Erdogan warns Turkey cannot handle latest wave of Syrian migrants

Turkish aid group says at least 120,000 have now now fled fighting in north-west Syria

epa08077521 Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leaves the building at the UNHCR - Global Refugee Forum at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, 17 December 2019.  EPA/SALVATORE DI NOLFI

A Turkish aid group on Monday said the number of people heading to Turkey from Syria has risen dramatically after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned his country could not handle the latest wave of migrants.

The Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) said it was setting up a camp for some of those displaced by heavy fighting as Syrian regime forces, backed by Russian airpower, attempt to retake the north-western city of Idlib.

"In the last week, the number of people fleeing from the southern regions (of Idlib) to the north because of the increasing attacks has reached 120,000," said Selim Tosun, the IHH media advisor in Syria.

Many of the migrants fled the city of Maarat Al Numan, with some going to camps near the Turkish border, while others have gone to stay with relatives or to the areas of Afrin and Azaz near the Turkish border, Mr Tosun said.

The IHH said it had begun distributing 20,000 packages of food prepared for the migrants between Idlib and the town of Sarmada. It is also preparing a tent camp in the area of Killi, a village 13km from the Turkish border.

Mr Tosun said the camp for families will have 500 tents and can expand.

In a speech at an event in Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul on Sunday, President Erdogan said 80,000 people were currently on the move.

“If the violence towards the people of Idlib does not stop, this number will increase even more. In that case, Turkey will not carry such a migrant burden on its own,” he said.

Mr Erdogan warned European nations they would bear the brunt of the crisis if violence in the besieged province did not stop.

“The negative impact of the pressure we will be subjected to will be something that all European nations, especially Greece, will also feel,” he said, warning that a repeat of the 2015 migrant crisis would become inevitable.

Since November, 205,000 people had been displaced from their homes because of attacks in the north-western city, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

Syria’s last major rebel-held territory, Idlib is home to about three million people, including many displaced by years of violence elsewhere in the country. It has been the focus of pro-government bombardment since late April.

On Saturday, airstrikes by the regime and its ally Russia killed 12 civilians and injured 36 others, said the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In September 2018, Russia and Turkey agreed to work to make Idlib a de-escalation zone. A ceasefire was also brokered in the province in August, but it has been breached repeatedly.

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s regime controls 70 per cent of the country, but not Idlib, and he has vowed to regain control of it.

UN agencies and war monitors have said that hundreds have been killed in the province this year after attacks on residential areas by Russia and the Syrian army.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 45 civilians, including 11 women and seven children, have been killed in the latest escalation, with 120 more injured.

Both Russia and the Syrian regime deny bombing civilian areas and say they are fighting Al Qaeda-inspired extremists.

Mr Erdogan said on Sunday that Turkey was working with Russia to stop the violence in Idlib.

“We will determine the steps we will take according to the results,” he said in his speech in Ankara.

Turkey hosts about 3.7 million Syrian refugees and Mr Erdogan has told the rest of Europe repeatedly that it will not be able to take many more. Domestic attitudes towards migrants in Turkey have also become more hostile.

Last week, the Turkish leader accused the European Union of failing to fulfil its financial promises to support Syrians in his country.

Mr Erdogan has said that 1 million Syrian refugees would be returned to their homeland in “a very short period of time”.