Turkey’s mistakes on Syrian refugees

Independent of the apathetic European “horse-trading” approach towards refugees and wealthy Gulf States’ reluctance to carry their share of the burden, one can make rather convincing arguments on why Turkey has, by and large, been left alone in the tackling of significant refugee challenges originating mainly from its southern neighbor, Syria.

For one, Turkey saw Syrian refugees initially as a trump card to play against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government when the first 250 or so Syrians fled to Turkey’s border province of Hatay in April/May 2011. The Islamist rulers in Ankara led themselves to believe that the refugees could be the perfect case by which to question Assad’s legitimacy amid Arab revolutions that toppled the long-standing leaders of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and that brought their political Islamist brethren to power. Then-Prime Minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan started nurturing a false hope of ascending to a caliph-like supra-national and religious status to impose his own terms on other Muslim nations.

Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) refused Assad’s repeated offer to repatriate refugees in Turkey to Syria when the numbers were small. Damascus even offered complete amnesty, it promised freedom from any sort of persecution and agreed to pay all the costs for resettlement and reintegration. I knew the original deal when I met Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Maqdad in his Damascus office in January 2012. He was telling me that the Turkish government had rejected Syria’s calls to cooperate with international organizations to safely return the refugees. Though acknowledged, Syria did make some mistakes in handling its domestic troubles; Maqdad was claiming that Turkey gave armed groups “refugee status” in order to achieve its political goal.

Maqdad was right in the sense that the Turkish government not only refused any international help for refugees, financially or otherwise, but also started building very attractive camps in border provinces to stimulate the exodus from Syria. The reasonable policy for Turkey should have been to discourage the movement of people towards its borders just like any other rational state actor would do under the circumstances. The reason why some European countries like Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland adopted laws forcing refugees to turn over some of their assets to the state upon their arrival was to dissuade especially economic migrants from arriving rather than any need on the part of governments to raise revenue from newcomers, which would be nothing compared to the cost they have to bear arising from the refugees. When President of the European Council Donald Tusk challenged Erdoğan on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Antalya last year, saying that the EU can make itself less attractive to refugees, that was the policy he was referring to.

Secondly, when Turkish Islamists’ original plan for refugees backfired and the number of refugees exceeded 100,000, a red line set up by Ahmet Davutoğlu, then-foreign minister and now prime minister, to trigger a set of unspecified Turkish actions against Damascus, Ankara switched to another policy of organizing armed rebel groups — some were apparently radical groups — to topple Assad. By then, refugees were seen as a pool of human resources with which to recruit and enlist fighters against the regime. The government did not allow any international monitoring of the refugees’ ability to run, without much hindrance, the clandestine cross-border operations against the Syrian government. Even a delegation of members of Parliament from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) was refused the opportunity to inspect the camps. This policy of creating proxy groups to fight a dirty war in Syria has resulted in a total disaster with all sorts of Jihadist groups wreaking havoc on Turkish-Syrian border areas. The traffic of foreign fighters to Syria via Turkey, facilitated by Turkish Islamists, exacerbated what ought to be a humanitarian issue of taking care of refugees.

Thirdly, in a last-ditch effort, Turkey’s current rulers are now holding the refugee card as leverage against Europe, blackmailing to gain political advantages such as photo-ops with European leaders and muzzled criticism on the backslide of the rule of law as well as rights and freedoms in the member country, Turkey. Even the 3 billion euros, promised to Turkey for keeping the refugees, will likely go wasted given Erdoğan’s shocking public criticism of tying the disbursement of the funds to specific projects. He simply asks the EU to give the money to spend as he sees it fit without any accountability. As a result, the Turkish government does not instill much confidence in it being that interested in addressing the problems of refugees.

Fourth, we still do not know what the figure stands at for the cost of refugees living in Turkish cities because of the lack of transparency in the methodology of how it is calculated. In a short period of time different figures are cited by government officials on various platforms, from $8 billion to $10 billion (sometimes the same figures have been mentioned in euro denominations), giving the impression that there is no unanimity on the total figure at any given time and bolstering the view that they were simply off-the-cuff numbers provided by officials. Both the president and prime minister have confirmed that the figures are valid only for those who live in 26 government-run camps, which are home to some 285,000 people (11,000 are Iraqis). When the cost of taking care of 2.5 million refugees who live outside of the camps was factored into the cost, the total figure goes as high as $35 billion. In fact, Davutoğlu for the first time uttered the figure of $20 to $25 billion as the cost of those living outside the camps during his visit to the Netherlands earlier this month. Yet, again we do not know how he comes up with these figures. Only $455 million has been received from international donors, according to the government.

