The Syrian war, which is in its fifth year, has presented Europe with a refugee crisis of unprecedented scale.
What is now becoming a nightmare for Europe has already been a trying ordeal in Turkey for years.
Sheltering over two million Syrians and Iraqis in camps and cities, Turkey has the largest refugee population in the world. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that since April 2011, 1.9 million Syrians were registered in Turkey.
According to the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Turkey has already spent $6 billion for Syrian refugees and provided much needed protection but its resources are limited and its capacity to deal with such large numbers is running out.
Deterioration of protection standards in the country, lack of legal status, limited opportunities for health and education along with increasing hostility from the local population are now driving Syrians towards making the difficult and often dangerous journey into Europe.
If this mass movement of people, leaving the country of first asylum for a better life in Europe is seen as a somewhat welcome relief for Turkey, it should not surprise anybody. Like Syria’s other neighbours Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey has been bearing the brunt. It has been consistently calling for better burden-sharing. Large numbers of desperate refugees in towns are creating weariness or even hostility in society and it is becoming an electoral liability for the government.
Authorities that decided to withhold legal refugee status to Syrians and preferred to call them “guests” instead, are clearly keen to say farewell to some of them but the sudden and unpredicted pattern of their movement seems to have taken them by surprise.
Confused and contradictory statements from officials concerning hundreds of refugees who set up a camp on a main road at Edirne, near the border with Greece, point to potential pitfalls awaiting the Turkish government.
The governor of Edirne, Dursun Ali Şahin told the Turkish media that the refugees had three days to leave either for camps or their country of origin before he would resort to “forcible measures”.
“They will certainly not stay here. They will also not be allowed to approach the Greek and Bulgarian borders. The 15km zone before the border is a zone from which refugees are banned,” he is quoted as saying.
On the other hand, Prime Minister’s Chief Advisor responsible for Refugees and Humanitarian Aid, Muhammed Murtaza Yetiş has said that the refugees could stay there as long as they wanted and their basic needs would be met by the state.
High death tolls on sea routes to Europe made Syrian refugees turn to Turkey’s land crossings with Greece and Bulgaria. Both are members of the European Union but like others in Eastern Europe, Greece and Bulgaria are reluctant to provide adequate safeguards for the protection of asylum-seekers and refugees.
The Bulgarian Defence Minister Nikolay Nenchev said that in order to avoid a refugee influx, troops were sent to strengthen controls along their border with Turkey.
Restrictive measures taken by countries such as Hungary and Bulgaria as well as the kind of response we heard from the governor of Edirne in Turkey are contrary to the international law on asylum seekers and refugees.
Respecting the principles of international refugee and human rights law while intercepting illegal migrants and criminal smugglers in an effective border management is the big challenge facing Turkey today.
As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres said, “It is not a crime to cross a border to seek asylum”.
International refugee law recognizes the fact that asylum seekers and refugees may not be able to respect immigration procedures and to enter another country by legal means.
Immigration control measures must not jeopardize the ability of genuine refugees to gain access to safety and asylum.
Dealing with growing number of refugees at its land crossings with Europe in the face of increasing pressure from its neighbours to police its border crossings, Turkey needs to quickly develop a clear protection-oriented approach to its evolving Syrian refugee problem.
While being applauded for its humanitarian treatment of asylum seekers for the past 5 years, Turkey has also come under criticism for its lax attitude to governance, lack of transparency and legal safeguards in relation to its Syrian refugee problem.
Right now, the fate of Syrian refugees may not be seen as the most pressing issue for Turkey with huge domestic security and political problems of its own, but this is one area where inadequate institutional capacity, disregard for international law and obligations will have serious long-term consequences that cannot be ignored.
This post is also available in: Turkish