ISTANBUL // On a recent morning, Mohammed huddled with his family under one of the stone arches of the ancient Roman aqueduct that traverses parts of central Istanbul. It was their only protection against a cold November rain.
“This is where we sleep,” said the 26-year-old cobbler from Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. “We don’t have a tent, we don’t have a place to stay, we only have God.”
Mohammed’s wife and three children, ages 2, 5 and 7, sat next to him on the damp ground.
He said he had spent the last of his savings to flee Aleppo, now ravaged by Syria’s civil war. Earlier this month, he and his family travelled by bus to Istanbul, about 1,100 kilometres north-west of the Syrian-Turkish border.
They joined a growing number of Syrians who have fled to Turkey but shun the government-run camps near the frontier. Instead, they opt to trek to Turkey’s biggest city.
Mazlumder, a human rights association, estimates that up to 100,000 unregistered Syrians are living in Istanbul’s parks and in apartments in poorer neighbourhoods.
Estimates of the number of Syrian refugees currently in Turkey varies.
Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said last weekend that the number of Syrian refugees in the country had increased to 700,000, while Mazlumder put the figure at one million. If the latter is true, it would mean that half of the 2.2 million Syrians who have escaped their country are now on Turkish soil.
According to the government’s disaster relief agency, 200,000 Syrian refugees are residing in camps, while the others live elsewhere in Turkey.
Despite the growing strain on its own resources, Turkey has vowed to continue its open-door policy towards Syrian refugees. But so far there is no system in place to deal with the growing number of Syrians on Istanbul’s streets before winter sets in.
Taner Kilic, director of Multeciler-Der, a non-governmental organisation supporting refugees, said Turkey was providing many services to refugees, including free health care.
“But there is more to be done,” Mr Kilic said. “We need better coordination between authorities and NGOs on a national and on a local level.”
News reports say some Syrians in Istanbul have been employed in sweat shops manufacturing clothing, but most, like Mohammed and his family, rely on handouts from neighbours and local charities.
In a recent report, the Human Rights Association said none of the 128 Syrians it interviewed in Istanbul had a valid work permit. Syrians who managed to find jobs were paid about one third of the wages earned by Turkish workers for the same jobs, the Turkish organisation said.
Mazlumder called on the federal government to make sure refugees outside the camps had access to housing, food and health care. “No refugee must be sent to a camp against his will,” the group said.
Mohammed, an ethnic Turkmen, said he did not want to take his family to a camp because accounts by other refugees suggested they would not be safe among Syrian Arabs, who make up the majority in the camps.
“They rape our women there,” he said. “It’s bad in the camps.”
Abdurrahman, another Syrian who said he had just arrived in Istanbul, sat on a blanket in front the closed shutters of a shop. Alongside him were his son, as well as a woman he said was the widow of a friend. She was with her three children. “We will do everything to get a job,” he said.
Abdurrahman, 37, said he had decided to leave Hama after his wife and three of his four children were killed by a bomb. He echoed Mohammed’s worries about life in the refugee camps, saying that “conditions there are bad”.
As Abdurrahman spoke, Omer Bahat, a Turk living in a nearby apartment, came up and handed him a bag with several loaves of bread.
“It’s really tough for them,” Mr Bahat said. “I think authorities should do something for them, the weather is turning bad.”
Not everyone in Istanbul is so kind towards the newcomers. In the Kucukpazar neighbourhood near the Golden Horn in Istanbul’s old town, residents have complained about what they said was a rise in petty crime and suspicious signs of wealth among the Syrians.
“They drive around in brand new cars,” a Turkish shop owner said. “Where does the money come from? They send their children out on the street to beg.”
Ahmet, a Syrian Kurd, said he had come to Istanbul with his wife and 10 children because “Syria is finished”.
He said he had found shelter in an abandoned house in the Kucukpazar district. “It is pretty tough for us.”
Under the aqueduct, Mohammed, who declined to give his last name because he has not registered as a refugee with Turkish authorities, said he was determined to get a job in Istanbul but had a back-up plan if that failed.
“We will go back to Syria and join the war.”