Living in unfinished buildings and wild shelters means harsh life for Syrian refugees – and growing environmental challenges for Turkey’s urban areas

Living in unfinished buildings and wild shelters means harsh life for Syrian refugees –
and growing environmental challenges for Turkey’s urban areas

Text: Nina Jaatinen & Emma Nikander

Photos: Vanessa Riki
Near the southern border of Turkey in an outskirt suburb of the Kilis city lives numerous Syrian refugee families.
One of them, a family of five, is settled in the ground floor of a two story building. The family consist of the mother, father and three small children, aged of 10 years, 8 years and 1,4 months. They come originally from Aleppo, from where they escaped six years ago illegally by smugglers.
It is very common that refugees are living in the spaces that were originally not meant to be for housing, for example in shops, garages and cellars. So does this family. The ground floor of the building was originally meant to be a shop, having an apartment upstairs. 

Urban refugees face great difficulties concerning their shelter needs

In 2019, 98 percent of Syrian refugees living in Turkey are living in urban, peri-urban or rural areas, while only the remaining refugees are living in temporary accommodation centres (UNHCR 2019).
Kilis and other city Gaziantep are located near Syrian border. Due to this they both host a large number of refugees. 
”There are 428 779 Syrian refugees living in Gaziantep city. According to the statistics the population of Gaziantep was 799 558 in 2012 and as 2023 projection it was estimated 2 257 278 people. However, at the end of 2015 the population was more than 300 000 with Syrians living in city center”, tells sociologist Ömer Atas, giving an example from Gaziantep. It explains how big is the problem. Atas is coordinator of Ensar Community Center which belongs to Migration Office of Gaziantep Metropolitan Municipality.
In the cities like Kilis and Gaziantep, the amount of Syrian refugees has been a big challenge for the municipalities. Urban refugees face great difficulties concerning their shelter needs as well as their health.
Biggest problems in the areas are especially housing, water and wastewater, natural gas and power, solid waste collection as well as disposal and transportation.

The ground floor space is divided into two rooms with a plastic sheet. Earlier there were two families living in this space that was meant to be a shop.

Heating up the houses with coal causes pollution problems

The baby is sleeping in the warmest place on the ground floor – behind the oven that was just heated up by burning plastic and cardboard.

It’s cold, as it is already November. Heating up houses with coal is common among the local population in Turkey. But after the Syrian crisis and arrival of refugees, more households are heating up their homes with coal. It negatively affects the air quality and it’s causing a challenge for Turkey’s cities.

Many refugees struggle with their income and therefore buying coal is often not possible. They are forced to burn cardboard or plastic to create just enough warmth in their houses to help them through the cold winter months. 

The family in Kilis do not have enough money for heating. 25kg coal costs 40 Turkish lira (TL) and it lasts for only two days. The father works at a shop and gets a salary of 1,000 TL per month. The family needs 2,000 TL every month for living costs, so they get 1,000 TL further into debt every month. 

Lately the mother has been burning some cardboard in the coal oven to get at least a bit of warmth in the living area.

 “My husband gets some cardboard from the shop. Sometimes neighbors bring some cardboard from the factory”, she explains.

However, this means toxic pollution gets released into the air.

“My husband has got asthma due to the smoke and bad air”, she says.

At the same time the situation is putting significant pressure on the energy infrastructure. Consequently, the increase in energy consumption also increases greenhouse gas emissions. There is also a problem with the illegal use of electricity.

Finding an apartment is difficult

In Kilis, the number of Syrian refugees outnumbers the local residents. For example, in November 2018, there were 130,000 local residents and 131 000 Syrian refugees. This is one reason why it is hard to find a proper place to stay in Kilis. There aren’t any houses to rent anymore. Families are forced to share houses with two or three other families, which causes other kinds of challenges, such as medical and cultural difficulties.

For many refugees, living standards are low. They find themselves in very poor housing. And those who don’t have enough financial resources may have nothing else to choose, except unfinished, abandoned buildings or they end up making their own shelters.

 The family found their first place to stay with the help of relatives. 

“This place we found by asking around”, tells the mother.

There is severe water damage on the ground floor making this space unsuitable for living. The husband from this family got the cardboard for the heating from his work. 

The door for the ground floor space, that was originally meant to be a shop, is only a metal shutter. 

Ground floor apartment looks more like a garage. There is not even a proper door to insulate the cold air outside, merely a plastic sheet to make a place for the door.  

