Amid refugee crisis, Turkey wonders what it does wrong
Istanbul - By opening its borders to almost 2 million refugees from Syria and hundreds of thousands more from Iraq and Afghanistan, Turkey has won praise from around the world. But the country is failing to provide refugees with incentives to make them want to stay, driving many of them to risk a dangerous passage to Europe, experts say.
As Syrians fill flimsy boats in the Aegean on their way to Greece night after night, some Turks wonder what has gone wrong. “Why aren’t these people happy here?” Mirgun Cabas, a prominent anchorman of the CNN-Turk news channel asked on September 3rd. “What is lacking in Turkey, which has opened its arms to thousands of refugees, that makes our guests risk their lives trying to get to Europe?”
The tragic story of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old boy who drowned when a boat taking him and his family to the Greek island of Kos capsized on September 2nd and who was photographed lying dead on a Turkish beach in an image that shocked the world, could provide some answers.
Aylan’s father Abdullah, 40, told Turkish media he fled from the northern Syrian city of Kobane to Istanbul in 2012 and went back to get his family in 2014 when the Islamic State (ISIS) attacked Kobane. Although he had a job in the construction industry that employs many Syrians illegally, Kurdi said he found it hard to make ends meet.
When a bid for asylum in Canada failed and one of his brothers, who lives in Switzerland, suggested he join him there, Abdullah decided to risk the journey. But his sons Aylan and Galip as well as his wife Rihana died when the boat sank. Abdullah Kurdi has returned to Kobane.
Turkish officials say one reason so many Syrians try to get to Europe from Turkey is that wealthy EU countries attract refugees with promises of an automatic right of asylum, high living standards and material benefits.
“Sweden and the Netherlands give broad rights to all Syrian refugees who set foot in their countries,” the Hurriyet newspaper quoted a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official in Ankara as saying. “Syrians try everything and even risk death to get to these countries.”
But experts say the main problem is not the European welfare state. They say Turkey’s basic approach has not made the transition from treating refugees as temporary guests to seeing them as a new part of the country’s population that needs jobs, schooling, health care, language skills and more.
While welcoming Syrian refugees fleeing the war that started as an uprising against President Bashar Assad in 2011, Turkey has done little to integrate refugees into society. “In Turkey, we still act as if Assad will be toppled tomorrow and people will go home again,” Murat Erdogan, director of the Center for Migration and Policy Studies at Ankara’s Hacettepe University, told CNN-Turk.
The Economic Development Foundation, a non-governmental research institution, said in a report that Turkey had become a “country of immigration” and suggested the country should treat Syrian refugees not as temporary guests but as “future citizens”.
Turkey does not send refugees back to Syria against their will and offers temporary protection but does not give them full rights. Although Turkey signed the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, it retains a so-called geographical limitation, giving official asylum status only to those fleeing from Europe. This means that virtually no refugee in Turkey can get asylum status.
Refugees arriving in Turkey can register with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to be sent to a third country but procedures are slow and the chances to get to a Western country slim. UNHCR was able to resettle fewer than 9,000 refugees from Turkey in 2014, according to figures on the organisation’s website.
Syrians living in one of the more than 20 Turkish refugee camps are registered with Turkish authorities. But with fewer than 300,000 of the 1.9 million Syrians in Turkey living in camps, many Syrians are unregistered.
Under a new law, Syrians can receive identification cards and residence permits but still have no official asylum status.
The fact that many Syrians are not allowed to work legally in Turkey is sending many onto the illegal labour market while others try their luck in Europe, Turkish research organisations Orsam and Tesev warned in a report.
As doctors, lawyers, teachers, academics and engineers among the refugees were unable to work in their professions in Turkey, they left for Europe, the report said.
With the “Syrian quality workforce moving on to the West, Turkey is stuck with an unqualified and poorly educated workforce”.
Erdogan said the refugee issue was not going to go away. “Five million people in Syria are waiting to flee their country,” he said. “We thought it was not going to be a big problem because most of them are Sunni Muslims but it’s not that easy.”
In some Turkish cities, tensions between Turks and Syrians competing for jobs and housing have turned violent. Politicians in Ankara, however, find it difficult to talk openly about the challenges that came with integrating so many people into society, Erdogan said.
He also pointed to structural deficiencies. Turkey lacks an efficient registration system, language courses, social, economic and educational data of newcomers as well as basic services for refugees. An estimated 600,000-700,000 Syrian children in Turkey did not attend school, he said.
The Ankara government sees solutions elsewhere. It says the escalation in the refugee crisis shows the need for the international community to create a safe zone inside Syria so refugees can return.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in a speech September 4th that Ankara had been calling for the creation of such a zone for years. “But nobody has heard our voice.”
A safe zone in northern Syria that Ankara says has been agreed between Turkey and the United States has yet to materialise.