Turkey can reclaim its soft power with its refugee policy

Turkey can reclaim its soft power with its refugee policy

“We are under instruction of responding to emergency calls from Syrian refugees. Most of the time these calls are about birth deliveries. While going for that call, it happens that we may run late to a patient with a heart attack,” a doctor working on an ambulance in the western province of İzmir had told me.

A local from the Central Anatolian province of Kayseri had complained to me that hospitals in his city were working like “birth clinics” for Syrians.

“More than 450,000 Syrian babies were born in our country. The number of Syrians who were born in Turkey, is close to the population of some countries in Europe,” Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Faruk Kaymakçı said Sept. 23, speaking at a side event during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

For journalists, especially diplomacy reporters, the UNGA taking place every year in September in New York is important for the bilateral meetings of the heads of states.

Indeed, the highlight of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s contacts in New York was expected to be his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. While the expected meeting took place in the form of a telephone conversation, a pull aside meeting during the UNGA cannot be excluded, as the Turkish president wants to clear out obstacles to the creation of a safe zone in northeastern Syria at a meeting with Trump.

While the safe zone problem stands as a priority issue for Turkey, the Syrian refugees in Turkey, as well as prospects for additional flows, are equally important.

Turkey is doing an extraordinary job by hosting 4 million refugees—of whom 3.6 million are Syrians. As such, it is hosting the largest number of refugees in the world and in terms of GDP share, Turkey is the top humanitarian donor in the world.

This year’s UNGA is seeing some side events that can help put Turkey’s humanitarian performance under the spotlight. One of them was organized together with the World Health Organization (WHO) on universal health coverage and health services for displaced people.

“In Turkey, all healthcare services are provided for Syrians free of charge,” said Kaymakçı, speaking at the event.

“Since 2011, the Health Ministry has provided more than 55 million polyclinic services, while 2 million inpatient treatments and almost 1.7 million surgeries were carried out,” he added.  The nearly $40 billion that Turkey has spent from its own resources for the Syrians, almost one-fifth of it was spent on healthcare services, according to Kaymakçı.

Challenges like language and culture inspired the Health Ministry to find tailor-made solutions, Kaymakçı told the participants.

For example, Migrant Health Centers were established in the provinces where Syrians are dense.

In collaboration with the WHO the qualifications of Syrian health workforce were adapted to the national health system. Refugee Health Training Centers were set up which have been providing training for Syrian health workforce so that they can be integrated into the national system.

“Currently, doctors, nurses and bilingual patient guides are employed at Migrant Health Centers, serving Syrians,” said the Turkish deputy foreign minister.

An ordinary Turk listening to Kaymakçı would have reacted, complaining that the quality of the health services Turks are getting have dropped because of the Syrians or that Turkey’s limited financial resources are depleted because of such expenses.

Turkey’s humanitarian assistance policy is not only causing a huge financial burden but also comes with serious social and political costs.

While this policy is creating an alarming resentment inside, it is questionable whether it at least helps Turkey’s reputation outside.

Unfortunately, Turkey has never been good at promoting herself, so it remains to be seen to what degree its refugee policy is appreciated by the international public opinion.

The fact remains that Turkey is gaining tremendous experience in refugee response and is initiating solutions that can ease problems.

The SDG (sustainable development goals) Impact accelerator, a public private partnership to support startups that find sustainable solutions to the problems of refugees are one among many. This initiative will also be promoted at a side event in New York so that it can set an example for other countries.

However, the Syrian quagmire might resolve in the future, there is no doubt that Turkey will be a key partner to the U.N. on issues of humanitarian assistance and as such can strengthen its soft power.

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