Turkey can’t accuse Europeans of Syrian cherry-picking

Turkey can’t accuse Europeans of Syrian cherry-picking

Many might think the refugee deal between Turkey and the European Union is on hold.  But what is on hold is the part of the deal that foresees visa-free travel for Turks. 

As Turkey is not considered to have fulfilled all of the 72 criteria, the EU is not lifting visa requirements for Turks. But both sides seem to be optimistic that the stalemate on one criterion, namely the terrorism issue, will be overcome by September or October. Otherwise the rest of the deal is ongoing.

As promised by Turkey, the illegal crossings of refugees to Greece have sharply decreased, remaining limited to double digit numbers daily.  In turn work continues on the financial assistance scheme for refugees in Turkey, as money started to come from the EU. 

Another part of the deal foresaw sending one Syrian refugee to Europe for every illegal refugee Turkey took back. “We are ready to deliver on that issue too. But Greece has not solved the legal problems. So they cannot send back as many [illegal migrants] as they want,” a high-level Turkish official familiar with the issue told me. “In reverse, we continue sending Syrian refugees to Europe. Europe has taken in more refugees than we have received illegal migrants sent back to Turkey,” said the same official.

While writing on the subject during the early days of the agreement, I voiced a particular concern of the Turkish side. Ankara did not want the Europeans to cherry-pick while taking refugees from Turkey. “We don’t want them to choose among the most educated and qualified ones,” different officials had told me.

Ironically, this is exactly what Turkey is doing in terms of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s plans to give citizenship to Syrians. 

Only Syrians whose citizenship would be beneficial to Turkey’s interests will be offered identity cards, Turkish Interior Minister Efkan Ala said the other day.

That’s basically cherry-picking, isn’t it? In other words, selective humanitarianism.

First things first. The experts I have talked to told me it was only natural for Turkey to start talking about grating citizenship to Syrians. “The contrary would have been abnormal,” said one. 

Yet Turkey is not the land of normal. There are several ethnic groups in Turkey who were forced to flee their countries and settle here who were not granted citizenship, despite the fact they have been living in these lands for more than five years (the Meskhetian Turks, Chechens or Afghans, for instance). 

This will create legal problems according to experts. Turkey implements the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees with a geographical limitation. Those coming from the east are not granted refugee status. “All the Iraqis and Afghans could go to international courts to contest Turkey’s decision to give citizenship to only Syrians,” said Professor Ahmet İçduygu from Koç University, as Turkey would be breaching its own reserve.
Meanwhile, what will be the criteria of “beneficial?” Will there be, for instance, ethnic and religious criteria discriminating between Sunni Arabs, Syrian Kurds or Christian Syrians?

Would Turkey’s traditional state mind use this issue for social engineering, settling some Sunni Arabs in Kurdish-populated or Alevi-populated areas?

All these are legitimate questions that need a healthy debate, one that should leave no room for racism.
We should avoid polarization in a debate between “I support the AKP therefore I am for citizenship for Syrians” and “I am against the AKP therefore I am against citizenship for Syrians.”

Yet, the suspicion that the government might have a different domestic agenda on the issue - like seeing Syrian refugees as additional votes - remains a legitimate one as well.