Turkey earthquake: Syrians in hard-hit areas head home after devastation
Thousands of Syrian refugees who survived last week's devastating earthquakes in southern Turkey have returned to their war-torn homeland after either losing their homes in the disaster or to care for wounded relatives.
Hundreds of men, women and children could be seen huddled together near the Turkey-Syria border on Thursday, after responding to an announcement on social media that Turkey would allow them to leave for three to six months and then return.
The biggest earthquake to strike Turkey in eight decades wreaked new devastation in northwest Syria, an impoverished region that provides the last pocket of sanctuary for the opposition that rose up against President Bashar al-Assad's authoritarian government 12 years ago.
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Turkish authorities say at least 36,187 people were killed in the disaster while the Syrian government and the United Nations say more than 5,800 people died in Syria.
Within 48 hours of Syrian border officials issuing the announcement, 2,795 Syrians in Turkey, mainly from the quake-hit areas of Hatay, Reyhanli and Antakya, crossed into rebel-held Syria via the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, sources familiar with the matter told Middle East Eye.
Standing near the crossing, 15-year-old Sulaf and her six-year-old sister Semiha said they feared for their future after their parents decided to head back home over fears that their home could collapse.
"We have to go to Syria because the house we were living in has now got cracks," Semiha told MEE.
"It is not safe and we have no other relatives here in Turkey. We are going back until things get a bit better here."
Turkey is home to nearly four million Syrian refugees, having opened its borders to those fleeing the civil war that erupted in 2011. But since the 6 February quake, xenophobic claims that Syrian refugees have been looting shops and people's homes have gained traction online.
Last week, at least three Syrians were lynched in the quake-affected regions, while others reported being made homeless after they were expelled from emergency shelters.
Halit, who was pacing back and forth as he waited for his turn to cross the border, told MEE that he lost his mother and aunt in the Syria disaster.
"I am 20 years old and I have lost my hair. I have seen so much: bombings and violent losses in war, and now this earthquake," he told MEE.
"I thought we were safe in Turkey."
Meanwhile, the Turkish government is considering relocating hundreds of thousands of Syrians from 10 of the country's provinces to other cities, but won’t pay for their evacuation.
The sources said the Syrians who have relatives and shelter in other towns would be encouraged to travel but the ones who don’t have the same ability would be hosted in tent cities.
According to the Turkey-based Association for Refugees, around 1.75 million Syrians were living in the 10 earthquake-hit provinces, statistics published last December show.
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