Turkey braces for new refugee influx from Syria
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.