Is Turkey closing its doors to Syrian refugees?

Ceylan Ozbudak

Published: Updated:

Sometimes it is very hard for people to understand why foreign affairs should matter so much to them. It’s the easy path to simply focus inside your own borders and look to develop your country domestically, leaving your neighbor to his own affairs. Perhaps in this region, we even consider it polite to do just that. Then consider me to be advocating for some bad manners, to be advocating for the entire region not only our government to intervene in an ongoing crisis in Syria.

Some will say these matters are none of our business. In an increasingly small world, where your domestic conflict can quickly launch a regional battle, your political affairs are very much our business. In a region where civil unrest in your nation can create an economic disaster in ours, how you treat your people becomes very much our business.

And when chemical weapons are being lobbed around near our border and al-Qaeda and all the horror and havoc that comes with them stands on our very doorstep, Syria’s not-very-civil war is very much our business. When coup protestors are being killed in thousands in Egypt, the regime change is our business. When Al-Shabab is bombing Turkish hospitals and schools in Somalia, the radical extremism in Somalia is very much our business.

If Boko Haram is targeting Turkish officials in Nigeria because Turks bring “western education” to Nigeria, the Nigerian people’s fight against Boko Haram is absolutely our business.”

Turkey has taken the brunt of the Syrian civil war that has been raging on just beyond its southern borders, since 2011. Turkey has publicly maintained an “open door” policy for Syrians escaping the brutal war between the opposition groups and the Assad regime. Another advantage Turkey has been offering to its southern neighbors, has been providing ease of entrance. In the past, it was rare for Turkey to carry out border checks.

Coming end

When Turkey recently introduced border controls at certain times of the day, many people wondered if this could be a sign of a coming end to Turkey’s hospitality toward the Syrian refugees. Prime Minister Erdoğan put an end to all these speculations with a live address on September 12th.

PM Erdoğan stated that Turkey would never close its doors to refugees and that those were simply rumors that should not be taken into account. He also added: “[The] Turkish state would always stand by the Syrian people.” This sentiment is widely supported by the Turkish public. There is no doubt that the Syrian refugees, which according to some estimates, reach 700,000 now, has proved to be a big burden on the shoulders of Turkey. However, neither the Turkish public nor the government can be heard complaining and they have no intention of leaving these people alone when they need our help the most.

Some of the Turkish camps actually closely resemble small cities with families living in prefabricated containers complete with running water, sewage and electricity.

Ceylan Ozbudak

Turkey’s response to the influx of Syrian refugees has been an admirable one. Principally through the work of the Turkish Red Crescent and the Turkish Disaster Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), 20 camps have been established at a cost of $1.5 billion. Turkey has paid most of the bill (except a $92 million donation from the U.N.). Presenting the ICG field study on the status of the refugees in the 17 camps in Turkey, Didem Collinsworth said that due to their high standards, the Turkish camps are called “5 star camps” by international authorities.

Some of the Turkish camps actually closely resemble small cities with families living in prefabricated containers complete with running water, sewage and electricity. Mosques, health services, playgrounds, and schools are also established in the camps. For Turks, Syrians are not refugees but guests and given the cultural pride Turks take in hosting their guests, many Turks feel an obligation to host Syrians in the best facilities they can provide. As one AFAD director stated, the nicest room in the house is always reserved for providing hospitality.

Kinship ties

Most of the refugees place themselves in the Hatay province, which was the former governorate of Alexandretta - so it was part of Syria until just before the beginning of World War II. So the population of Hatay is very closely tied with the population across the border. There are lots of kinship ties and social networks between these areas.

The Turkish government has also offered to airlift refugees to European countries. So far there have been few takers, although Canada announced its willingness to resettle 1,500. Germany so far welcomed 18 thousand refugees, preferably “Christians.”

An estimated 40.000 Syrians have streamed into the Kurdistan region in Northern Iraq since 15 August. Even though the clashes between PYD in North Syria and Al Nusra and ISIS made the Kurds in the region flee to Iraq, Syrian Kurds claim this is only for a short period of time. In the end, they need every single person working for a Kurdish federation in North Syria.

Lebanon has been the country, which was struck the hardest by the Syrian refugee crisis. With more than 700,000 estimated refugees, Lebanon with a previous population of only 4.5 million people is facing a critical change in its demographics.

A country already in sectarian fall-out came on the brink of recreating its civil war through the increasing number of refugees. Let’s not forget, the problem is not the refugees themselves, but the reaction to them. Even with $438.9 million in funding from the U.N., Lebanon is still facing difficulty in trying to shelter its refugees.

Jordan on the other hand, has received 515,000 refugees in this crisis. With Jordan the problem is funding, not the demographics of the country. For years and years, Jordanians and Syrians have mixed and they have relatives in common, so it is not an extremely stark contrast socially but there are still differences in customs and traditions.


There is a perception amongst native Jordanians that Syrian refugees are consuming employment opportunities that once belonged to them. In a nation with substantial poverty and unemployment, this has created a great deal of resentment and animosity toward the refugee population. Another issue is the amount of water in the country. Jordan is basically water poor and every drop of water is important for the country.

The reason all of these statistics and situations are so important is that there are lessons to be learned and time after time we demonstrate in this region we have not learned them. Peace must be not just the end game; it must become the only game. Perpetual war in the region has only brought about perpetual misery for everyone, not just the countries directly involved. We cannot continue to be the cause of our own self-inflicted demise.

If we really want the prosperous, developed region we speak of so often, full of opportunity and promise for all, then the first task at hand is to stop ourselves from being the reason it isn’t happening. The never-ending blame heaped on the Western world would make a lot more sense if only we didn’t look across the battlefields of our region and see our brothers facing each other in battle.

If only these battles weren’t being funded, fueled, and incited by the people of our own region, maybe these arguments would make a lot more sense. Turkey is not closing its doors to Syrian refugees but this is currently, undeniably one of our problems. It is a problem of our own creation, and it must be a time when the solutions are of our own making. It’s time the Middle Eastern nations step up altogether for a solution in Syria or this crisis will destroy the region altogether.

Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

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