominantly Muslim refugees came to understand that Christians believe in equality, he said.

"They have begun to understand that Christians are good people," he said. "With all of my heart, I thank Christian Aid donors. These people have been able to see the love of Christ through this."

After distributing items to tents, the ministry members ask refugees if the team can pray for them. Without hesitation, the refugees openly invite ministry members to pray for them, he said.

"I know that you are sending your gifts to us to help feed people's physical needs, but we are also filling them up spiritually," he said.

There are so many new refugee arrivals that the ministry director would like to visit the camps more often each month. Adana and Gaziantep are only two hours apart, so he can visit both camps in one day. The people in the camps are continually pleading as they share their needs for tents, wheat, sugar, milk, baby food and especially food for children, he said.

"I may be tired, but these children are pulling for me to help them more and more, because our God is love," the director said. "As we serve and distribute things, these children are learning about God as we tell them, 'God loves you, and God is bringing these things to you.'"

Thanking the donors of Christian Aid Mission for the opportunity to show the love of Christ, he recalled how a child learning Turkish described his excitement about the arrival of distribution trucks.

"He said, 'When you are coming to distribute the food, I get so happy and cannot sleep. I will eat all of the jam and milk that you give us. I am so happy.' I am sending greetings from a camp where a child that receives jam and milk for food is so excited. I thank you for your prayers, support, and for providing us the opportunity to serve these precious and needy people."

To help indigenous missionaries to meet needs, you may contribute online using the form below, or call (434) 977-5650. If you prefer to mail your gift, please mail to Christian Aid Mission, P.O. Box 9037, Charlottesville, VA 22906. Please use Gift Code: 400REF. Thank you!