Thousands of Syrian refugees in Turkey lined up at border crossings on Wednesday in hopes of returning home temporarily after Syrian border officials announced that Turkey had agreed to let the refugees leave and return later while it copes with a disastrous earthquake.
Many of those gathering at three border crossings were carrying suitcases, plastic bags and potato sacks holding whatever personal belongings they had been able to salvage from destroyed homes. By late morning, some had begun crossing into Syria.
The Syrian administration of Bab al-Hawa, one of the main border crossings from Turkey into an opposition-held territory in northwestern Syria, announced via social media that Turkey would allow refugees living in the earthquake zone to return to their homeland for three to six months and then come back to Turkey.
Turkish officials could not immediately be reached for comment. But if confirmed, this would be a policy shift by Turkey, albeit under extraordinary circumstances. Turkey, which hosts about 3.7 million Syrians, has tightly controlled the border with Syria for years to prevent more refugees from coming in.
Most of the Syrians who have returned home in the past few years risked not being allowed back into Turkey.
Mazen Alloush, a spokesman for the Syrian side of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, said there were about 1.7 million Syrians living in the Turkish areas devastated by the earthquake, which killed more than 40,000 people in Turkey and Syria and left millions homeless in the two countries.
“I will return to Turkey when things return to normal and hospitals reopen,” said Younis al- Saeed, standing in the line on the Turkey side of Bab al-Hawa, waiting to cross the border. “But of course there is a fear that Turkey won’t allow us to return. We can’t guarantee it.”
Mr. Saeed’s house in the city of Antakya in southern Turkey was not demolished, but the home his landlord was living in was. So his landlord told Mr. Saeed that he needed the family to move out.
“We have no other choice but to go to Syria,” said Mr. Saeed, a 29-year-old father of two.
The Bab al-Hawa crossing is administered by a Syrian opposition group that controls part of the country’s northwest. Mr. Alloush said that over the past few days, the local government linked to that opposition group had met with Turkish officials. Turkey decided to allow Syrians to go home temporarily, then return later, as it recovers and rebuilds, Mr. Alloush said.
He added that he expected about 3,000 Syrians to cross through the Bab al-Hawa a day and that more would go through other border crossings. At least two other border crossings were already being used by the refugees to return to Syria.
Last May, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey announced a significant expansion of his country’s plan to entice Syrian refugees back to their homeland by building homes for them in Syria near the Turkish border. He made the announcement amid an acute economic crisis in Turkey that has since deepened and fueled widespread anger toward the large number of refugees in Turkey, including Syrians and Afghans.
Some of those leaving this week said they planned to spend a few months in Syria until Turkey emerged from its state of emergency and made cities and towns inhabitable again. But others said they had no intention of returning to Turkey: They said they had come to Turkey years ago to flee war and destruction in Syria, but with parts of Turkey now in a state of destruction, they might as well return home.
“We are going back because we no longer have a place to shelter here,” said Mohammad Mohammad, 40, who was lined up with his wife and two young children. They carried with them a potato sack stuffed with clothes.
Neighbors had pulled the family members out of the rubble of their collapsed home in the southern Turkish city of Antakya hours after the earthquake struck. Mr. Mohammad had a fractured leg but said that he had struggled to find a hospital that would treat a minor injury given the overall scale of others’ wounds.
With no place to live, they had gone to a nearby town, but he said that they had been refused a tent for three days because priority was being given to Turkish people. He said he had also heard from friends trying to rent homes elsewhere in southern Turkey that landlords were seeking unaffordable rents.
The family plans to stay with relatives in northwestern Syria and then return to Turkey in a few months, Mr. Mohammad said.
“At least in Syria there are tents and we have family and friends,” he said. “People will help us.”
Mohammad Haj Kadour contributed reporting.