PN Member Joost Lagendijk Reflects on Turkey's Syrian Headache

Joost Lagendijk
May 04, 2014

In his column for the Turkish daily Today's Zaman, PN member Joost Lagendijk reflects this time on "Turkey's headache" with regard to the civil war in Syria and the great number of Syrian refugees coming to Turkey to escape the violence in their home country.

For those in Turkey who still have any illusions that, maybe, after three hectic and brutal years, the civil war in Syria might slowly stabilize at a less violent level and, hopefully, the most acute problems affecting Turkey would start to fade away, last week was a merciless wake-up call.

On Wednesday, a barrel bomb dropped by a Syrian government aircraft on an elementary school in Aleppo killed at least 20 people, including 17 children. One day later, 33 Syrians were killed and many more wounded when a busy outdoor market in another part of Aleppo was attacked with missiles and barrel bombs.

These two calculated onslaughts on civilians by regime forces are only the latest proof the Syrian horrors are not over yet and there is no escape for Turkey, either. The immediate result of the Aleppo attacks will, most probably, be another wave of Syrian refugees to Turkey. The new arrivals will only put extra pressure on the already-stretched local infrastructure in Turkey and will create even more social tensions, not only in border areas. They underline the point made by the International Crisis Group (ICG) in a report published last week titled “The Rising Costs of Turkey's Syrian Quagmire”: Turkey's open door policy has its limits and is in need of some serious revision.

The report deals with many aspects of Turkey's Syrian headache, including those that relate to the grievances of Turkey's Alevi population, and the link between Turkey's domestic Kurdish problem and the need to establish proper relations with the Syrian Kurds. Nevertheless, the main thrust of the report is on ways to deal with the continuous flow of refugees.

Turkey's humanitarian outreach to the more than 700,000 Syrian refugees and the over $3 billion spent on helping and accommodating them have been praised by many, and deservedly so. Based on interviews with Syrian activists, refugees, local residents and Turkish authorities, the ICG alleges, however, that Turkey's policies, while morally right and in line with international principles, remain an emergency response. According to the renowned think tank, Ankara needs to find a sustainable, long-term arrangement with the international community to take care of the Syrians who keep on arriving daily. Let me highlight some of ICG's very practical suggestions and politically sensitive recommendations.

In order to sustain high standards, Turkey's main problem is dealing with the refugees that do not go to or are not admitted by the official camps and have moved into urban areas. Most remain in cities along the border such as Hatay and Gaziantep, but increasingly Syrians are spreading to western Turkey as well with, for instance, an estimated 120,000 Syrian refugees living in İstanbul. That growing population is creating an uneasy environment, also because locals have started realizing that many Syrians will not go back, even if the war ends soon. To be able to house all of them, especially those that can't afford to rent a place, the ICG suggests initiating a housing scheme that combines conditional cash with housing vouchers to provide rent subsidies, paid for entirely by international donors. That help should be part of an extra (financial) effort by international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and sponsors like the EU.

The ICG believes Turkey has good reasons to be disappointed about the assistance it has received from abroad in coping with the flood of refugees. Partly, that was the result of national pride, a desire to maintain full control and expectations of a short conflict. Fortunately, cooperation with INGOs has improved for some time now, although a lack of trust still makes sharing the burden difficult.

With regard to Turkey's wish to receive more cash from the EU, the ICG repeats the call made by others before on Turkey to find a new narrative to ask for money. Because most donors work through NGOs, other countries or organizations are not able and willing to simply transfer funds to Ankara in order for Turkey to continue doing things the way it has done before.

The ICG is a welcome reminder of the uncomfortable fact the war in Syria will not be over soon and Turkey will need to keep on dealing with the fallout of that conflict, preferably in good collaboration with the rest of the world. 


Originally puglished on

Photor courtesy of İHH İnsani Yardım Vakfı/TURKEY.

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