EXPLAINED: The Syrian refugee crisis and the EU-Turkey Summit in 10 questions
Selin Uğurtaş – ISTANBUL
Refugees and migrants arrive at the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey on October 1, 2015. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the European Union's decision to inject $1 billion to help countries overwhelmed by Syrian refugees, but said more must be done to relocate migrants. AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINISThe European Union had never held a summit attended by all 28 leaders with a non-member state until Turkey demanded over the refugee crisis. With a range of options from a resumption of Turkey’s membership negotiations to visa-free travel now on table, here are the answers to ten key questions explaining the scale of the crisis, and hence why the EU needs an agreement so urgently.
1. When did the Syrian refugee crisis break out and what makes it so urgent to tackle?
The crisis has roots in the anti-government demonstrations in Syria that broke out in March of 2011 as a sequel to the so-called Arab Spring. Peaceful rallies soon escalated into a violent conflict after the Syrian regime’s crackdown on protesters. Rebels took up arms and army defectors organized around the Free Syrian Army (FSA), among others, by June 2011, while the flow of refugees began as early as April 2011 when five thousand fled to neighboring Lebanon.
Some 220,000 people have been killed in the conflict so far, while 12.8 million people in Syria, more than half of Syria’s pre-war population, are in urgent need of humanitarian aid. According to a United Nations estimate, 7.6 million Syrians are internally displaced in addition to over four million refugees seeking asylum outside of the country.
While four countries hosting 95 percent of the refugees have been burdened by the crisis for years, the problem drew wide-scale international attention only recently, after hundreds of thousands flocked into Greece and the Balkans to enter Europe throughout the summer of 2015.
2. How many refugees does Turkey host and under what conditions?
Turkey currently hosts over 2 million refugees, according to the Prime Ministry’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), while the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) figures put the number of registered refugees at 1,939,000.
Some 263,000 of these refugees reside in 25 camps built and sustained by the Turkish state across ten provinces. There are four camps built specifically for Christians and Yazidis from the region.
Although many services are provided to refugees in these camps, the situation is graver for over 1.5 million urban refugees, as Syrians are not officially recognized as “refugees” but benefit from a temporary protection status.
3. Why does Turkey refrain from recognizing Syrian refugee status?
Officially, Syrians in Turkey are considered “guests” instead of refugees and are covered by the temporary protection plan announced by Turkey for Syrians and Palestinians ex-Syria in October 2011.
This is because Turkey retains its geographical limitation to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Accordingly, only European refugees have the right to seek asylum in Turkey while non-Europeans can only seek temporary asylum.
However, Turkey passed new legislation on April 2013, called the Law on Foreigners and International Protection, whereby it took a step towards treating irregular migrants and asylum-seekers in line with international norms.
Reports also indicated the Turkish parliament prepared legislation prior to the June 7 elections which allowed Syrian refugees to legally work inside the country, a huge step forward for refugees.
4. What is the cost to Turkey of hosting two million refugees?
While the Turkish government reportedly continues an open-door policy, the AFAD stated the policy came at a high price. Accordingly, Turkey has so far spent $7.6 billion on Syrian refugees while international assistance has fallen strikingly short at $418 million.
Reports also estimated the monthly cost of sustaining 25 camps at over $2 million.
The financial burden on Turkey stemmed partly from the reluctance of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to seek international aid early in the conflict. Turkey preferred not to be a part of the first Syrian Regional Response Plan (SRRP) and rejected cooperating with the U.N. and the UNHCR.
On the other hand, Turkey was a part to the third SRRP where the country was budgeted for $624 million, yet less than a third of the amount has been raised so far.
5. What are the economic impacts of hosting two million refugees on Turkish society?
The economic effects of the refugee crisis have often been portrayed as negative, though some studies have findings pointing to the contrary.
While some initial studies found that host cities attracted less internal immigration, their locals have experienced increased unemployment in the informal sector, and a rise in inflation; others stressed increased formal employment opportunities.
As Syrians have a similar degree of education with the majority of Turkish citizens in host cities, employers who are unwilling to pay social security taxes consider refugees a cheap alternative to Turkish workers. Hence, refugees are increasingly hired in the informal sector, replacing low-skilled Turkish locals.
Locals also complain about increased inflation, as evident in the rising prices of food and housing.
Provision of health services is another source of discontent, as locals are under the impression that this practice undermines their access to health services.
