YAYLADAGI, Turkey — His two-story house with a garden became a military post when government forces moved into his village in northeastern Syria. More than a year has passed for Amin Idlibi and his family, now sharing a crowded tent in a Turkish refugee camp, and the limbo of more than 250,000 others who have fled Syria’s civil war into neighboring countries.
“Time passes so slowly here as we wait to return home,” said Idlibi, a 58-year-old retired civil servant as he sat in this camp on the edge of a Turkish farming community, one of eight Turkish-run camps that have taken in thousands more refugees just in the past week.
And the numbers are likely to rise.
A government offensive Wednesday against rebel strongholds in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, could touch off another major exodus into nearby Turkey. In Jordan, authorities are straining to build more camps to accommodate refugees from Syria’s south — where the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime began more than 17 months ago. On one recent night alone, an estimated 4,000 Syrians arrived in Jordan.
In Jordan’s Zataari camp, opened just two weeks ago on a desolate desert plain, some 3,300 displaced Syrians have raised complaints about conditions that include dust storms and tents that are home to snakes and scorpions.
“Death camp,” said a sign in Arabic stuck on a tent bearing the U.N. refugee agency’s blue emblem.
“In Syria, it’s a quick death,” explained a 30-year-old refugee who gave his name as Abu Sami, as he and other Syrians gathered to protest the conditions. “But here in Zataari camp, it’s a slow death for us all. We escaped shelling and bombardment of our homes and now face this torment.”
So far, the flight from Syria has not brought the humanitarian crises that gripped battlefields such as the Balkans or Afghanistan. Many among the first wave of refugees were absorbed into communities in Jordan and Lebanon, which now have at least 200,000 displaced Syrians between them. In Turkey, officials have set up camps that now hold about 50,000 Syrians. Smaller numbers have fled to Iraq.
The U.N. refugee agency puts the overall figure of the displaced at 115,000, but officials acknowledge this only counts Syrians who have registered as refugees and not the tens of thousands of others who have blended into communities.
The U.N. and others worry about countries becoming overwhelmed as the Syrian conflict drags on.
Reflecting concerns the refugee crisis could easily stretch into another winter, the European Union pledged $6.1 million ((euro) 5 million) last month to help Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and France said it plans to send military medical teams to Jordan. In Saudi Arabia — a strong backer of the Syrian rebels — a five-day telethon last month raised more than $70 million for refugees.
In the Turkish camp in Yayladagi, a refugee who identified himself as Yassin said he feels even more alone during the current holy month of Ramadan, which includes a sunset meal to break the daylong fast.
“I used to break my fast with my family in Syria. Here I am like an orphan,” said the 32-year-old, whose family is still in Syria. “A day is as long as a year.”
Each of the Turkish camps has a clinic, mosque, playground for children, bathrooms and showers. Every tent has a small refrigerator, a fan and cooking gas where families prepare their own food. Families in Yayladagi can also buy televisions or other extras in the nearby village, if they can afford it. Not far from the camp, cattle graze near fields of wheat and fruit trees.
Still, the crowded conditions take a toll.
“My life is miserable in the tent” said Haj Abdul-Karim, a drawing instructor from the Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour, which was overrun by Syrian forces 14 months ago. He now shares a tent with nine family members. “We usually squeeze ourselves to be able to sleep, but now in the summer some of us sleep outside.”
In Kilis, another Turkish border town, authorities responded to a protest about camp conditions by deporting some refugees to a desert camp near Urfa, where living conditions are more austere, refugees said.
“Turkish people are hospitable and generous. Still, our lives in the camps are difficult,” said a woman in Yayladagi, who identified herself as Um Ahmad. “The most important thing for me is to return to my country, even if I am going to be eating sand there.”
In Jordan, officials have been taking precautions to try to protect refugees amid suspicions that Assad’s regime is trying to extend its crackdown into Jordan. Both Jordanian officials and the Syrian refugees believe Syrian agents are operating in the kingdom on a campaign to hunt down activists and other opponents, and intimidate those who have fled.
Refugees who once stayed in an apartment complex used as an initial processing center and owned by a Jordanian businessman reported two attempts earlier this year to poison their water supply.
The complex had to be abandoned after security officials arrested a man in June for trying to plant a bomb under the car of the Jordanian owner, Nidal Bashabsheh, who had been actively helping Syrian refugees.
Late last month, a 6-year-old Syrian boy was shot and killed by the Syrian military as he made the treacherous border crossing with his family.
At Jordan’s Zataari camp, winds carrying orange desert sand whip through the tents, covering everything and everyone. Many refugees say they can neither breathe easily nor stay clean and healthy.
Um Nadia, a 26-year-old pregnant mother of two toddlers, suffers from asthma and worries for her health and that of her family. “Listen to my voice. I’m suffering. I’m constantly coughing,” she said.
“I can’t stand it anymore and that’s only after three days here. I’m very sick from the weather and this dust,” said the slender woman, her voice raspy, adding that she had to be fed intravenously in the camp’s medical clinic.
“But what about my young children?” she asked. “They will surely contract bronchitis or some other sort of disease themselves.”
Jordanian authorities refused to respond to allegations of poor conditions in the camps. The U.N. refugee agency’s representative in Jordan, Andrew Harper, acknowledged conditions in the tent cities were not ideal, but promised improvements to help ease the challenging conditions.
“It’s a very tough, terrible place to be, but every day we’ll make it better,” he said. “We just need everyone to remain calm and to be sure that we keep moving forward in the right way.”