No Sanctuary; The Syrian Refugee Crisis and What It Means For Turkey

Gabrielle Goldworm
Staff Writer

After years of worsening conflict in the Syrian Civil War, Turkey now holds the largest population of displaced Syrians in the world. United Nations estimates put the number of refugees around 1.7 million in March of 2015, but the unregistered population is suspected to be much higher, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

At the end of 2016, the estimate rose to over 2.8 million registered Syrian refugees, and tensions have since risen further among airstrikes and increasingly hostile attitudes towards the refugee population in Turkey. Turkish refugee camps were originally designed to house a mere 200,000 people. However, the refugees quickly surpassed the intended capacity, further heightening tensions.

Early during the crisis in 2011, the Turkish government and general population were welcoming to the comparatively small number of refugees they received at the time. With neighboring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon straining under the sheer number of refugees flooding from Syria, Turkey became a much-needed sanctuary for refugees that were swiftly running out of welcoming harbors.

However, in 2014 Turkey commenced building a concrete wall along its 900km border with Syria, which, according to a report by the Washington Post, is due to be finished in late spring 2018.  Additional border-tightening measures were implemented over the past three years, including the closing of all but two of Turkey’s official crossing points along the Turkish-Syrian border in 2016, and a massive scale-back of refugee registration in the country’s southern region.

Turkey has also been accused by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of deporting refugees back to Syria. Turkish forces have, on multiple occasions, been reported using violent tactics to prevent refugees from entering the country. This marks a continuation of an increasingly common and disheartening trend of countries across Europe and the Middle East: tightening and even sealing their borders against the influx of displaced persons.

Whether this is due to anti-refugee rhetoric, lack of economic capacity to accept refugees, or a desire for greater national security is difficult to pinpoint.

In March of 2016, Turkey and the European Union implemented a “One In, One Out” strategy, referred commonly as just the “E.U.-Turkey Deal.” This plan was an attempt to funnel refugees out of the Greek Islands, to Turkey, and then theoretically on to Europe.

At the time of its conception, the idea represented something of a eureka moment for countries too long faced with a seemingly unsolvable refugee crisis, but the logistics behind implementing it soon created as many problems as it was supposed to solve. By February of 2017, only 3,565 refugees of the 2.8 million had been transferred out of Turkey to the E.U., according to a report by Amnesty International.

BBC reports that many European countries, such as Hungary and Poland, remain steadfast in their decision not to accept any refugees, making the voluntary aspect of the strategy a liability to its success. The situation on the Greek Islands meanwhile, has been characterized by human rights groups, as “hellish” for those waiting for their cases to be processed, with some refugees voluntarily returning to Turkey to escape the Islands, says Amnesty International.

E.U. member states attempts to secure their borders may have inadvertently crippled the deal before it was even implemented. Nothing definitive has come from either side and, although Turkish officials have expressed great displeasure with the deal, pulling out would mean the end of billions of euros in financial aid, says Foreign Policy, something economists theorize Turkey cannot currently afford to lose.

Essentially, it may not be a perfect plan, but it remains the best plan anyone has devised as of yet.

Perhaps the refugee situation inside Turkey would be easier to handle if it was the only current concern, but the Syrian conflict that caused it creates constant threats, both directly and indirectly.

In April, Turkey’s military began a series of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, aimed at targeting the Kurdish Workers Party, PKK, a group deemed terrorists by the Turkish government, the U.S., and the E.U. CNN reported that Turkish armed forces claimed to have “neutralized 70 PKK fighters” in northeastern Syria and northern Iraq, but two other American-assisted Kurdish groups have claimed that 20 of their fighters were killed in the strikes.

Iraqi cabinet officials later released statements warning Turkey’s military against “repeating this unjustified transgression”, and although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan later clarified that the strikes were “absolutely not an operation against Peshmerga,” he reaffirmed Turkey’s commitment to rooting out the PKK and other militant groups in the area, according to CNN.

