The Syrian town of Atimah in Idlib province is situated next to Reyhanli in Turkey’s Hatay province [Osman Orsal/Reuters]
Reyhanli, Turkey – When Syrians first started trickling in through the border, fleeing the flaring conflict, residents of the Turkish border town of Reyhanli in Hatay province welcomed them.
“We are all human beings and we are Muslim, so it is our duty to help them,” said 47-year-old Coskun Kaya, sitting in the sports cafe he runs on the outskirts of the city.
The tens of thousands of Syrians who settled in Reyhanli brought their savings with them and started spending on rent, property and food, which boosted the local economy.
Some opened businesses, others – mostly the poor – started working in the local agricultural sector.
Kaya’s small business also picked up, as Syrian youth started coming to his cafe to play football on the small artificial turf pitches he rents out.
“I’d say [the refugees], more or less, affected the economy in a positive way,” he says.
Since the beginning of the year, the Turkish lira has lost 40 percent of its value to the dollar, making foreign debt payments more difficult and forcing the central bank to raise interest rates stabilise the slumping local currency.
Amid rising anxiety about the future of the economy, Turkey’s border areas are also facing the prospect of another major influx of refugees.
The Syrian government and its allies have amassed troops and weaponry in northwest Syria in preparation for an offensive on Idlib province, the Syrian armed opposition’s last stronghold, which borders Turkey’s Hatay province.
Kaya admits that if more Syrians flee the war to Reyhanli, they might not get a warm welcome and their presence would exacerbate already existing infrastructural issues and social tensions because of overpopulation.
In Antakya, the capital of Hatay province, Nader, a 45-year-old father of three, is also anxious about more Syrians fleeing the war to Turkey.
“Of course, we’re afraid. As Turkish citizens, we ourselves are having trouble affording a proper life,” he says.
He works as an administrator in a textile factory which employs both Turks and Syrians.
He says that while it is good for business that cheap Syrian labour is available, the large number of refugees does not necessarily benefit the region.
Many Turkish families, like his, are struggling to make ends meet and some lose their jobs to Syrians, he says.
“There needs to be a buffer zone. [Syrian refugees] shouldn’t even be able to get in to the country,” said Nader, who asked to be identified only by his first name.
Turkey officially hosts some 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Hatay is home to a fifth of them or 500,000 refugees.
Before the war, the province was an important trade and transportation hub, lying on one of the main roads linking Europe to the Middle East.
Its economy for a long time was tied to trade with Syria and shuttling goods across the border.
The war stifled the old trade rooms which impacted negatively a lot of businesses.
But according to Reyhanli-born economist and former finance ministry adviser Vedat Ozdan, it also gave rise to smuggling, which flourished between 2012 and 2015 and which provided the local population with good income.
Over the past three years the Turkish government cracked down on illegal traffic across the border, which negatively impacted the local economy, he said.
That, coupled with the currency crisis, has increased economic pressure on the local population.
A major influx of refugees, in the event of an attack on Idlib, could make matters worse.
It could push inflation and rents up which in the short-term would affect people’s disposable income and make them less tolerant to the newcomers, Ozdan warned.
“I do not expect a large-scale offensive on Idlib. But the Idlib problem is one of the important sources of uncertainties for the Turkish economy, which is not doing good nowadays,” he said.
Even though the elite are aware that refugees are not a burden on the Turkish economy, the public perception is that [they are].
Galip Dalay, research director at Al Sharq Forum
According to Galip Dalay, research director at the Istanbul-based think-tank Al Sharq Forum, regardless of what effect refugees have had on the Turkish economy, the Turkish society’s perception of them is rather negative.
“Even though the elite are aware that refugees are not a burden on the Turkish economy, the public perception is that [they are]. This has created [political] sensitivities which the politicians [will have] to manage,” he told Al Jazeera.
The public fears of another refugee wave will be an important factor in the upcoming local elections in March 2019, Dalay pointed out.
Battle for Idlib
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration has repeatedly warned that an offensive on the last opposition-held territories would result in a security and humanitarian catastrophe that would affect not only Turkey but also Europe.
Idlib, along with northern Hama and western Aleppo provinces currently holds more than three million civilians, half of whom have are internally displaced.
Over the past year, the Syrian government backed by Russia managed to conclude a number of deals with opposition groups across Syria which saw their transfer, along with thousands of civilians, to Idlib province.
Faced with nowhere else to go, Syrians who oppose the Assad government are likely to flee to the Turkish borders, if an assault on Idlib begins.
The Turkish government is currently trying to find a political settlement to the crisis.
Even though its efforts to negotiate has resulted in a delay of Russia’s decision to launch the offensive, a ceasefire Erdogan proposed earlier in September was rejected.
According to Dalay, if Turkey fails to avert a major military operation on Idlib, it will seek to establish a buffer zone on Syrian territory in order to contain the waves of refugees.
Follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter: @mkpetkova