Turkey’s management of Syrian refugee crisis

It was another night on the grueling campaign trail, a few months before the June 12 national elections last year. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, an academic-turned-diplomat and politician, was working hard to convince voters in his home province of Konya to cast their ballots in his and his incumbent Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government’s favor. This was something new for Davutoğlu, who for the first time in his life was campaigning to get himself elected as a deputy in Parliament.

An hour to midnight on Feb. 28, 2011, Davutoğlu received an urgent call from the governor of the southern province of Hatay, who asked him what to do with a group of some 300 Syrian refugees who had rushed to Turkey’s southern border to flee the first onslaught of Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Initial reports indicated that the first batch of Syrian refugees included some of the wounded as well. Davutoğlu instructed the governor to start accepting refugees as the government had already developed contingencies on what to do when Assad refused to stick to the reform path, but rather started cracking down on civilian protesters.

He immediately phoned Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to brief him on the developments and for the next two hours there was heavy phone traffic. Davutoğlu decided to take a break from the campaign trail and return to Ankara. He held an emergency meeting at his official residence with then-Interior Minister Osman Güneş, Deputy Chief of General Staff Gen. Aslan Güner, National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Undersecretary Hakan Fidan, who had just returned from Syria a week before, Turkish Ambassador to Syria Ömer Önhon and senior officials from both the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Ministry. He returned to Konya to continue his campaign on Saturday morning.

On the way, Davutoğlu also held two separate telephone conversations with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem, trying to get a full assessment of what is going on in the mentality of the Assad regime. The lingering question was whether or not this initial refugee flow would turn into a mass exodus. That question was tackled during the coordination meeting held in his house as well. The emerging consensus was that Turkey should keep the door open for humanitarian purposes, while lobbying Assad to scale back his attacks on the opposition, hoping to prod him to a transition peacefully. Davutoğlu later called Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül to brief them of possible contingencies worked out by the officials who attended the coordination meeting.

The next day during talks with reporters, Davutoğlu signaled their consensus by saying that “Turkey has always made all kinds of sacrifices for humanitarian causes. There is no reason to object when there are humanitarian reasons. In particular, the people in the neighboring countries are our siblings. When they have humanitarian needs, it is out of the question for us to keep our distance.” Davutoğlu hoped at the time that no exodus from Syria would take place so that stability would not be harmed and the transition period could continue in the proper direction. “Let everybody live in his hometown, city, town and village in peace. This is our wish. But when there is an undesired situation, the Republic of Turkey has much experience [in such refugee inflows],” he said at the time.

That is how the “open door” policy for refugees was put in motion, and we now have over 80,000 registered Syrian refugees who are taking shelter in Turkey, 17 months after the initial wave. If you add an estimated 30,000 refugees who crossed the border with the “visa-free travel” agreement with Syria and settled in Turkey on their own means, Turkey is accommodating well over 100,000 Syrians, mostly in the southern provinces near the border.

There is nothing wrong with accepting refugees in turbulent times from the perspective of traditional Turkish foreign policy as well as a principled approach based on universal humanitarian values despite the challenges it poses to Turkish national security. Turkey accepted almost half a million Kurdish refugees from Iraq during the first Gulf War when Saddam Hussein started attacking Kurds. Similar refugee problem from Iraq were experienced during the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988. Turks opened their arms to Bosnian brethren when Serb nationalists conducted a massacre campaign against Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s. Similarly, Ankara responded with a generous resettlement policy for Bulgarian citizens of Turkish origin when an aggressive assimilation campaign during Todor Zhivkov’s authoritarian rule triggered a mass exodus from Bulgaria in the 1980s.

The major mistake Davutoğlu and his team made with regard to Syrian refugees was the refusal of foreign aid from other countries and international organizations, hoping that the refugee crisis would not swell and last longer than originally anticipated. The initial response by the Turkish government was almost picture-perfect and Turkish aid agencies successfully handled the refugee centers with very well organized container cities that have water, electricity, paved roads and sewage facilities. Turkey has been footing the bill on its own. Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Secretary-General Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu was telling me last week in Ankara that Turkey refused any aid from his organization when he sent a delegation to examine refugee centers in Turkey. “My people were reporting back to me that the refugee centers set up in Turkey were in excellent condition and that they had never seen such well-organized refugee shelters like this anywhere before,” he said.

But with the crisis entering its 17th month, people have started to question the sustainability of this operation and its reasonability. As long as Turkey takes care of refugees on its own, there will be less incentive to mobilize international partners, giving less attention to the Syrian crisis. What is more, refugees have started to take a toll on local economies, putting a strain on hospitals as well as the country’s social security system. The security risk that refugees may pose to the peaceful coexistence of the colorful religious and racial makeup of the local population, which boasts a mixture of Alevi and Sunni sects among Arabs, Kurds and Turks, in Turkey’s southern border regions has also become evident in recent months. Now, the Turkish government has reversed its position and is openly asking donor countries and international relief agencies, including ones run by the OIC, to pitch in and help cover the costs of housing the refugees.

During last week’s UN Security Council meeting, which was initiated by France, Davutoğlu revealed that Turkey has spent over $300 million so far on refugees. However, Turkey’s call for contributions fell far short of what Ankara had hoped for. Even the UN relief agency’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) plea for $193 million under the Regional Response Plan has been responded to with just $65 million so far. Turkey has received only a minimal amount from the portion of funds collected. Criticizing the international community for complacency and inaction on the refugee issue in his speech to members of the UNSC, Davutoğlu warned that his country simply cannot cope with the growing flow of refugees, given that Turkey has already been using all of its capabilities.

Turkey should have made this case a long time ago. The open door policy was correct, but the way to handle that policy should have been carefully examined to determine the repercussions of it at home and abroad. You know the common saying for such situations: Wake up and smell the coffee, Mr. Davutoğlu!

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