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Turkey

Gauck visits Syrian refugees in Turkey

German President Joachim Gauck is in Turkey until Tuesday (29.04.2014). His first stop was a camp for refugees from the Syrian civil war - perhaps as part of his diplomatic strategy.

Elisa is nine years old and has been living for the past year in the refugee camp at Kahramanmaras in southeastern Anatolia. She fled the Syrian town of Idlib with her parents when President Bashar al-Assad's government began bombing it. Elisa says she likes it here, that people are not frightened, and that she doesn't want to go home until the fighting there ends.

The refugees' day is interrupted when German President Joachim Gauck arrives in a large convoy watched by some of the camp's 16,000 inhabitants along the fence surrounding the facility.

The Turkish authorities are responsible for running the camp, which is inspected once a week by a UNHCR representative. The camp is over-capacity, tents packed close together, each housing five people on 16 square meters, with 30 refugees sharing a toilet. There are two schools, one pharmacy, and a small hospital, where 1,500 children have been born since the camp was founded.

Praising Turkey

Every person in the camp receives 80 Turkish Lira ($37.50) a month in the form of coupons for food and daily supplies to be spent in one of the supermarkets in the camp. There have been reports from other camps of inflated prices, which mean that the money is not nearly enough to cover needs. Operating the supermarkets was put up to public auction. During his visit, the president was told that prices are lower here, and that there have been few complaints.

Gauck besucht Flüchtlingslager in der Türkei

Gauck visited the camp in Anatolia over the weekend

Gauck says that there are no ulterior motives to his visit to Kahramanmaras - it is merely "a sign of respect to acknowledge the efforts made by Turkey to house the refugees," he said. But after a little praise like this, it may perhaps be easier to talk to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gül about human rights and the extent of corruption in the country.

Nevertheless, NGOs estimate that only a quarter of the Syrian refugees in Turkey are actually being housed in one of the camps. Others live with relatives or can afford to rent an apartment - but many also live on the streets. According to the government, 800,000 Syrians have fled to Turkey so far, but the unofficial figure is thought to be twice as high. There is barely any work for the refugees, and Turks are less than enthusiastic about the increased competition on the job market, or the fact that Syrians are willing to work for much lower wages.

More help from Germany

In March, the Turkish government declared that its own expenses for the refugees had reached nearly two billion euros ($2.76 billion) - most of it for health care. On top of that, there is the financial aid from international organizations and donor countries.

Since 2012, Germany has made 5.9 million euros available for Red Cross projects in Turkey. At the conclusion of his visit, Gauck said that the situation in the camp had affected him, and that when he returned to Berlin he would call on the German government to provide more aid to Turkey. He also said that Germany - which has so far taken in 5,000 refugees - should "ask itself whether it has reached the limit of its capacities."

Gauck besucht die Türkei Flüchtlingslager

Gauck said he would urge the German government to provide more aid

NATO engagement

Kahramanmaras happens to be the same town where five German Patriot missile defense systems have been deployed to protect Turkey from possible attacks from Syria. Gauck visited the German troops at their positions on the hills around the city, from where they can see the refugee camps.

In his opening address to the soldiers, Gauck mentioned that the international aid for Turkey - under the auspices of NATO - offered another good reason to engage in open and honest talks about difficult subjects in the coming days. Gauck is hoping to smooth the path for talks with Erdogan and Gül.

Elisa, meanwhile, walked alongside the president's entourage for a few minutes during the visit, as did many of her friends. She said he looked like a good man who had laughed and waved at many of the children. She also said that it was always nice when something happens in Kahramanmaras. The German soldiers, up in the hills, expressed similar sentiments.

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