President Erdogan affirmed that both the U.S. and Russia were informed of the attacks, but the U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned” by the strikes, and claimed they were in no way approved by the U.S. led coalition in Iraq and Syria, Al Jazeera reports.

Despite any controversy the attacks may have stirred up, it remains highly unlikely any real punitive action will be taken if they continue. As the situation with airstrikes, refugees, and the security of the region overall are inexorably intertwined, it is difficult to solve one without aggravating the others.

The Syrian civil war has now gone on for over six years, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost and much of Syria’s infrastructure damaged or destroyed. However, a great many Syrians have not given up hope of returning home at the war’s conclusion.

In face-to-face interviews conducted by Foreign Affairs of 1,120 Syrian refugees, over 90% of respondents were very open to the idea of someday returning to Syria, with only 6% saying they would prefer to live in Europe. When asked for their second choice, 85% responded that they would like to remain in Turkey, and 9% said they would prefer Europe. These findings imply those who have not already left Turkey do not have an overwhelming desire to do so, and, should they find themselves unable to return home, are content to stay indefinitely.

Dr. Borislava Manjlovic, the Director of Research Projects for Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations. While she does not claim to be an expert on the region or the current crisis, she provided valuable insight into a few key aspects of post conflict resolution Turkey and the refugees it houses will likely have to consider in the coming years.

“It’s important to mention that Turkey is a big country with a lot of resources, but on the other hand we have countries such as Lebanon, which has more than a million refugees.” Dr. Manjlovic stated. “It’s a very small country, but this million makes up more than a quarter of its population.”

It is true that Turkey is better equipped to handle a massive influx of refugees that many of its neighbors.

According to Amnesty International, there are other countries taking on the refugee influx. Lebanon houses over one million refugees, resulting in 1 out of every 5 citizens holding refugee status, and Jordan houses over 600,000 refugees, accounting for 10 percent of its population. However, in order for Turkey to help its refugee population, funding is key, and as of 2016 sources likely the UN’s appeal for humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees was only 56 percent funded.

Dr. Manjlovic stressed the importance of funding in Turkey’s post conflict plan for the refugees, stating “Funding is key, but so is willingness. With the rise of far right sentiment in Europe, acceptance of refugees has slacked recently, but financial aid from many EU nations has increased and that could mean good things for Turkey.” She went on to stress the importance of benefits for the refugees, “Turkey is thinking of long term options; in the long term, children need to go to school. If they go years without school, they will be marginalized. This is one reason why some refugees want to go to the west, there they could have jobs and their children could go to school.”

Dr. Manjlovic also mentioned a possibility for future obstacles further down the line. Religious and cultural tensions are often exacerbated by conflict, and with Turkey already housing a heavy Sunni majority, at about 75 percent of its population, an influx of primarily Sunni Syrian refugees “might reinforce the idea of this ‘monolithic Sunni state’ that is Turkey. Turkish minorities may feel unsafe.”

It is important to note that, there is already existing anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey. However, the willingness Dr. Manjlovic spoke of does exist, and there is more help for refugees than we often hear of.

Dr. Manjlovic stated, “Many NGO’s keep Syrians from turning to criminal networks to cross borders, countries such as Germany are open to accepting refugees to expand their labor force, and refugees want to work and build lives, whether or not they return to Syria.”

A great many things remain unclear for Syria’s displaced population, and a great many more things remain unclear for Turkey. When considered alongside issues such as airstrikes, difficult deals with allies, and bombings believed to be remnants of the failed July 2016 coup, dealing with the refugee crisis may seem daunting to many in Turkey’s government.

With no sign of an end to the Syrian civil war in sight, such measures may make all the difference to the future of Turkey, and the lives of the stateless people it currently houses.

Please remember, there are things teachers, students, administrators, and anyone else can do to help ease the suffering for those caught up in this crisis. Should you wish to donate or volunteer, please take a moment to look over lists of charities compiled by groups like UNICEF, Global Citizen, and the Huffington Post, or simply google “How to help Syrian refugees”, for hundreds of ways to aid refugees of all walks of life, all around the world.

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