The biggest space of the apartment works as a living room and bedroom at the same time. There is mattresses next to the walls, where one can sit during the daytime and sleep during the night time.

Rising demand of housing has pushed up the rents

In Turkey, the increased demand for housing has pushed up the rents in the cities and neighborhoods where refugees have settled. In some areas the rents have risen almost threefold. This has had a negative impact on not only the asylum seekers, but also the local communities, especially those with a lower income.

Cities like Istanbul, which have been the main attraction for Syrian refugees, have had an increase in property sales. However, most of the asylum seekers have a low income and they live mostly as tenants in the city’s slums or poor areas.

The housing problem is also a threat to agricultural and protection areas, as new houses are being built due to high demand. For example in Gaziantep, an area densely populated with Syrian refugees, there is a need for 75,000 houses to be constructed with public funds. Beside housing,  there is also a need for schools, health care clinics, religious facilities, playgrounds and parks.


The family has managed to get a washing machine, which is very much needed when raising several kids and a baby. However, the electricity is expensive and the family struggles with living costs. 

The lack of water is a huge challenge in Kilis

The large number of Syrian refugees has increased the demand for potable water.

One of the biggest problems in Kilis is the availability of drinking water. Kilis is a very dry area and most of the water comes from a dam. In 2018, it rained significantly less than average, so the amount of water was not enough. The mother explains that two months ago there was a problem with the water flow. 

“There was a water outage for 24 days”, she says. “But now it’s been ok”.

Their small toilet also works as a shower. The family uses buckets to get water from the toilet tap to wash themselves. The other space works as a kitchen, where the family can make food. But the problem with making food, explains the mother, is that the water there is not drinkable because there is sometimes chlorine in it, sometimes calcium.

“In our country we are not used to drinking water with calcium”.

The ground floor has a tap and running water but the toilet serves both as a bathroom and shower, and it is the only source of water. 

Still an even bigger problem in Kilis city is the water pipe leakages coming from the old water distribution network.

“There is a 40% leakage rate in the city’s pipes”, tells Sertac Turhal, who is the project manager under the Syria Crisis and Resilience Response Program of UNDP Turkey.

During the last five years, when the Syrian refugees arrived in Kilis, the population increased twofold and water consumption increased threefold. Because of this, the daily amount of water distribution rose from 9,000 cubic meters to 27,000 cubic meters.

 Besides water consumption, the rising number of inhabitants is an extra challenge for the wastewater treatment plants and sewer infrastructure.

Learning Turkish is vital for surviving

The mother claims that they have not received any help from the government during this time. Only some NGOs have offered them some temporary help. One big problem is that not all members of the family understand Turkish.


“I can read and write Syrian, but my husband can’t”, she tells.


The opportunity to learn Turkish is also nearly impossible, as the husband works and the wife has to take care of the kids. There is no time to learn the language of the host country.


Local governments and NGOs have tried to find solutions to the housing problem, but the scale of demand is far beyond available resources. One problem is that not all of the urban refugees have been registered and information of their needs has not been collected in any systematic way.


Besides this, the language barrier creates even more challenges in providing services to Syrian refugees. It makes it problematic when raising awareness and spreading information about the rights to which the refugees are entitled.


“Life is difficult. We are looking for our dignity and we can’t get it from here. We have to move to Europe”, says the mother of the family.


The kitchen is divided from the main space with plastic sheets and is furnished with a rusty fridge and a kitchen table made from plastic baskets. A small gas plate is used for making food. 



Syrian refugee family.

Sociologist Ömer Atas, coordinator of the Ensar Community Center which belongs to the Migration Office of Gaziantep Metropolitan Municipality.

Sertac Turhal, project manager under the Syria Crisis and Resilience Response Program of UNDP Turkey.


Syrian Refugees and Turkeys Challenge: Going beyond Hospitality. 2014.  Kemal Kirisci. Publisher Brookings; 2014, (p28)

Syrians Under Temporary protection in Turkey: Findings and Recommendations. 2016. Mehmet Duman,  Editors: Prof. Dr Adem Esen,. 2016: WALD; World Academy for Local Government and Democracy

Local Politics of Syrian Refugee Crisis. Exploring Responses in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. 2017. Alexander Betts, Ali Ali and Fulya Memisoglu. 2017, University of Oxford; Refugee Studies Center

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