For Western politicians, Turkey’s open-door policy for Syrian refugees is cause for applause, as long as they stay within Turkish borders. Since 2011, Ankara has been very generous to Syrian refugees, building high-quality refugee camps, and providing food and free healthcare.
At the outset of the Syrian conflict, now in its fifth year, refugees thought they may one day return home. Turkey initially refused to grant them refugee status, describing them as “guests.” However, the possibility of an enduring settlement has become more distant than ever.
Only this year, Ankara started to realize that it needs to address refugee needs.Mahir Zeynalov
Turkey’s refugee problem gained international prominence only this summer when hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly Syrian, boarded unsafe rubber boats for a perilous voyage to Greece. Dozens drowned under the silent gaze of the world. Unless the body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on the Turkish shore, the ordeal of the refugees trying to cross into Europe would perhaps remain unnoticed.
The heart-wrenching photo of Kurdi highlighted the urgency of the humanitarian crisis in Turkey. However, instead of seeking new ways to accommodate the ever-growing influx of Syrian refugees, the European Union (EU) decided to bribe Turkey to keep the refugees in return for the resumption of EU membership negotiations.
Burdens and tragedies
Following the deal, Turkey intensified its crackdown on some refugees on the grounds that they posed a threat to “public order and safety.” Hundreds of Syrians refugees were taken to detention centers. Some were deported back to Syria, a clear violation of international law on refugees.
The EU pledged 3 billion euros to Turkey, and will closely monitor whether Ankara lives up to its commitment. With the deal, Turkey acknowledges that the refugees are here to stay, and that the authorities must undertake measures to integrate them into mainstream society.
Turkey announced this week that Syrians entering the country by air and sea need to get a visa starting from Jan. 8, but the land border is open. However, international rights groups say the border gates with Syria are largely shut to incoming refugees. The last remaining stretch of Turkish-Syrian border that is held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is used for smuggling oil, goods and fighters.
The situation of Syrian children in Turkey is another tragedy. By the end of this year, Turkey hosted more than 700,000 school-age kids of Syrian refugees, 450,000 of whom did not attend school due to financial difficulties or language barriers. Tens of thousands of Syrian children are working illegally across Turkey, according to Amnesty International.
The heaviest burden is on the provinces bordering Syria, such as Kilis, Gaziantep and Sanliurfa. The population of Kilis has doubled since refugees flooded the town. Cheaper labor has significantly reduced wages, while rent prices have skyrocketed. The refugees, many unable to work, have also helped drive up the crime rate and disrupt social order. Among many innocent Syrians, ISIS militants or pro-regime Syrians may sneak into Turkey.
Only this year, Ankara started to realize that it needs to address refugee needs. Security tops the agenda, but a generation of Syrians unable to attend school will be lost. Those who cannot work fall prey to criminal gangs or human traffickers. Little has been done to teach refugees Turkish, the most important factor to survive in the country.
Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman. He was previously the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov
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