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Syrians brave life outside refugee camps

More than 220,000 Syrians are living in Turkish camps.

Syrian refugees walk among tents at Karkamis’ refugee camp on 16 January, 2014 near the town of Gaziantep, south of Turkey. Picture: AFP.

GAZIANTEP, Turkey - Turned away three times since fleeing the bombardment of Syria's second city Aleppo in January, mother of eight Faten Darwish has given up on getting her family into a refugee camp in southeast Turkey.

Instead, the 33-year old lives with her husband and children in a dingy storage spacemade of breeze blocks with thin dirty mattresses lining the floor and just a single tap to wash from. Some of her young children shower at communal baths, she said.

"We lost our house in the barrel bombings in a village near Aleppo. My husband got injured and now he roams the streets like a crazy man," said Faten, struggling to make her miserable surroundings hospitable.

The battle for Aleppo - just 50 km from the Turkish border - ebbs and flows but the Syrian military ramped up its offensive in December, pummelling civilian areas with the barrel bombs - oil drums packed with explosives and shrapnel that cause massive and indiscriminate destruction.

In six weeks, they killed more than 700 people, mostly civilians, and forced tens of thousands more from their homes. Many of them have joined the hundreds of thousands who have fled Syria since the civil war started three years ago.

Aleppo continues to bear the brunt of the civil war, in which about 140,000 people have died. Almost two years after rebels grabbed half of the city, they are now on the defensive, with government forces advancing on three sides.

Turkey began building its refugee camps near the border in mid-2011, little knowing the war would last so long and bring such vast numbers of people, many of them women and children.

STRUGGLE TO EXIST

More than 220,000 Syrians are living in the Turkish camps, but some three times that number struggle to exist outside them. Some try and eke out an existence around southeast Turkey, the country's poorest region.

Others have travelled as far as Istanbul, where groups of Syrians begging on street corners or amid roaring traffic, their passports outstretched, have become a sadly familiar sight.

The number of officially registered Syrian refugees has hit 900,000 and no matter how quickly Turkey builds new camps it can never keep up with demand. It now has 22 camps in 10 provinces.

Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) said some spaces were still available in the camps, adding: "New camps will be built if deemed necessary."

But AFAD conceded the squeeze had worsened since the Aleppo bombing increased, swelling camp numbers by 8,000 since 12 January.

The 17,000 refugees in tents and containers at the Nizip camp, 30 minutes outside Turkey's southern city of Gaziantep, have access to facilities such as hospitals, supermarkets and even a cinema.

Children queue up for the simple, windowless classrooms where bookshelves neatly display rows of brand-new toys and books, beaming as cheerful staff usher them in.

LIKE A PRISON

But for all the attractiveness of such facilities, Syrian refugees in Turkey often choose the harsher conditions outside over the restrictions imposed on them by the camps, where they have to adhere to a curfew and are not allowed to work.

Zaki Haramoush, 48, whose family is one of six living in a basic pre-fabricated house in a field near Kilis where women cook on a fire outside, also shunned the camp.

Outside an abandoned ruin in central Kilis where window glass has been replaced by blue plastic sheeting, Saleh identified himself as the "father" of a big family of around 35 that lives in six derelict rooms.

Watching two toddlers play in a dried-up and cracked decorative pool, his weathered face looked much older than his 62 years as he explained that they had come six months ago from Aleppo where their poor neighbourhood had been targeted.

One in four Syrians living outside the camps lives in makeshift accommodation like this or in crumbling ruins, often huddled together in groups of seven or more, according to AFAD.

One of the children, 11-year-old Fatima, who does not go to school, said she was grateful to the locals.