Turkey’s unique approach to the Syrian refugee crisis is creaking badly

Syrians waiting to cross the border near Sanliurfa in south-eastern Turkey. EPA

The official Turkish policy is that it doesn’t accept asylum applications from outside Europe. The Syrian refugee crisis forced this to change. It led the Turkish authorities to implement, in their words, “innovative policy instruments”. This has been done without ever changing the official policy, partly by treating the Syrians as guests rather than refugees as such.

This open-door policy for Syrian refugees has become a showcase for what the new Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, calls humanitarian diplomacy. As a result, Turkey now hosts more than a 1.5m Syrians – and many more have arrived on the back of the US/allied air strikes on ISIS. A quarter of the total influx live in around 20 refugee camps, while the rest are dispersed all around the country, many of them working in informal employment.

This latest wave

This is in fact the third time in modern history that Turkey has had to cope with a mass movement of immigrants into its borders, following the ethnic Turkish forced emigration from Bulgaria in 1989; and two waves of Kurds escaping atrocities in Iraq in 1988 and 1991. To evaluate the Turkish approach this time around, I interviewed a series of officials in the government and the disaster management authority (AFAD) in February and May 2014 in Ankara and in the Gaziantep and Kilis provinces in the south. The Turkish citizens of both of these provinces have family links with Syrians across the border, while Kilis also has particularly strong economic links with Syria.

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The disaster management authority has played a central role in the refugee process, including delegating almost all the relevant administrative work to other arms of the state. This indicates that the Turkish authorities see the refugee crisis as temporary rather than being about permanent integration.

Yet Turkey has extended access to education, the labour market and healthcare services, both for chronic illnesses and emergency care. This protection is only available for refugees from Syria. Others such as Afghans and Iraqis in comparably dire situations, waiting to be resettled elsewhere by the refugee agency UNHCR, do not have similar rights. Lately the surging numbers of Syrians in the Turkish labour market, the housing market, and using public services has generated resentment in the big cities. Many associate the Syrians with crime. Despite the close ties to the Syrians in the south-eastern provinces, the resentment runs deep particularly in Gaziantep and also in the coastal border area of Hatay.

Ramshackle structures

In co-operation with AFAD, the provincial governors principally administer the camps; the foreign ministry co-ordinates relief efforts with international organisations; and the Turkish Red Crescent organises aid distribution. Yet the structure of this effort is not what it could be. It essentially relies on the brazenly and frequently expressed self-confidence that has gripped Turkish public administration culture under the ruling AKP party. The organisation of AFAD under the prime minister’s office become the epitomé of this self-confidence.

For instance although AFAD has a local office in Gaziantep, it is the provincial governor’s office that has responsibility for organising local aid efforts. But it lacks either the administrative or financial capacity, and the funds are distributed by AFAD. This confusing structure means that the governors are not very effective at coordinating assistance in the field or collaborating with the international NGOs. Similarly, AFAD is also incapable of organising the settling of Syrians out of the camps. One consequence has been that the NGOs have ended up operating quite separately from the government when they could have been working together.

Turkish alms-giving

To the extent that the Turkish effort succeeds in spite of these bureaucratic problems, it is based on the nation’s shared sense of itself as a social state to people in need. This is due to its national and cultural values as well as historical friendship, kinship, interrelationship or religious brotherhood with the Syrians. The Turkish authorities might have talked about innovative solutions as the cornerstone of their relief effort, but where the state’s agencies have worked together, this shared altruistic narrative has been the real driver.

Related to this is a belief in the Turkish administration that the Turkish people are strangely unique in how they assist people and also a very practical nation. This also implies superiority to the Western way of doing things; a sense in which an economically rational Western audience wouldn’t understand the idea of alms-giving without expecting anything in return. The Turkish officials expressing these views seem to be unaware of the tradition of charity work in other parts of the world.

Syrians fleeing for the lives to the Turkish border EPA

One unfortunate consequence of Turkey’s shared alms-giving narrative has been the decision not to grant Syrians official refugee status. This increases their vulnerability. The guest status means that Syrians do not have rights in Turkey and that the state has the right to deport them at any time. Recently, indeed, the government has been indicating that those that commit crimes should be deported immediately. In other words, the Turkish notion of neighbourly generosity does not come with proper rights.

As one official in the town of Islahiye in Gaziantep said in an interview: “Being a strong state means that you feel pity. The Turkish state feels pity towards Syrians and this is why we feed them and let them stay in Turkey.” Such a charitable rather than a rights-based approach arguably feeds negative public opinion in Turkey towards refugees. Certainly many Turks have expressed their discontent with the government for allocating resources to Syrians instead of citizens who are in need, such as earthquake victims. Some of the words they use to define Syrians include “beggars”, “looters”, and “exploiters”.

This resentment has reached the point where the public are becoming increasingly opposed to the idea of more refugees being admitted, aggravated of course by the fact that large numbers are still trying to cross the border. One change in the past few weeks has been that those in the queue are now increasingly Kurdish rather than Arab Syrians, due to the fact that the ISIS terrorists have tended towards their territories. Increasingly in agreement with the Turkish public is the US government, which is said to have been putting pressure on the Turks to close their border to make it harder for Western jihadists to reach Syria from Europe.

As a result, Turkish officials are finally debating how sustainable their Syrian refugee policy now is. Foreign minister Mevlüt Çavusoğlu has been talking up the prospect of Turkey supporting a protected buffer zone for refugees inside Syria, amid talk of temporarily integrating those who have already crossed the border. We can’t say where the debate will end at this stage, but certainly time seems to be running out for the government’s “innovative policy instruments”. Whether Turkey will reflect on how its unique approach to alms-giving has contributed to this is another question.