Turkey feels racial tensions as flood of Syrian refugees goes on

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As incomers from different backgrounds flee across the border, trouble is brewing

The demonstration was vocal, about rights and Syria – a familiar sight. The difference, however, was that this was taking place in Turkey and the slogans were in support of Bashar al-Assad and against those defying his regime. The rally, at the town of Samandag in Hatay province, was predominantly by members of the Turkish Alevi community, a Shia offshoot with links to the ruling Alawites in Syria. They were protesting against allowing refugees, who are overwhelmingly Sunni, being allowed to come into Turkey.

Around 7,000 people have registered with the Turkish authorities so far, after fleeing the fighting; another 4,000 are believed to have entered unofficially and 10,000 more are gathered across the border. The numbers are rising daily as the Damascus regime's forces expand their military onslaught in the northern Idlib province.

Despite claims by many in Syria's protest movement that they are united in their demand for freedom, sectarian divisions are appearing among the refugees with claims that the worst atrocities are being committed by the Shabbiha, a militia of the Alawite community to which President Assad and the elite belongs.

There are also charges by some of the refugees that their Alawite neighbours are being armed to carry out the regime's dirty work. Nasr Abdullah, a resident of Jisr al-Shughour who fled a day before the city was stormed, complained bitterly: "They gave guns to Alawites... and brought them in to loot and burn."

There is growing concern that the religious tensions sparked by the Syrian uprising will be imported into this part of Turkey which has a delicate demographic balance between Sunnis, Alevis and Christians.

The 1.5 million population of Hatay province is divided almost equally between Sunnis and Alevis with a Christian minority. St Peter's Church at Antakiya, one of the oldest in the world, is next to an ancient Sunni mosque. Down the road is a place of worship, a cemevleri, for the Alevis.

The Syrian refugees are not being allowed to mix into the general community in Hatay province by the Turkish authorities. Even the many that have cross-border family links are being stopped from staying with their relations. They are, instead, being corralled into one of the growing number of holding centres – two more camps are being built to add to the three which have been put up in just over 10 days.

Local people, the media and human rights groups such as Amnesty International have been denied the opportunity to speak to the camp inmates. This is seen as an attempt to avoid adverse publicity as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had built up amicable relations with President Assad, tries to cope with the humanitarian crisis presented to him by his former ally in Damascus. Privately, officials concede that the measures are also to prevent inflaming the domestic situation by putting thousands of Syrian Sunnis, some of them blaming the Alawites for their predicament, on the streets. One official said: "We think there will be serious religious problems in Syria after all this. We don't want that to happen here. We want these people to go back when the situation improves."

But there is already anger and tension in Hatay about what is happening in Syria. A Sunni shopkeeper at Guvecci on the border turned his fury on a young Alevi student working as an interpreter for The Independent. "You know very well what is going on! Your people are murdering us. Ask your Alawite brothers how many more they are going to kill."

Opponents of taking in the refugees are planning another march next weekend. Haydar Tekil, a driver from the Alevi community who took part in the last demonstration, was adamant: "We do not believe these stories from the refugees. They are big liars. Bashar al-Assad has been a good leader for them, he has given them a much better standard of living than we have here in Turkey. There will be a lot of trouble if he is forced to leave, not just for Syria but Turkey as well."

Ali Yilmaz Cecim, a 39-year-old engineer and fellow Alevi, another who also took part, said: "They [the Turkish Sunnis] are taking sides with foreigners against fellow Turkish citizens. We know that many of these Syrians coming in have extremist views, that is why they are fighting their government, despite what they say. The people who want to bring them in are doing so because they will help to push their own extremist religious views here, they want to build up numbers.

"There is also the economic factor, we shall have to provide financial support for these people. The Alevis have every reason to speak up and we should do more to assert our rights."

Alevis, who comprise 25 per cent of Turkey's population, complain that having Sunni Islam as the sole state religion is a form of discrimination. Dogan Bermek, an official of the Federation of Alevi Foundations, agreed that the community must be more assertive about securing their interest. "Even our places of worship are not recognised. This means we are not getting equal treatment," he said.

Abdulhadi Kahya, a member of parliament from Hatay, representing the AKP party which draws most of the Sunni Muslim vote, denied that there were problems between Sunnis and Alevis and stressed that the Syrian refugees must be made welcome.

"We must do all we can for our brothers from Syria, we have had good relations with them for many years and we must help them," he said. "There should be no problems with them coming here. All religions live in this area in peace." Mehmet Ustin disagreed. The 24-year-old was born and brought up in Ovakelt, near Antakya, after his Afghan father arrived in 1982 among a party of 120 Uzbek families from Kunduz. He said: "We have never had any problems in the past, but there are some really bad things happening now.

"Recently I was on a trip with my friend and our motorcycle broke down. We went to a repair shop and the mechanic started hitting us, shouting insults because we were Afghans. He was an Alevi, I don't know why he was so angry. I do not personally mind the refugees coming here. But I can see this could be a problem for others, there are a lot of angry people around here."

Aid organisations and rights groups are worried that sectarian infighting and internal politics may distract from the urgent task of looking after the refugees. Metim Corabacir, an official of the UNHCR based in Ankara, said: "The most important thing is that the border should be kept open and they have a safe area to come to. The principles of international protection must be applied. We have constantly been in touch with the [Turkish] government to offer support but they claim to have the resources to provide assistance for now."

Neil Sammonds, of Amnesty International, currently at the border, added: "The main thing is that we get access to all the refugees – those who are in camps in Turkey and those still in Syria. Their welfare must be the chief concern."

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