Fifth, the Turkish government has failed considerably to meet the educational needs of the refugees, the fact that it listed it as its number one priority notwithstanding. According to official figures, out of 750,000 school-aged Syrians only 300,000 are receiving an education, in one form or another. The government’s year-end target is 460,000. That leaves a significant number of Syrian children out of the school system. Another problem is related to the curriculum of the education provided to Syrians, especially by government-accredited organizations. There are significant worries that some of the controversial Islamist groups have been very active in this field, tutoring kids on heavy doses of religious fanaticism under the political cover provided by the AKP government. Given the language barrier, the shortage of teachers who speak Arabic means that the need is being met from outside of Turkey, meaning that the teachers are mostly from political Islamist backgrounds. Reputable organizations have deliberately been excluded from providing educational services to refugees.

Sixth, the health needs of refugees, pushed to second priority, are not fully met either. There was no national health policy with regard to refugees until recently, and most of the work was delegated to governors at the provincial level. On July 29, 2015, the Prime Ministry’s Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD), the main coordinator on refugee matters, signed a deal with the Ministry of Health and the Social Security Institution (SGK) to provide health insurance coverage and to supply medicine as part of a national plan. There are concerns that the lack of a robust health screening for refugees poses a national health risk for Turkey. The main opposition CHP submitted a motion in Parliament on Dec. 9, 2015 asking for the establishment of an inquiry commission to look into the health issues of refugees. The motion was unfortunately rejected last week with the majority of “no” votes coming from the ruling AKP.

In the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya where the Expo 2016 event with the theme “Flower and Child” will be held in April, refugees are officially banned from entering or staying. Only four families were allowed to settle there, according to a local branch of the Directorate General of Migration Management, which is run by the Interior Ministry. Yet, according to Niyazi Nefi Kara, a member of Parliament from Antalya who is also a surgeon, 671 Syrians (450 are children) are sheltered in very poor conditions in various camps in the province and are not receiving any government services. He said these unregistered camps are only 11 kilometers away from the place where the Expo event is to be held. He said no health records have been kept for these families and that they have received no vaccinations.

Only last year the Turkish government started to keep health records for Syrians who live in provinces where there are no camps. The health services provided for Syrian refugees are free, according to a September 2013 circular from AFAD, but are subject to some restrictions. For example, a Syrian refugee can only seek medical help in a place that he or she is officially registered as a refugee. The same restrictions also apply to work permits that the government has recently announced it would grant for Syrians. Subject to quota and geographical limitations, Syrians may seek employment, but the government has yet to unveil an action plan and relevant circular on that.

Seventh, whatever policy Turkey develops with respect to refugees, the geographic reservation placed on the 1951 convention that only allowed refugee status for people from Europe and a recent peculiar category invented in 2013 legislation on migration that awarded “temporary protective status” for Syrians will continue to complicate efforts to develop a sensible and reasonable refugee and migration policy for Turkey. By the way, the law does not limit Syrian refugees from dispersing across the country as they wish because of the awkward definition of “temporary protective status.” For example, as part of the government initiative to collect all Syrian beggars (estimated to be around 3,000) from city centers and move them to camps failed when those who were relocated to the camps simply refused to stay there and left.

Eighth, the development of current policies on Syrian refugees and their coordination are entrusted to the portfolio of Deputy Prime Minister Yalçın Akdoğan, who chairs monthly meetings of the Syrian Coordination Board, which is composed of senior representatives from all relevant agencies in the government. Akdoğan, a firebrand Islamist politician who is known for his anti-Western views, does not give much confidence to foreign interlocutors who want to invest in refugee programs in Turkey as part of burden-sharing deals with allies and partners.

Regime change has never been a policy of Turkey until Islamist rulers came along. The ambition of Erdoğan to replace Assad with a closely aligned Islamist has compounded the refugee problems Turkey now faces. Ankara should stop interfering in Syria, halt the funding and arms supply to rebels and help facilitate a political deal to keep Syrian territorial integrity intact. If Syria is stabilized, hostilities are ceased and institutions remain intact, perhaps it may give an incentive for at least some of the Syrians to go back to their own country. Out of 200,000 who fled to Turkey from the 2014 clashes in Kobani, 130,000 returned home. That means there is some real hope for repatriation. In the meantime, Ankara also needs to accept the fact that many Syrians are here to stay and therefore should develop long-term policies that make sense in order to better integrate them into Turkish society.

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