World

Reporter's notebook: Why is Turkey shielding its Syrian refugees?

Carolyn Dunn reports from an overly sheltered camp for Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Syrian refugees walled off at a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Boynuegin, Hatay province, June 17, 2011. (Osman Orsal/Reuters)

I asked a Turkish reporter today why her government isn't allowing media access to the four, soon to be five or more, refugee camps it has built for those people fleeing Syria.

She seemed just as puzzled as the rest of us. "We do not understand" either, she said. "Why would you hide the good things that you are doing?"

It's an excellent question. Why would the Turkish government hide what is happening at the refugee camps that are now temporary home to at least 10,000 Syrians who fled the violence and the government crackdowns in their country just across the border?

In contrast to all the fear and rumours flowing out of Syria, this surely is a good news story for Turkey. No?

Amnesty International, for one, is highly suspicious.

The human rights group is accusing Turkey of helping to hide what it says are atrocities committed by the Syrian government, by making sure those who have witnessed it don't tell their stories to the Western media.

Why? One theory is that the Turkish government wants to keep relations with the Bashar Assad administration in Damascus on an even keel.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently condemned the reports of armed attacks by Syrian security forces on its citizens as "barbaric." But, still, the theory goes, it probably would not be helpful for the future of the friendship to provide a stage and megaphone for those who might have first-hand accounts of exactly what went on.

Cat and mouse

That hedging by Turkey is what is making our visits to these refugee camps so frustrating.

Syrian boys shout at a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Altinozu on June 17, 2011. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

Like all the media who have come to this border region, Hatay province, in recent days, our attempts to get in to talk to the refugees have been thwarted repeatedly by the local police.

The Syrians are being housed in Turkish Red Crescent camps. Technically, they entered Turkey illegally, so the camps are fenced and they are not free to come and go.

But, it's the next part that's more bothersome. The entire fenced perimeter of each camp is covered with tarps.

We can't see in, they can't see out. That is exactly the way the Turkish government wants it and that is what is ramping up all the suspicion.

At three different camps we visited we were stopped from talking to Syrian refugees. The military also ordered us away from the border when we tried to wait for refugees who may have been crossing there.

Some officers told us they were doing this for the safety of the refugees. Others simply shrugged and said they were just following government orders.

Media diversion seems to be a full-time job in Hatay province. Of course, that's probably because getting around the police and military has become a full-time job for some media.

After many hours of trying, we managed to speak through a fence to refugees on two occasions. Once when there was a protest going on and police were otherwise engaged and the second time when the police had walked away from a stretch of the fence for a spell.

Sneaking around like that is not the way I like to do my job. I'd prefer to do thoughtful interviews, especially with people who have been through so much in the past three months.

There are some who will no doubt argue that the media has no right to lay in wait, hunting the next sound-bite from a traumatized refugee just for the sake of a news story.

I would agree if that is what is happening. But it's not. This is about something much bigger and more important: It is about the media and human rights groups such as Amnesty International trying to document the full scale of what may be an international atrocity but has been underreported because of a lack of access.

The Syrian people, from what we know, are ultimately looking for freedom.

There is a twisted irony in that so many of them are fleeing what appears to be a bloody battle for democracy and are then being silenced when they finally reach safety.

You have to wonder if they are not standing behind those fences, behind the giant tarps, wondering what freedom and democracy would actually hold for them.