Europe to Turkey: Keep eastern door open to Syrians, but keep western door closed

Europe to Turkey: Keep eastern door open to Syrians, but keep western door closed

“When it comes to foreseeing the refugee crisis, I’d give the Turkish government a score of 2 out of 10. But in terms of the humanitarian aspect, I’d give it an 8 or even 9 out of 10,” Murat Erdoğan, the head of the Migration and Politics Research Center at Ankara’s Hacettepe University, told me. He was speaking at a recent panel organized by the European Liberal Forum.

The Migration and Politics Research Center has just released a survey conducted in 15 cities on the social acceptance of Syrian refugees.

According to Erdoğan, around 1.6 million Syrians are currently estimated to be in Turkey. Only 13 percent are in camps and only 75 percent are officially registered. There are Syrians in 72 cities across Turkey; in the southeastern city of Kilis, the number of Syrians (86,000) outnumbers the local population (70,000).

While the bulk of the refugees was made up of Sunni Arabs until 2013, Kurds and Christians have now also started coming, meaning that there is an ethnic and religious change in the composition of the Syrian community in Turkey. Erdoğan thinks this is an important fact.

He also said Turkey’s national media was generally indifferent to the issue, while a lot of local media outlets are using a hateful rhetoric. “As someone reading the German press, I can say its interest in Syrian refugees in Turkey is higher than that of the Turkish press,” he added.

According to the survey, a majority of Turks believe that Syrians are a serious economic burden. While 68 percent of respondents said they had never offered any assistance, 30 percent said they helped Syrians directly or indirectly. Most consider them to be victims fleeing oppression.

Views about Syrians show a serious differentiation between big cities and cities in the border regions.
People living near the border have more direct concerns, afraid that they might lose their job to Syrian refugees. They complain about skyrocketing rents and difficulties faced in accessing health services.

“As far as the big cities are concerned, the major concern is the beggars. It is as if taking away the Syrian beggars will leave no other concern,” said Erdoğan. He also added that beggars (as well as sex workers) are doing the same thing in Turkey as they were back in Syria, and stressed that the research did not reveal examples of Syrians who had no choice but to take to begging.

A significant portion of Turks surveyed (47 percent) are against giving working permits to Syrians, and there is a strong majority against granting them citizenship. However, 60 percent believe it would be wrong to send back Syrians while the war continues to rage.

While some of the statistics do not seem to support Erdoğan’s conclusion that there is a very high degree of social acceptance of Syrians in Turkey, he stressed the low number of reported incidents of tension. “If Turkey hosts 1.6 million Syrians who have come over the course of three-and-a-half years, and there are still only a few negative incidents, this is really significant,” he said.

Erdoğan thinks that getting all Syrians registered remains an important issue. Some don’t want to be registered because this will make them be seen as traitors by the Bashad al-Assad regime, if in the future they have to go back to live under the current regime. Others fear that Turkey might one day decide to send them back before the normalization of the situation in Syria.

However, according to a recent decree published by the government, unregistered Syrians won’t able to access health and social services. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have also been forbidden from helping unregistered refugees.

“Registration is a must. But the methodology is wrong. Rather than a mentality that restricts, one should use incentives,” said Hakan Ataman from Helsinki Watch at the same forum.

There are many other problems that need to be addressed on a national scale. But what about the international dimension of the issue?

Of the 3.2 million Syrian refugees, it is regional countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan that are sharing the main burden. “Regional countries are the victims of their open door policies,” said Erdoğan, adding that international support is very limited because it is not viewed as a common problem by the West.

“In particular, Europe is concerned about the possibility of a new influx of refugees. Europe tells Turkey ‘keep your Eastern door open to Syrian refugees, but keep your Western door closed so they don’t come to Europe.’ But leaving regional countries alone sets a bad precedent. In the event of a new crisis emerging, neighboring countries will not endorse open door policies if they think they will be left to deal with the problem on their own.”

Erdoğan’s warnings are absolutely crucial!