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Syrian Refugees Increasingly Used as Bargaining Chips

Syrian Refugees and Border Crossings in Turkey - Fanack
The map shows the position of refugee camps and urban locations in 2014 and 2015. The insert clarifies the status of border crossings as of September 2015, and the parties in control of these crossings. ©Fanack

The Turkish government says that the country simply can’t deal with a new influx of refugees. So the approximately 50,000 Syrians knocking at its door at the Bab al-Salameh border crossing in February 2016 have to stay in the camp that has been built on Syrian territory by the Turkish aid organization IHH. There are too few tents, people sleep out in the open, and there is a need for blankets, toilets, and food, especially for babies and children. Meanwhile, Syrians who escaped the devastating civil war earlier and are now in Turkey continue to want to get out of Turkey. Turkey is supposed to stop them but has been unable to.

Turkey already hosts a staggering 2.5 million Syrian refugees. The longer the civil war continues, the larger will be the number of these people who want to leave Turkey. The initial reason to escape Syria was safety, but, as the prospect of a rapid end to the civil war has evaporated, people want to give themselves and their children a future. This is not possible in Turkey, despite measures the Turkish government has taken to ease the plight of Syrian refugees.

There is, for example, a lack of schools for Syrian children. The Turkish government has pledged to open ten new education centres in the Reyhanli area, close to the Syrian border, where some 65,000 Syrians are living, about 40,000 of them children. It helps, but only slightly: more than half a million Syrian children in Turkey are getting no education. The UNHCR is coordinating the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan but recently urged the international community once again to make available the funds they have already pledged, as the fund has so far met just 33 per cent of its target.

Turkey promised in January 2016 that it would open its labour market to Syrian refugees. Volkan Bozkir, Minister for European Affairs, told reporters, “We are trying to reduce the pressure for illegal migration by giving Syrians in Turkey work permits”. However, these measures are just papering over the cracks. Turkey’s protection is, by definition, temporary, as its laws don’t enable Syrians or any other refugees coming to Turkey to be recognized as refugees and get a permanent residence permit. Turkey observes the “geographical limitation” to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, meaning that it accepts refugees only if they come from a European country.

As long as this geographical limitation remains in place—and it looks like it will, for years to come—every attempt to stop refugees heading for Europe seems futile. Still, this is what the November 2015 deal between Turkey and the EU tries to achieve: the EU pays Turkey three billion euros to help improve conditions for Syrians in Turkey, in exchange for which the Turkish government is to try to stop the flow of refugees to Europe. It’s a deal destined to fail. Turkey’s coastline is long and irregular, with countless beaches to depart from on the dangerous voyage to the Greek islands. The deal may even lead to more deaths at sea, because the shortest and most popular routes will be the most closely guarded, forcing desperate people to take longer and more dangerous routes.

In February 2016 the EU had not yet paid Turkey a cent, saying it was not satisfied with Turkey’s efforts to close the Aegean Sea refugee route. Turkey’s President Erdoğan has threatened to open the gates to the EU by opening the land borders to Greece and Bulgaria, which are, at present, effectively closed. At first, this was just a rumour on a Greek website, but Erdoğan confirmed the threat in a speech on 11 February: “I am proud of what I said. We have defended the rights of Turkey and the refugees. And we told the Europeans: ‘Sorry, we will open the doors and say goodbye to the migrants.’” After that, Erdoğan ranted against the United Nations, which called on Turkey to open its southern border to the tens of thousands of Syrians waiting there but which should instead, Erdoğan insisted, tell its member states to take in refugees from Turkey, adding: “Shame on you!”. In short, Turkey, and its citizens, are increasingly exasperated with the international community calling on Turkey to do more for Syrian refugees while doing little themselves to contribute to their welfare.

Meanwhile, Turkey seems also to have a political reason for excluding the refugees who are now fleeing the Russian bombing in support of Assad’s troops around Aleppo. At a recent visit to The Hague to talk about the refugee crisis with the Netherlands, which chairs the EU from January to June 2016, Prime Minister Davutoğlu claimed that Syrian President al-Assad and Russia were trying to cleanse ethnically the region north of Aleppo, leaving only Assad supporters in the region. Davutoğlu said, “Every refugee that we accept helps their ethnic cleansing policy.”

This is related also to Turkey’s fear that the last section of the border region still in the hands of Islamic State and the Free Syrian Army may fall into Kurdish hands. After all, the (Syrian) Kurds of the People’s Protection Forces (YPG) are backed by both the United States and Russia. The YPG is still eager to connect the “cantons” of Cizire and Kobani to the third “canton,” Afrin in the northwest. This is Turkey’s worst nightmare, because the YPG is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984. The Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), a coalition of opposition groups led by the YPG, are making progress around Azaz, and, on 13 February, Turkey began to bomb YPG positions there. Reports are coming in that Turkey is extending the bombing to Afrin, which is, ironically, where many Syrian refugees are heading, having found Turkey’s door shut at the Bab al-Salameh border crossing. Afrin is relatively safe, like Cizire and Kobani, but for how much longer?

The Syrian war is getting more complicated every day. And the biggest victims, the citizens of Syria, are being used increasingly as political bargaining chips between the EU and Turkey.