Hafiz Karim and his wife, Muntaha, right, sit with one of their daughters in their Istanbul apartment Jan. 9. They fled from Iraq to Turkey after extremists threatened to kill them all if they didn't sell their Baghdad restaurant and move out of the nei ghborhood. CNS photo/James Martone

Some Turks feel influx of Syrians hampers efforts to aid other refugees

By  James Martone, Catholic News Service
  • January 16, 2013

ISTANBUL - Hafiz Karim fled with his family to Turkey after extremists in Iraq threatened to kill them all if they didn't sell their Baghdad restaurant and move out of the neighborhood.

That was two years ago. The Catholic family of six now lives in a three-room basement apartment in an immigrant neighborhood of Istanbul, waiting for relocation to the United States or Australia.

"I told them we want to go to California, but they said, 'We will choose where you go,'" said Karim, referring to a November interview he and his family had with immigration officials at Istanbul's U.S. Consulate.

"They said we were accepted but didn't say how long we would wait," he told Catholic News Service in early January.

This year, unlike in the past, the family was not among the recipients of a parish stipend.

"Our church at Christmas gave money to 150 needy families, not like before" when all the parish's refugees got some, Hafiz's wife, Muntaha, told CNS.

"We give praise and thanks to God, all the same," she said.

The couple and their four daughters are among tens of thousands of refugees in Turkey facing longer waits for asylum to third countries and decreasing services from aid organizations, churches and charities. Several such refugee aid groups reported in early January to CNS that they were struggling to contend with the rapidly growing numbers of refugees in Turkey seeking help due to war, political tension and other instabilities in their home countries.

Worsening the situation, said these organizations, is the war in Syria, which has sent more than 200,000 Syrians into Turkey. Though many of them are being sheltered in Turkish government-run relief camps on the Turkish-Syrian border, an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 of them are not, estimated aid groups.

"All the numbers are increasing, the Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians, and people coming from Africa. There is also an increase in the number of unaccompanied minors," said Belinda Mumcu of Caritas Turkey, a Catholic charitable agency that offers refugees basic medical, health, social and technical support, including the navigation of the U.N. asylum-seeking paper process.

"The process is slowing down ... people are waiting one year at least now. Before, the numbers were less, so people were not waiting as much. It is becoming more and more difficult," Mumcu said of efforts to meet the growing needs of more refugees who are now staying longer.

Msgr. Francois Yakan, who formed the organization Kader in 2005 to help Iraqi Catholics in Turkey, expressed similar concerns for refugees in the country.

"We had 418 new Iraqi families just last year," he said, adding that costs of providing medical and social services for refugees in general were rising due to increases in their numbers and to the waiting time for resettlement to third countries, which was now taking anywhere from two to four years, when before it was only one.

In talks with the U.N. recently, Msgr. Yakan, vicar of Turkey's Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate, said he had expressed fears that the international focus on the war in Syria and its refugees was coming at the expense of other equally vulnerable people, such as the 12,000 Iraqis -- half of them Christians -- he estimated were in Turkey.

"You must not forget the Iraqis," he said he pleaded to the U.N.

A U.N. spokesman in Turkey confirmed that the number of people seeking resettlement had "incredibly increased," but denied that the Syrian refugee crisis was negatively affecting the situation of other refugees and U.N. abilities to help them. He said 150,000 of the Syrian refugees in Turkey were in the border relief camps and were not even part of the asylum-seeking process.

"I don't think there is a linkage between the two groups," said the spokesman, Metin Corabatir of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which lends technical support to the Turkish border camps and the refugee asylum process.

Corabatir told CNS that a rise in the number of incoming refugees in general combined with the "limited capacities of NGOs" seeking to help them were making providing services to refugees in Turkey all the more difficult.

Such difficulties were immediately apparent at one Istanbul charity run by a network of Christian churches, where an aid worker said refugees were now being turned away because there were too many of them. Syrians who refuse to go the government-run camps were among those being turned away.

"We (once) could give them the food coupons, but we don't give now because we don't have the capacity," said the worker, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of charities in Turkey, where all religious institutions are officially banned from doing humanitarian work.

A quick look at her charity's records showed an average of 354 refugees from 55 different countries receiving monetary, medical and social help per month -- up from 120 refugees per month four years ago.

Recent beneficiaries, the records showed, were from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Congo, Syria, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Iraq, Senegal, Iran and the Philippines.

"When we can help them with doctors we do. When we can't, we can't," the aid worker said.


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