ANTAKYA, Turkey — Turkish authorities have begun knocking on doors of thousands of Syrian refugees here to demand that they either enter camps or move deeper inside Turkey, far away from a border region tense with sectarian strife.
The surprise crackdown began this weekend, creating a panic in the community of about 40,000 Syrians living in rented housing in southern Turkey as bewildered families were told by government security agents and police to pack their belongings and move out.
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.
“We would prefer to die under the artillery shells in Damascus than to suffer such treatment here,” said Ziyad Alewi, a young fighter staying with a half-dozen Syrian rebels in an apartment filled with cigarette smoke and tea glasses.
When two police officers came to their door two days earlier and told them to leave Antakya, Ahmad Sharaf Aldin said, he hobbled to answer the knock, his fractured leg bolted together with screws, a victim of an encounter with a Syrian army tank.
“They saw my wounds. They told me to go anyway,” Aldin said Sunday. In a back room, he showed a reporter his packed bags. The men were going to find another place to live but swore they were not going to a camp, where their movements would be restricted.
Some Syrians who heard the same knock suggested that they would live underground, maybe in a friendly village in the countryside, or disappear into the crowds in Istanbul.
Others were defiant.
“We are not leaving. They can take us to prison if they insist. We have only patients here,” said Namir al-Naser, a doctor and director of a postoperative clinic filled with 60 wounded rebel fighters who lay on beds, their bodies weeping yellow and red stains onto their white bandages.
Selcuk Unal, a spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, said, “As any nation, we have the right to control our borders and immigration” and to know who is in the country.
This Turkish border region, just a few hours from key Syrian battlegrounds such as Aleppo, is seen as a vital safe zone for the Syrian rebellion — a place for opposition commanders to stash their families in safety, for wounded combatants to get medical aid, and for the anti-
Assad movement to marshal supplies and support from the outside world.
“Turkey is the artery that feeds the revolution,” said Ammar Martini, a doctor who works at the clinic and just returned from a weekly run into Syria to deliver food and medicine.
Martini said that the Syrians in Turkey included refugees and combatants and that keeping the rebels and their supply lines close to the border were crucial to the Syrian revolution.
“I can’t do anything for my people if I am 200 miles away,” the doctor said. “We need to be here. We want to stay here and to help the Turkish government help Syria.”
The Turkish government’s request to the United Nations to create a safe harbor within Syria fizzled.
As tens of thousands of poor farm families, rebel fighters, army deserters and well-to-do business elites have poured into Turkey from Syria, the refugees have generally been met with sympathy and good care, most of it paid for by Turkish taxpayers.
But there appear to be limits to the hospitality. The Turkish government is giving the rebels and their families just enough oxygen to survive, but not enough to thrive, Syrian activists say.
“I am crying now because it will be hard to break apart the family,” said Hanadi Mahmoud, who cradled her newborn son in the apartment she was soon to abandon, with its newly bought used furniture, a microwave and a fan.
She said that although her husband has a passport and that they will travel to a city suggested by the Turkish government, the move will not go well.
“I think, in the end, they will send all of the Syrians to the camps,” she said.