Meanwhile, a study by Kemal Kirişçi and Elizabeth Ferris balances the narrative by pointing to the fact that formal employment opportunities increased in the region due to the growth in the number of organizations working to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees.
Moreover, some Syrians who managed to set up shop in Turkey in the form of restaurants or workshops contributed to the economy by bringing in capital and providing job opportunities.
6. What is the Turkish government doing to integrate Syrian refugees?
As it became increasingly clear that Syrian refugees are here to stay, measures to ensure their integration into society also grew in importance. Access to education and the labor market are issues of primary concern.
Studies reveal that only 130,000 out of some 600,000 school-aged refugees are currently enrolled.
Meanwhile, U.N. reports that half of registered refugees in Turkey are under the age of 18, carrying the risk of becoming a “lost generation.”
On the other hand, the temporary protection regime does not allow refugees to seek formal employment, forcing their hand into seeking employment in the irregular sector. New draft legislation is expected to open parts of the Turkish economy to refugees, a necessary step to enable Syrians to work in the formal economy.
7. How much have other countries commit to countering the refugee crisis, by means of providing humanitarian assistance or admitting asylum-seekers, so far?
Burden-sharing has been strikingly low throughout the crisis, as the combined humanitarian assistance of the EU and the United States stands at only $6 billion, falling slightly short of what Turkey has spent unilaterally.
In the Third International Humanitarian Pledging Conference held in Kuwait in March 2015, international donors pledged $3.8 billion, $1.1 billion coming from the EU.
While Germany has so far led the EU effort by taking almost 67,000 asylum applications, the country has stepped up its efforts, currently expecting as many as 1.5 million refugees next year.
On the other hand, a number of high-income countries including Japan, Singapore and Russia are yet to offer resettlement places.
Gulf countries are also being criticized for not providing assistance or offering resettlement, while some countries deny the accusations, saying they have in fact let in Syrians. Exact figures, however, cannot be determined with the provision of such data denied for being politically sensitive.
8. How many refugees do other regional countries host?
While Turkey hosts over 2 million refugees, four other Middle Eastern countries, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, also share the burden. These five countries are currently home to more than 4 million Syrians, 95 percent of the total refugee population.
Lebanon hosts 1.2 million refugees, a striking figure considering the country’s relatively small population. Currently, one of every five people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee.
Jordan hosts another 650,000 refugees, making up 10 percent of its population.
Iraq hosts around 250,000 refugees while Egypt is home to around 130,000.
9. Why do Syrian refugees in Turkey volunteer for the dangerous journey to Europe, leaving Turkey’s relative safety behind?
The main reason behind the flow of refugees to European countries, aside from the appeal of the standard of life in the continent, is the lack of legal measures by Turkey to integrate the refugees.
Syrian “guests” are denied entry to the formal job market and have inadequate access to education. Those who find jobs as illegal workers are often exploited by their employers, who demand extra work hours for no additional pay.
While more than half of Turkey’s Syrian refugees are below the age of 18, only 14 percent of urban child refugees have access to education according to the UNHCR.
10. What is the purpose and urgency of the Nov. 29 summit?
The EU-Turkey Summit is being held on Nov. 29 in order to “re-energize our relations and stem migration flow,” in the words of the summit’s chairman, Donald Tusk.
Turkey, which will be represented by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, demanded a summit be held and had its voice heard as the country is currently the main transit route for refugees heading towards Europe.
Frontex reported some 630,000 refugees have entered the EU irregularly by September 2015, making the eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey to Greece the most popular, surpassing the central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy.
As hundreds of thousands risk their lives to take the dangerous journey to Europe because legal methods are restricted, Europe seeks to convince Turkey to stem the flow of refugees by securing its borders and fighting human smuggling networks.
As opposed to Turkey’s insistence on safe zones, Europe has a hotspots strategy whereby six new camps would be built in Turkey to host an additional two million refugees. These facilities would function as centers to handle asylum applications before refugees are resettled abroad. The draft action plan also aims to raise over a billion euros to meet refugees’ needs during their stay in Turkey, including access to the labor market and public services. On the other hand, Turkey perceives its strategic position as a bargaining chip, demanding certain assurances and assistance in return. Among Turkey’s requests are a pledge by the EU to take in half a million refugees, initiate a visa-free regime for Turkish citizens, to hold regular Turkey-EU summits, resume Turkey’s membership negotiations and 3 billion euros of aid over the next two years.