Syrian refugee crisis bringing Turkey to tipping point

It has been more than three years since the Syrian conflict began. It is now the most destructive humanitarian crisis of the decade, with over half of Syriaand’s population having been forced to flee. This makes it the greatest displacement crisis the world has seen in 70 years. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, an average of 30,000 people per day were forced out of their homes in 2014. While the West — in particular the US and the EU — have ashamedly resisted taking in large numbers of refugees, Syriaand’s neighbors opened their doors despite the huge economic and social burden this has now become. Since the beginning of the conflict Turkey has welcomed Syrian refugees. Today there are estimated to be some 2 million living in Turkey. However, given the fact that many Syrians do not register themselves, this figure could be much higher. Anyone visiting Turkey cannot fail to notice the numerous Syrian refugees on the streets. According to the Interior Ministry, the number of Syrian refugees in Istanbul alone in August 2014 was some 500,000. For the first time in Turkeyand’s history it has an Arab minority. The government has provided food, shelter, social insurance and education for around 300,000 Syrians in official camps, mostly near the Syrian border. However, the overwhelming majority of Syrians are scattered across the country, many of them having become almost like nomads, moving from one town to another in the hope of finding work, although sadly many end up begging on the streets. A large amount of money has also been spent. During a speech at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Antalya on May 13, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoilu stated that Turkey had spent more than $6.5 billion on refugees. This is an enormous sum, particularly when you consider that the total amount of international assistance received toward the effort was only around $365 million, according to Davutoilu. Unfortunately many ordinary Turks are getting fed up. Of course they feel deeply sorry for the refugees but we have arrived at a tipping point. Many now consider the numbers too high, both in terms of how many refugees are in Turkey and the amount of money being spent on them. They believe it is negatively impacting their own lives and social conditions and that the sums being spent could be used to reduce poverty among ordinary Turks. This is a huge social challenge. Unfortunately it has led to increasing protests and violent acts against refugees across the country. While some of these demonstrations are in response to criminal activities, others are related to the economic impact. Many Turks believe cheap Syrian labor is leading to wage cuts, while higher demand for housing has increased rents. A recent report by the opposition Republican Peopleand’s Party (CHP) emphasizes an upsurge in unemployment in many areas. For example, in the southeastern city of Mardin, where the unemployment figure was 12.3 percent in 2011, in 2013 it rose to 20.6 percent and is almost certainly higher today. The majority of Turks believe the Syrians will create lasting problems for the country and that they should be sent home as soon as possible. Unfortunately this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Ankara needs to revisit its policy. If Ankara continues to maintain an open door policy without taking steps to cool down and counter the current tensions, the outcome may be very unpleasant with increased tensions, protests and violence. As was recommended by the Washington-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA DC), Turkey needs to shift its policy towards integration, as return will not be an option for refugees for a number of years. There also needs to be far greater foreign assistance. While this should include financial assistance, other countries need to open their doors and do much more to share the burden. If they do not, we are going to see an increasingly difficult situation, not just in Turkey but in other neighbors such as Lebanon and Jordan. Furthermore it could result in more refugees taking up with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in order to provide their families with homes and the social services they offer or with life-threatening boat trips across the sea to Europe.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman