As Syria’s violent civil war continues to rage with increasing brutality, Turkey is facing a refugee problem that becomes more and more intractable each day.
Since April 2011, more than 600 thousand Syrians have crossed the border into Turkey. By the end of this year, this number is expected to rise to 1 million.
There are 21 refugee camps, mainly in border areas, housing about 200 thousand Syrians. More than 400 thousand refugees, however, are dispersed around the country, living outside camps. A considerable number have settled in poor districts of Istanbul and a few hundred are sleeping rough outdoors.
Not all Syrians that arrive in Turkey rely on the government’s aid and charity of communities they live in. An undercover investigation by the Daily Telegraph has exposed a network of smugglers who transit Syria’s rich to European destinations, often via Turkey and Lebanon.
Turkey has provided shelter and humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees and maintained an “open door” policy almost throughout, but sustaining this level of commitment is becoming difficult.
Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in September that Turkey has already spent about $2 billion on refugees since the beginning of 2011.
Turkey’s widening current account deficit in September this year was partly explained as being the result of the pressure created by the Syrian conflict and its spill over in Turkey.
There is now a growing realisation that the conflict in Syria is not likely to come to an end anytime soon and dealing with Syrian refugees is going to be a protracted problem for Turkey for many years to come.
Turkey made it clear right from the start that it did not wish to allow international agencies to take control of the camps and called the Syrians “our brothers” As such, they were not given refugee status but called “guests”.
Keeping international agencies out gave the Turkish authorities a free hand to provide various means of support for anti-Assad forces and free movement of opposition fighters in and out of Syria. It is no longer possible for either Turkey or for other countries to deny the extent of the security threat that this policy has led to.
There is very little reporting in Turkish media of what really goes on in border areas; much less what is happening in Syria itself. Observations from a handful of Turkish journalists that investigated the growing extremist threat in Turkey’s border area with Syria and the growing sectarian tensions in the region are confirmed by western journalists who documented the presence of foreign fighters in and around Turkish cities close to the border.
Recently, a London based academic friend with a family in Antakya told me how he personally saw radical looking foreigners being increasingly visible in domestic flights from Istanbul to the region’s airports.
On the 14th November 2013, The Guardian also reported that over the past year, flights from Istanbul to southern Turkey have been noticeably full of men on their way to jihad in Syria. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/14/jihadists-reinforcements-syrian-regime-aleppo-al-qaida
If Turkey’s own intelligence and security officials haven’t sufficiently briefed the government about the extent of the security threat, Ankara’s allies, especially the Americans, made their concerns clear. There are signs that Turkey is taking steps to contain radical Islamist elements operating in border areas.
Turkey is also moving towards reducing the financial burden of the refugees. Unless it allows access and control of refugee camps, it will not receive cash from the international donor community. But Turkey seems to be working in closer cooperation with main international humanitarian agencies now than before.
It is also reported that Turkish authorities are seeking the help of third countries to accept some Syrian refugees. However, even if they are agreed, resettlement programmes elsewhere will not solve the problem. The number of Syrian refugees to be accepted by European or other countries will be in the tens of thousands, a small proportion of the 600 thousand and more presently in Turkey.
Turkey will have no choice but integrate Syrians into its own society.
Some Syrians, particularly those in Istanbul started to find jobs and organise themselves in community groups.
Educating refugee children outside camps has proved a major task. Access to healthcare is another big problem.
So far, Turkey has been generous and hospitable to refugees, but the presence of radical elements in border towns and societal problems caused by those living in big cities have a detrimental effect on attitudes to Syrians in the country.
Increasingly brutal and bizarre stories coming out of Syria, such as an al-Qaeda affiliated rebel group asking for forgiveness after beheading a fellow rebel in a case of mistaken identity, cause further alarm.
A recent report by the Turkish think-tank USAK and the Brookings Institute, titled “Turkey and Syrian Refugees: The Limits of Hospitality” gives a comprehensive analysis of the humanitarian dimension of the Syrian crisis in Turkey.
Turkey cannot choose its neighbours but a more foresighted, realistic assessment of its policies would go a long way.
For Turkish version- USAK report, see http://bit.ly/HOICJt
For English version- The Brookings Institute see http://bit.ly/1csiOfu
This post is also available in: Turkish