Turkish officials said the Syrian refugees — many of whom have proper papers and are living legally in sanctuary cities such as Antakya — are not being sent back to the violence and chaos in their homeland, though some Syrian activists see it that way.
The tough measures represent a major shift by the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who supports the armed rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but complains that the United States, Europe and the United Nations have abandoned Turkey on the front line of a conflict seeping across its border.
Turkish officials say the new measures are part of an effort to regain control of the country’s turnstile borders, while calming hostilities in a region of Turkey where many residents do not support the Syrian rebels and instead side with Assad.
In recent weeks, there have been marches in Antakya in support of Assad and against the rebels, whom some here brand as terrorists. Until 1938, the surrounding Hatay province was part of Syria. Some opposition politicians have called for the Turkish government to expel all the Syrian refugees.
The tensions have arisen because Assad and the Syrian government elite are members of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, as are many people here in Hatay province.
“We’re not forcing anyone out,” said a senior Turkish government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “But we have to take into account the local tensions.”
“We’re not talking about a few Syrians,” the official said. “We’re talking about tens of thousands of Syrians.”
About 80,000 Syrians are housed in camps along the Turkish border, including many rural farm families and the urban poor, and 40,000 other displaced Syrians are living in Turkish cities, according to Turkey and the United Nations’ refugee agency.
Turkish officials said Sunday that Syrians who have passports and who entered the country legally are free to remain in Turkey but will have to move north, away from the border, and apply for visas at one of four cities hundreds of miles away. This strategy, which is well accepted and has been used in other refugee crises, is designed to disperse the Syrians and separate them from possible antagonists.
The Turkish government wants any Syrians who entered the country without the proper documents to go to the refugee camps, where they would receive food, shelter, medical care and schooling for their children.
For many Syrians, however, a third option was implied: They could leave Turkey — and return to Syria or seek asylum in another country.