Think Tanks: Turkey’s Syrian refugees’ predicament, By İsa Afacan
Turkey’s foreign minister recently expressed his frustrations with the challenge of humanitarian aid delivery to refugees. ‘The international system is failing […] We are suffering as neighboring countries. In Turkey now, there are 700,000 refugees, we don’t know when they will go back home. We spent $3 billion. […] We are suffering and Syrian people are suffering.’ In fact, however, the refugee issue reflects a wider problem of Turkey’s Syria policy
A recent joint report by the Brookings Institution and the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) underlines Turkey’s refugee predicament and addresses the limits of hospitality toward refugees. When the Syrian crisis began in March 2011, many in the Turkish government assumed that the crisis would soon be resolved and refugees would return home before long. The approach was that Turkey should assist what it terms its “Syrian guests” generously; host them well so that Turkish soft power would be enhanced due to their positive experience during their stay. Tent cities were built close to the border -- in direct contrast to the standard UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) practice of establishing refugee camps at least 50 kilometers off the border as a basic security precaution. Most probably the government assumed it would be a short-term issue; the stay of Syrians would be temporary.
According to the report, 21 tent/container camps were built, currently hosting about 200,000 refugees. The remaining 500,000 to 800,000 Syrians live in Turkey’s cities by their own means but without adequate government registration or oversight. In addition, Turkey provides aid to 135,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in northern Syria. The Brookings-USAK report states that the camps offer “five-star services” and look like “well-established towns, with primary and secondary schools, health clinics, community centers, supermarkets, playgrounds and even laundry rooms. Refugees were given refrigerators and stoves; accommodations had hot water and, in some cases, televisions and air conditioning.”
The report notes that in interviews with refugees all initially wanted to return to their own country. However, rising threats of radical groups and prolonged civil war changed their plans. Refugees are expected to continue to cross the border in the coming months as the conflict continues, and yet more Syrians will seek refuge in Turkey.
According to some estimates, the number of Syrian refugees will reach 2 million by the end of 2014. Given the scope and severity of the problem, the report discusses Turkey’s five major challenges:
(1) How and to what extent Turkey affords to continue providing assistance and protection to an incessantly increasing number of refugees. On the one hand, building another 40 to 50 camps would further
increase the already huge expenses of the camps, a further strain for the Turkish treasury. This would anyway not be enough to accommodate all the refugees. Without this, however, the vast majority of refugees would end up in the cities, bringing enormous pressure on alreadystretched border cities like Gaziantep, Kilis, Hatay and Şanlıurfa. The longer the refugees stay, the more the question of integration vs. further accommodation of refugees would raise serious political discussions of identity, citizenship and scarcity of resources.
(2) Turkey initially did not demand international assistance, and boasted that it could handle matters alone. As the crisis deepened, Turkey’s efforts to mobilize the international community have not kept pace with the number of refugees. The report suggests, “it will be critical for the Turkish government to switch from an accusatory-shaming language [against other countries, mainly Western] to a narrative that is both much more constructive and more realistic.”
(3) While providing assistance to cross-border refugees, Turkey did not want to tangle with Syria’s sovereignty. Turkey utilized a “zero-point delivery policy” in northern Syria, where Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) and the Turkish Red Crescent (Kızılay) transport aid to the “zero point” at the border. The Humanitarian Aid Foundation (IHH) then delivers it to IDP camps in Syria. IHH has become an effective cross-border charity, but more is needed. The report suggests Turkey should diversify its reach into Syria for assistance through the UN agencies and other international charity organizations “to ensure its effectiveness, transparency, and security.”
(4) The report contends that the concept of security regarding the refugee question should be understood in its broadest sense, not only from a narrow traditional perspective. It gives the example that some camps are located directly next to the border, and exposed to stray bullets and opposing groups in Syria. In addition, Syrians’ living in the cities among Turks may spark conflicts emanating from sectarian, ethnic and cultural differences, exacerbated by the perception of Syrians utilizing already-stretched government resources. What’s more, the safety and wellbeing of refugees may also be in jeopardy due to exploitation, discrimination and trafficking, particularly among vulnerable segments like women and children.
(5)The report challenges the earlier notion that the Syrian conflict is simple and composed of “the oppressor and the victims.” Rather, it asserts that the number of “oppressors” has multiplied, and now includes some
radical groups associated with the opposition.
