Turkey braces for new refugee influx from Syria

Friday 12/02/2016
A temporary accommodation centre for Syrians fleeing the conflict near the Bab al-Salam border gate, on February 5th.

Istanbul - With fighting inten­sifying around the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, Turkey is bracing for a refugee influx of a scale unseen in the five years of the Syrian war.
Following advances of Syrian government forces, supported by Russian air strikes, near Aleppo, 60km from the Turkish border, tens of thousands of people have moved towards Turkey. Government spokesman Numan Kurtulmus said on February 8th that Ankara’s worst-case scenario foresees the ar­rival of up to 600,000 people at the border.
Turkish authorities shut the bor­der gate at the Oncupinar crossing in Kilis province, keeping refugees in Syria despite calls by the Europe­an Union to let the people in. As aid organisations put up tents for refu­gees on the Syrian side of the bor­der, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country, which has around 2.5 million Syrians in its borders, would take in the new refu­gees “if necessary”.
Kurtulmus said 77,000 people were in camps put up in Syria by the Turkish disaster relief agency Afad. “Our main aim is to house this wave of refugees outside the Turkish bor­der,” he said.
Diplomats and observers say Tur­key might be faced with a massive inflow of refugees should Aleppo fall to Syrian government forces. In that case, the number of people streaming into Turkey would have “apocalyptic proportions” of 1.5 million people, a diplomatic source said.
Such a development would pose big challenges for Turkey but also probably drive more refugees to­wards Europe, which received 1 million migrants in 2015. Charles Lister, an expert on Syria at the Mid­dle East Institute in Washington, said on Twitter the European Union should prepare for refugee flows from Syria “the likes of which we’ve never seen”, as Aleppo was “empty­ing en masse”.
If the fighting moves closer to the border, people might see a move into Turkey as the only safe way out. Reports said gunfire and explo­sions could be heard in Turkey as Syrian government forces moved to about 25km from the Turkish bor­der, the reports said.
Ankara’s decision to close the border gate triggered speculation that Turkey was trying to imple­ment its long-standing aim of cre­ating a “safe zone” for refugees in Syria. analyst Celalettin Yavuz, however, told The Arab Weekly there was no sign of Ankara sending troops across the border to police a safe zone.
Turkey’s immediate aim was to make sure that additional refugees enter the country in a controlled way, Yavuz said. The Hurriyet news­paper reported that Afad was plan­ning to send refugees into some of the 26 existing camps on Turkish soil.
Davutoglu told a Syria donor con­ference in London that Turkey was willing to receive new refugees, even though providing for Syrians already in the country strained pub­lic finances. “Our heart is bigger than our budget,” he said.
Ankara says it has spent $9 bil­lion on refugee care while receiving $420 million in international as­sistance. The European Union has promised to help Turkey with $3.3 billion in aid in return for increased efforts by Ankara to stem the flow of refugees towards Europe.
More financial aid could be on the table if more Syrians rush to Tur­key. To the west of Aleppo, fighting in Idlib province, on the border of Turkey’s Hatay province, has sent thousands of refugees into Turkey. Reports said about 20,000 people in camps in Syria, could shortly reach Turkey.
The prospect of a new wave of ref­ugees while Turkey is strengthening efforts to integrate Syrians into its society. For years, the Turkish state regarded refugees as “guests” who were to return to their home coun­try one day. However, five years after the start of the Syrian conflict it is becoming clear that many refu­gees are in Turkey to stay.
Family Minsiter Sema Ramazano­glu said recently that 85% of refu­gees could be expected to remain in Turkey. “Integration is the so­lution,” she said. More language courses and schools for Syrians as well as work permits for refugees are among the steps on Ankara’s agenda.
Apart from sending additional refugees into Turkey, the fighting in northern and north-western Syria marks a political setback for Anka­ra. The advance of Syrian govern­ment troops and their Russian allies has been directed mainly against rebel militias supported by Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said one of the mo­tives behind the latest offensive was to carve out a “boutique state” for Syrian President Bashar Assad in the event that Syria should break up.