Education, health remain EU’s priority in helping Syrian refugees in Turkey: Envoy
SERKAN DEMİRTAŞ - HATAY
The European Union’s preferred areas in lending the millions of Syrian refugees a helping hand will continue to be education and health, the EU’s envoy to Turkey has said, as European leaders will discuss how to continue cooperation with Turkey at a summit on March 25 and 26.
In an interview with the Hürriyet Daily News during his two-day trip to the border town of Hatay, the head of the EU Delegation in Turkey Ambassador Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut outlined the performance of the migrant deal between the two sides since March 2016.
How do you evaluate the fact that Turkey is hosting four million refugees and the performance of the ongoing Turkish-EU migrant cooperation on the 10th year of the Syrian crisis and fifth year of the migrant deal?
Turkey, its government, its municipalities - as we have seen in Hatay and other places - but also the Turkish people are making a really remarkable and extraordinary effort to host such a huge refugee population which is right now the biggest refugee population any country is hosting. And this puts of course on the state and the people a burden which is not easy to shoulder. This is where the EU is contributing. But it is just a contribution, the biggest part of the burden is, of course, carried by Turkey.
How would you assess the impact of the Turkish-EU deal?
First of all, this deal has saved many, many lives. Because much fewer people have ventured the very dangerous journey from the Turkish mainland to the Greek islands. Secondly, the cooperation in terms of relocation, migration management - with some difficulties - have produced some positive results. Even if now, under the pandemic, some of these obligations have not been able to be fully implemented as promised by the EU. The third dimension is financial support from EU to the projects to implement programs to help Syrians and Turkish host communities to cope with the burden. These programs have proved the value when you speak with the people responsible in the cities, provinces, municipalities chambers of commerce. They acknowledge that these programs have contributed to –at least- mitigating the problems. The EU has now contracted the full 6 billion Euro which we promised and the implementation of some projects is taking more time than we hoped but they are partially complex projects which are not easy to implement.
One of the voiced criticisms is about the unwillingness of member states to resettle the Syrians…
Over the five years, around 25,000 Syrian refugees were resettled from Turkey to Europe with the help of the UNHCR. This is proximately 10 times the number Turkey readmitted from the Greek islands. So, you can, of course, hope for bigger numbers but some resettlement has taken place. And, actually, the number of member states which have participated in the system has been increasing.
But, still, this number is still too little when comparing to millions of refugees in Turkey.
Yes, the number compared to the burden which Turkey is shouldering is limited.
Syria donor conference will soon convene
What is the EU perspective for renewing the deal?
The head of states and governments back in December expressed their continued political will to support Turkey also financially in coping with this huge refugee problem in Turkey. The EU has expressed its fundamental political support for continued cooperation in this area. And at the end of the week, the EU council will meet again to address these issues. At the end of this month, we will have a conference together with the U.N., Turkey in which the Turkish government will participate where the focus will be on the assistance to the Syrian people.
Comparing to 2016, the refugee number doubled and there is less prospect for their return. We are talking more about their integration than their return. The nature is changing, do you think the scope of the deal will also be changed?
Let me start by saying one sentence about the 10th year of this conflict. The root cause of this situation and refugee crisis remains: The brutal repression by the Assad regime within Syria and unwillingness of this regime with its international supporters to enter in any meaningful process which could lead to a political solution, which could be the precondition of for discussing the returns and the reconstruction and anything. The responsibility of the prolonged responsibility lies with those I just mentioned.
On the orientation, already in the second part of this refugee assistance and contracts you can notice the shift in priorities. Of course, health is and remains a priority.
We have prolonged our cooperation with the Health Ministry for the value of 300 million euros in terms of health support to Syrian refugees. Education also remains a priority. We continue to support with a large program with the Education Ministry to include the Syrian children to the national education.
Refugees should contribute to the richness of their communities
We have added this very important third dimension with contracts we have concluded with the World Bank and Labor Ministry to support the Syrian refugees and host communities in their inclusion into the work life and vocational training, other trainings to enable these people to earn their own livelihood and to become the contributor to the richness of this country and not only those who are only burden. The process towards supporting them in a way they can earn livelihood is one of the shifts in priority comparing to five years ago.
For the next stage, discussions have not started with the Turkish authorities. Because we can only support the priorities the Turkish authorities have themselves. But in my personal assessment, I think education, vocational training, and opening up opportunities for these refugees to make their life to earn and learn livelihood for their families is very important. And, actually, it is important also for those who might return to Syria. If they have the opportunity to learn something in Turkey, they won’t forget when they return to Syria. So, it is an investment which in any case is useful and worthy.
You outlined education. Could you summarize the EU support in that field?
Turkey has managed something quite exceptional. When I talked to UNICEF or other organizations which have comparisons with other countries, Turkey has managed to include in its national education system more than 700,000 Syrian kids. This is a huge success. Unfortunately, because the young population among the refugees is big, there are still many who are not part of this system, but it is still a huge success. The EU is trying to support in two ways:
One way is infrastructure. Because having so much more students in schools, it’s fact that they need more schools, classrooms. So, we, together, with the Education Ministry, are contributing to the building, the refurbishment or modernization of over 400 schools in the country for the value of more than 600 million Euro. You don’t only need the schools and classrooms, but you also need teachers. So, we are also supporting a program from the Education Ministry. The teachers are supported to help in this huge education effort. These teachers have really proved to be very engaged, dynamic and active important contribution to this inclusion of these young people to the system.
Hatay is doing its best to cope with refugees
Hatay is hosting around half a million refugees, making one third of the entire population. What was your impression?
We talked to many people here and you feel that the Syrian issues and the unresolved Idlib case but also hosting such a huge number of refugees, itself, are a huge preoccupation. Local authorities do their best to mitigate the consequences here on the ground but of course they need support from the national government and the support we can provide. But it is also a region which has lost part of its potential because of the war just across the border going on for 10 years. We hear it in the hotels: No Syrian guests are coming from Syria; no international tourists either as they are more cautious. Proximity to Syria makes it that effect is doubled than other regions. The refugee problem itself and proximity to Syria and the consequences it has on the economy and security is something you feel much stronger here more, than any other regions.
My last question is on the legal action against the HDP. The move came just days after the government outlined the human rights’ action and other reforms. How do you assess all these?
The reforms announced in the Human Rights Action Plan and in the economic area will of course need to be seen how it is implemented. Announcement of these reforms are important but what matters in the end is the implementation.
On the HDP, High Representative Josep Borrell and the commissioner have expressed their deep concerns about this situation: Deep concern because they see here an element which could further contribute to the deterioration in the trust in the Turkish democracy. Now we have to see how this process continues.
Democracy and a functioning democracy are among the key values of the EU and we expect that a candidate country to the EU is also living up to its commitments and promises in this area. Turkey, as one of the founding members of the Council of Europe, has the international obligations and it will be important to see how they are lived up to.