The second report is “Syrian Refugees in Turkey,” written by Şenay Özden. The Migration Policy Centre (MPC) report provides valuable information about the evolution of the refugee crisis, and offers in-depth perspectives about its scope through open-ended interviews with activists, Free Syrian Army (FSA) members, and IDPs. After going through the debate on why Turkey used the concept “guests” instead of “refugees,” she argues that Turkey employed a “temporary protection regime,” which comprises three principles: (1) an open-border policy; (2) no forcible returns (non-refoulement); (3) registration with the Turkish authorities and support inside the borders of the camps. She observes that “the Turkish state has not
EVEN THOUGH FOREIGNERS ARE BANNED FROM WORKING WITHOUT A PERMIT, MANY SYRIANS DO SO, GENERALLY UNDER EXPLOITATIVE CONDITIONS
carried out a policy towards Syrians based on a discourse of rights, but rather one based on ‘generosity’.” While she emphasizes what refugees say about the higher quality of camp conditions in Turkey compared to those in Jordan and Lebanon, she also notes complaints about the services in the camps. Refugees staying in the tents indicated that some tents were not suitable for winter conditions, for example. This raises the question that there may be some differences among camps, especially between the container and tent camps.
Through the interviews, Özden raises another issue: the employment of Syrians. Even though it is not legal for foreigners to work in Turkey without a work permit, many Syrians (their numbers are unknown) work in restaurants, factories, construction sites and farms, generally under exploitative conditions. Özden indicates that the average salary is TL 15 (less than $7) per day; about the half the minimum wage in Turkey. This also raises the question of unfair workforce competition, where employers begin choosing Syrians over the local labor force, thereby contributing to unemployment among Turkish citizens.
The Turkish government also allowed Syrian university students to enroll in classes at seven state universities in the region, without providing proof of prior university attendance in Syria. Since the competition for university places in Turkey is high, with entry determined through performance in a nationwide exam, the state’s policy of allowing Syrian students to register at Turkish universities with neither an exam nor paperwork as prerequisite triggered anti-immigration and anti-refugee sentiments among many Turks. The MPC report further documents the work of the charities IHH and Kimse Yok Mu? in aiding refugees, and argues that most NGOs provide assistance to Syrians living outside camps, with refugees in the camps taken care of by Turkish government’s resources.
The third report on this subject is a commentary by Anthony H. Cordesman, titled “Syria, Geneva II, and the Era of ‘Least Bad Options’,” produced for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Cordesman contends that the Geneva II meetings would not garner any change in Syrian impasse. For him, “Assad will not step down, the opposition will remain divided and continue to become more extreme, and outside states will be as divided in their goals as before the meeting.” Taking a US-centric standpoint, Cordesman argues that the US could have played a decisive role in aiding the moderate opposition groups earlier in the crisis, but “that window of opportunity” has already passed.
There are no good options left for Syria, he claims. Taking cues from “the Arab Spring” countries like Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Tunisia and Syria, Cordesman maintains that power struggles within a failed authoritarian state provide few examples of transitional politics and reconciliation. The opposition groups in these authoritarian states are often “suppressed, conspiratorial, ideological/religious, and sometimes violent.” Like opening Pandora’s Box, removing the authoritarian regime that generally caps sectarian, ethnic and tribal tensions unleashes frozen conflicts, he states, and thereby significantly alters social and political cohesion. Even after the removal of the authoritarian regime, the new government system does not become democratic. Rather, Cordesman argues, “post-authoritarian politics threatened to be a grim repetition of the post-colonial period’s history of making democracy into an authoritarian end game of ‘one man, one vote, one time’.” Taking his cue from earlier US interventions and
REMOVING THE AUTHORITARIAN REGIME THAT GENERALLY CAPS SECTARIAN, ETHNIC AND TRIBAL TENSIONS UNLEASHES FROZEN CONFLICTS
their outcomes, Cordesman urges the US to limit domestic and international expectations over US capabilities and promises. For him, “the least bad option” may be patiently encouraging authoritarian regimes to reform gradually, despite many flaws and roadblocks in the process, rather than taking a shortcut to “instant democracy” through intervention. For the US, he concludes, “it does not take much realism to suggest that working with a partner -- for all the compromises and differences involved -- is better than working with an unstable mess.”
Given the highly cautious US policy on Syria, President Barack Obama may have heeded arguments like those Cordesman raises here. The main thrust of the argument is that the Syrian crisis is best left to opposing parties and no that significant US intervention should be expected.
This brings one back to the initial premise: Given the protracted nature of Syrian civil war, the resultant refugee crisis is likely to swell further. It is of utmost importance for Turkey to develop a comprehensive plan for the refugee question, and review and revise its assumptions and objectives regarding the direction of its Syria policy.
Turkish NGOs have been of great help in dealing with the Syrian refugees flooding Turkey.
When the Syrian crisis began in March 2011, many in the Turkish government assumed that the crisis would soon be resolved and refugees would return home before long.
The ‘tent cities’ provide more than shelter: this Adana camp also provides education, social, cultural and sorting facilities for 10,000 refugees.