Turkey’s Role in the Refugee Crisis:

Syrian Refugee Crisis at a Glance

Clashes between the Syrian Government and the rebel Free Syrian Army began in 2011. On March 15, 2011, known as the “Day of Rage,” activists gathered in Damascus and Aleppo to protest the Assad family’s rule, calling for democratic reforms and greater civil liberties. The protests continued and on March 18, security forces opened fire on a protest in Daraa, causing the first casualties leading to the civil war. Security forces’ presence and violence escalated at protests until 2012 when Syria became fully entrenched in civil war, with the bombing of the Syrian national security building in Damascus. Fighting quickly spread to Aleppo, where the government and the established Syrian National Coalition began a fierce, drawn-out battle to seize control. With cities decimated by bombs, Syrian civilians were forced, and continue to be forced from their homes or be killed in the crossfire of the war. More than 250,000 people have been killed, roughly half of whom were civilians. Out of the entire population of 22 million, 6.1 million Syrians are internally displaced and 4.8 million have sought safety in neighboring countries. 

Turkey’s Policy

Turkey plays a critical role in the current global refugee crisis. Part of this role is attributed to sharing its longest common border (822 km or 510 miles). When Syrians began to flee their country in 2011, they initially had two destinations: neighboring Lebanon in the south or Turkey in the north. Since majority of the conflict areas, such as Aleppo, are within the proximity of Turkey’s border, Turkey became the closest and safest destination for most Syrians.  

Initially, Turkey was a country of emigration and transit, but influx of thousands of refugees quickly forced authorities to rethink its approach. In April 2013, the Turkish Parliament adopted the Law on Foreigners and International Protection, which was then implemented a year later. This piece of legislative framework sought to create an explicit procedure for migrants and migration management, and to tackle the gaps in Turkey’s previous migration policies. These gaps include excessive bureaucracy in the application process for work or residence permits, and a lack of policy framework for asylum seekers. Following these legislative improvements, today Turkey works to maintain an “open door” policy in welcoming Syrian refugees. 

Over 4.8 million refugees have fled to Syria’s neighboring countries: Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey. 2.7 million of those refugees currently reside in Turkey; the vast majority living in urban centers around the country, and only about 250,000 living in the 26 established refugee camps. In comparison, the next largest refugee populations in the region are 1.5 million in Lebanon, 1.2 million in Jordan, with Germany coming in third with 600,000 (as of April 2016). On the other hand, the U.S. has resettled just 10,000 Syrian refugees. 

Turkey’s Financial Expenditure  

There is a stark contrast between the number of refugees taken in by Turkey, and the number taken in by any other country, especially western nations. There is also a financial aspect of this contrast. By the end of 2011, Turkey had already spent $15 million dollars toward refugee camps. With costs in health, education, food, security, and social services, it is estimated that Turkey spends roughly $500 million a month for Syrian refugees. In his 2016 United Nations Grand Assembly meeting, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Turkey alone has spent over $12.5 billion dollars in humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees, vastly overshadowing EU’s €583 million ($600 million) and the U.N.’s $525 million in humanitarian funding to Turkey. 

Despite Turkey’s admirable efforts for the Syrian refugees, the burden placed upon the country has significant political, social, and most importantly, economical costs. The Turkish economy has seen significant slow-down in recent years; the growth rate decreasing from 9 percent in 2011, to below 3 percent in 2014. Turkey has put forth $12.5 billion dollars so far, but the economic challenges that have resulted from the refugee crisis will make it much more difficult to continue financing the needs of the refugees. 

The Global Aid Issue

As the crisis continues, global aid staggers. Turkey has established humanitarian organizations that continue to greatly assist with the refugee crisis; such as Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) and Turkish Red Crescent (Kızılıay). The World Food Program (WFP) and Kızılay have come together to establish an electronic food card program, which is aimed to support Syrian refugee families in camps and provide them the opportunity to purchase sufficient, nutritious food. In October 2016, WFP, Kizilay, and Turkish authorities put the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) into effect. The ESSN is a single card social assistance plan that will allow up to one million refugees to cover their basic daily needs. The budget for this plan is €348 million ($390 million). Turkey also has been working on integrating the refugees through education and employment. 5,500 work permits were granted in the first six months when Turkey opened its labor markets to Syrians. 

Former AFAD president, Dr. Fuat Oktay has stated that the refugee camps in Turkey adhere to the U.N. standards of education, healthcare, and professional training services. Although, Dr. Oktay is concerned about a “Lost Generation” of refugee children that live in urban areas outside of the camps. Turkey has provided education for over 500,000 Syrian children so far, but Syrian refugees still lack the higher education they need. 

The EU has launched the Facility for Refugees in Turkey in an effort to deliver complementary support for Syrian Refugees and host communities in Turkey. This plan is a joint coordination mechanism funded by the EU (1/3 of funding) and national contributions by the Member States based on their Gross National Income (2/3 of funding). By September 2016, resources for the facility reached €3 billion ($3.3 billion) for 2016 and 2017.

