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Lack of shared responsibility turns Turkey into gateway instead of safe stay

Katherine Kuschminder | 20 November 2015

As both the largest host of refugees worldwide and a transit country for refugees travelling to Europe, Turkey is one of the main players in the current refugee crisis. Despite several government services to refugees, many decide to move on as their future in Turkey is uncertain. To effectively deal with the refugee crisis, the EU and other international players should provide further assistance to Turkey and other refugee-hosting nations, instead of asking Turkey to close its western borders.

Turkey is now host to the largest number of refugees of any country in the world, at 2.1 million. This is primarily made up of Syrian refugees, but also a sizeable number of Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians. Turkey is currently the primary gateway to Europe as migrants travel to Greece through Turkey. As such, the country has a dual role – coping with the mass influx of refugees and dealing with the pressure exerted by its European neighbours to curb migration flows to Europe.

Turkey is a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention, but with a geographical limitation requiring Turkey to only grant refugee status to people coming from Europe. Therefore, the current caseload of refugees in Turkey are either processed by UNHCR or, in the case of Syrians and Iraqis, given temporary protection by the Turkish government. As a destination country, Turkey has extended multiple services to help cope with the primarily Syrian refugees. Over 260,000 Syrian children are now enrolled in Turkish schools (roughly a third of all Syrian children in Turkey). Turkey has permitted Syrians free access to education and health care and should be commended for their welcoming stance on refugees.

Yet there is also a slightly darker side to the management of this mass influx. Syrians are not permitted to work in Turkey and receive no assistance from the government or UNHCR, meaning they have to live off their savings or work irregularly. Many Syrians are working irregularly in Turkey; some have their own businesses and fairly good jobs, while others are less fortunate. For the most part, the irregular employment of Syrians appears to be quietly tolerated, but in some cases Syrians do lose their jobs or businesses for not having the right documents. Most concerning is that families often require their children to work in order to cover monthly expenses and, although the number is unknown, it is perceived to be fairly common for teenage children to work instead of going to school. In addition, in our research project ‘Irregular Migrants Decision Making Factors in Transit’ – of which the final results will be published in 2016 – Syrian women in Greece reported experiencing discrimination and racism in Turkey, which increased their desire to leave.

This places into context Turkey’s other major role as a transit country for migrants and refugees en route to Europe. As seen in the media, migrants most commonly cross into Europe from the Turkish coast via the Greek islands such as Lesvos, where 70,000 migrants arrived in September alone.

Migrants are leaving Turkey for three main reasons. First, the living conditions are poor and there is no right to work. Despite the best efforts of the Turkish government and international organizations, no one wants to live in a refugee camp indefinitely. The camps are overrun and vulnerable to disease. I have also been told that the camps are recruitment grounds for Syrian militia groups. People do not feel that their children have a future in these camps. Because of limited employment and livelihood opportunities in cities such as Istanbul, refugees’ savings are quickly depleted.

Second, although the official policy of the Turkish government is to provide access to education, families are often told that classes are full. Despite the Turkish government’s achievements, roughly two-thirds of Syrian children are still not in school in Turkey. This is of critical concern for parents who are desperate to ensure that their children receive an education and future opportunities.

Third, the limited assistance for refugees provided by NGOs and international organizations is too small to meet the total demand for services and opportunities. For example, this year the UN Syrian Refugee Regional Response plan has only received 35% of the budget needed to support Syrian refugees. This has resulted in a lack of funds for health services, education and food rations. It is estimated that 36,000 of the most vulnerable refugees will be resettled in 2016 to third countries such as Australia, Canada or the United States – which is only 1.7% of the total amount of refugees in Turkey. But what are the opportunities for the remaining 98% of refugees in Turkey?

Given these conditions it is understandable that refugees seek to migrate onwards from Turkey. Leading Turkish migration scholar Ahmet İçduygu calls for more integration practices to ensure refugees have a future in Turkey as a destination country. At the same time, European leaders are urging Turkey to manage migration to curb flows to Europe by enforcing more border controls. Recently, the UNHCR High Commissioner Antonio Guterres argued that ‘It does not make sense to ask Turkey to keep one door open and close the other borders’. In times of mass influx, solidarity and responsibility sharing is needed across countries to meet the vast protection needs of refugees. Turkey cannot be asked to close its borders to keep migrants in. The right response is to provide meaningful cooperation to meet the protection needs of refugees in countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Greece, and assistance should be increased from the EU and international community to share responsibility in this global crisis. 

Photo credit main picture: European Commission DG (via Flickr)

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Katherine Kuschminder

Post-doctoral researcher and migration studies project manager at the Maastricht Graduate School...

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