Sufficient humanitarian aid is seldom reaching those who need it, whether it be in refugee camps in the surrounding region or in war torn cities in Syria. On September 12, a ceasefire agreement, brokered by the U.S. and Russia, was put into effect in Syria. The intent of the ceasefire was to allow for aid convoys to reach Syrians in need of humanitarian aid (clothing, medicine, food, etc.). Two aid convoys headed to Aleppo with enough supplies to feed 185,000 people for a month became stuck in Turkey once the ceasefire ended promptly on September 19. On that date, a convoy of 31 U.N. aid trucks was attacked, generating global outrage. 

Global Talks in 2016

The refugee crisis has been the main topic of various annual international gatherings. The 2015 G20 Summit, held in Antalya, highlighted counter terrorism, the refugee crisis, and strengthening the global economy. 
Following this Summit, as the civil war in Syria intensified, the dire need for global humanitarian aid became the most important subject for these gatherings. The World Humanitarian Summit which was hosted for the first time in Istanbul this year enabled countries to establish a framework to coordinate their efforts in a more systematic way. The 2016 G20 Summit in China enabled leaders to build on this discussion and prepare the groundwork for the 2016 UNGA Summit which was solely dedicated to the refugee crisis.  

One important outcome of the UNGA Leaders’ Summit on the Refugees is the approval of the declaration that is aimed at providing a more coordinated and humane response to the refugee crisis. This declaration, titled the New York Declaration, is expected to assist in creating a globalized effort. Resettlement of refugees, was the main source of disagreement in the declaration. The original declaration included a requirement for governments to resettle 10% of the refugees per year. However, the revised declaration now lists no such requirement. The Human Rights Watch has criticized this decision, stating that the declaration has become a missed opportunity, limiting expectations for concrete, new commitments. The declaration gives leaders another two years to either deliberate and set up concrete action, or continue as they have been doing. 

UNGA provided a snapshot view of the dire need for global humanitarian aid.  Based on this view, vast majority of refugees are hosted by just 10 countries, including Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, and Ethiopia. In other words, UNGA made it clear that countries that often have fewer resources were taking on majority of the responsibilities. World leaders, including President Obama, re-affirmed that burden sharing – a key point that Turkey has been raising, was the key. To put this into perspective, President Erdogan stated that Turkey has received only $525 million from the UN and $178 million from UNICEF, numbers that cannot be compared with the $12 billion that Turkey spent.   
In order to address the concerns related to burden sharing, the leaders involved in the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees have been working with the World Bank to create new financing facilities to assist countries hosting refugees, specifically in areas of education and economic opportunity. The U.S. has pledged to contribute at least $50 million globally to help the middle-income countries, and to do more to help the low-income countries. President Obama gave a nod to Turkey in acknowledging the major commitments Turkey, and few other countries, have made in helping one million refugees, especially children, to get education, training, and skills for jobs. Deputy Minister of National Education Orhan Erdem, expressed to Anadolu Agency that Turkey’s goal is to educate all the refugees, but currently, they can only provide education for up to 509,000. 

The EU – Turkey deal, which partially benefited from the global talks that paved the way for a systematic approach, was ratified in March 2016, but has yet to come to complete fruition. The deal consists of a “one in, one out” plan: Syrians arriving to Greece from Turkey will be returned to Turkey, and one refugee already in Turkey will be resettled in the EU. In exchange, Turkish citizens were to be granted visa-free travel to EU’s Schengen Zone.  In 2015, almost 740,000 refugees crossed to Greece, compared to the 171,000 so far this year. The deal has been successful in the sense that there are less deaths due to drowning at sea while crossing the Aegean Sea, but Turkey has not received its end of the bargain. This imbalance has caused President Erdogan to threaten to back out of the agreement, and unleash hundreds of thousands of refugees that have been kept in Turkey on Europe.  

What’s Needed

As the Syrian civil war enters its sixth year, failure of several ceasefires established through lengthy, complex diplomatic efforts with the help of countries that pursue different objectives, have proven that the crisis cannot and will not come to an end without putting an end to the war that has killed half a million and displaced 10 million.  Developments in the region, particularly in Aleppo, could potentially trigger another wave of refugees (up to one million) that no neighboring country can effectively deal with.

Although diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian conflict had disappointing outcomes, this year’s United Nation’s General Assembly (UNGA) Summit, which put the emphasis on burden-sharing, provided some much-needed promising outcomes. The New York Declaration, if executed accordingly, will serve as an important increase in global aid and has the potential to not solve, but to alleviate some of the burden on countries that have been carrying the carrying the burden of the Syrian refugee crisis such as Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.     

In the past, there has been emphasis on burden-sharing. However, this ideal has yet to be officially executed.
There are three points in which the global community can work to share the burden and alleviate the Syrian refugee crisis. One of which is for the World Bank to come through with its funding for Syrian refugees. The issue in funding lies in entities not meeting the goals in which they were initially committed. Second, THO urges those hosting refugee populations to focus on education for the children and working towards integration for the refugees. The prospect of Syrian refugees immediately returning to their homes when there is nothing left to return to due to destruction of war is slim. Along those lines, Western countries are also encouraged to accept more refugees. There is a growing reluctance to accept refugees, especially in European countries, due to rising xenophobia and the political weight of the Syrian refugee crisis in regard to their political elections. 

THO recommends that the global community consider these three areas of funding, education, and accepting more refugees, if we are to work toward a better future for the Syrian refugees and the host countries.

Research: Caysie N. Myers 
Graphics: Maria Jonafe Aguila


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