Humanitarian summit shines spotlight on Turkey

World leaders, UN agencies, and relief organizations will gather in Istanbul on May 23–24 for the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, spearheaded by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in response to the more than one hundred million people in need of assistance. The Brookings Institution’s Kemal Kirişci says that the decision to hold this summit in Turkey, made in 2013 on the basis of its generous foreign-assistance program and hosting of the world’s largest refugee population, has been complicated amid President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian turn. “I suspect that the summit is not going to receive the attention it would have gotten had Turkey been in a different situation,” Kirişci says.

Why was Turkey selected to host this inaugural summit?

Turkey had become one of the largest donor countries in the world—the largest on a per-capita basis. The World Humanitarian Summit was a way for the secretary-general to acknowledge this, and to encourage other countries to be as generous as Turkey has been.

Part of the agenda is criticizing the prevailing humanitarian government system led by the West: the United Nations, the United States, and big international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs). The secretary-general wanted alternative voices to emerge. A lot of the funds allocated for humanitarian and developmental goals, for example, disappear into black holes of administrative costs. Turkey has criticized this, and operates its system outside the established mechanisms.

The other side of the coin was to encourage Turkey to work more closely with existing international humanitarian governance. For example, Turkey makes very little contributions to the UN budget or to international agencies that have experience working on these issues and well-established practices on transparency and accountability. Instead, it prefers to follow its own path.

What are the political objectives underlying Turkey’s largesse?

Once the Soviet Union collapsed, Turkey embarked on a policy of extending humanitarian and a little developmental assistance to Georgia, Azerbaijan, Central Asian countries, and the former Yugoslavia. This evolved into a full-fledged agency called TİKA, the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency.

By 2010, TİKA was commanding a significant budget and extending assistance to distant corners of the world. This was increasingly accompanied by faith-based—in essence, Islamic—NGOs. They have extended assistance to Syria, and also victims of the earthquake in Haiti and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, as well as the Rohingya refugees fleeing [Myanmar]. In the last couple of years, TİKA and these NGOs have increasingly focused on Muslim countries and communities in Africa and Asia. That falls in line with a Turkey that aspires to lead the Muslim world.

Turkey hosts the largest population of Syrian refugees—some 2.75 million, according to the UN. Why did Turkey open its borders in 2011?

There was a lot of empathy, but the border opening also needs to be seen as part of a geopolitical agenda. [Then Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet] Davutoğlu and [then Prime Minister] Erdoğan, like the United States, expected that [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad would fall within a short period of time, and Turkey wanted to be seen as a country that had helped a large number of refugees. Turkey expected that it would win the hearts and minds of the international community, and also of the Syrian refugees, who are overwhelmingly Sunni Arabs. Its assumption was that a government coming from a Muslim Brotherhood tradition, like Mohamed Morsi’s in Egypt, [would follow Assad’s fall]. Turkey expected to enjoy considerable influence with this new regime, beyond the quite intimate relationship it had acquired with Assad [prior to 2011, when Turkey lent its backing to the opposition].

Erdoğan complains that the international community has contributed miserably to Turkey, which has spent more than $10 billion on Syrian refugees over the past five years. But the international community has contributed $1.5 billion [to Syrian refugees in Turkey] through the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, World Food Program, and UNICEF, and also through groups like Médecins Sans Frontières and a number of [U.S.-based] INGOs. Turkey doesn’t count that [since it doesn’t go through the national budget].

Most refugees are not in camps, but rather, scattered in communities across Turkey. Is Turkey providing them with adequate protection and services?

After Turkey formally adopted an open-door policy late in 2011, it extended temporary protection to Syrian refugees, meaning that as long as they are in Turkey, no one will send them back to Syria, in line with international refugee law. But with the international community not sharing the burden in the form of more generous funding and resettlement, the numbers are becoming unmanageable and extremely costly, and public opinion is beginning to react to it.

A lot of children don’t have access to proper education. The state was confused as to whether it would incorporate them into the Turkish education system and transform them into Turks, or follow a Syrian curriculum, with the assumption that they would return. Until January this year, Syrian refugees were not allowed to work legally. The Turkish government doesn’t provide pocket money, only health services, and, through some local government budgets, limited food. Civil society provides something on top, but it’s never enough. Many children have been forced to work to make ends meet.

There are now questions about whether Turkey’s border remains open to Syrians seeking protection. Human Rights Watch recently reported on Syrian asylum-seekers shot at by Turkish border guards while attempting to make the crossing.

I don’t think they were killed because they were [identified as] refugees; rather, the security forces are under massive pressure to prevent Islamic State militants from crossing the border.

[Security concerns, coupled with the escalating costs of hosting so many refugees,] are leading to a situation where Syrians who want to flee to Turkey for protection are now being prevented from doing that. Formal crossing points have fallen in numbers, and at these points I’m not sure that the Turkish government is welcoming new refugees. Instead, would-be refugees end up in makeshift camps on the Syrian side. One of them was recently attacked.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is stepping down amid an apparent power grab by Erdoğan. Does that jeopardize the EU-Turkey migrant deal

There is immediate concern on both the Turkish side—among civil society, academics, some columnists, and some bureaucrats—and the European side that Erdoğan is going to blow apart the deal, which stipulates that Turkey will readmit irregular migrants and asylum-seekers who have come to Europe through Turkey and whose asylum applications have been turned down.

Part of the quid pro quo [on the migrant and refugee negotiations] is that if Turkey meets seventy-two criteria, the EU will lift visa requirements for Turkish nationals [to travel in the visa-free Schengen Zone]. That is no different than deals the EU has negotiated with Moldova, Serbia, and Georgia. Turkey has met all but five of those criteria. One of the outstanding ones has to do with the recent counterterrorism law, which has been the [legal grounds for] the arrest or detention of journalists and academics.

The EU’s position is that as soon as the criteria are met, the European Union, on the basis of pacta sunt servanda (pacts must be respected), will lift visa requirements. However, populist politicians who frame this deal as “barbarian Turks descending on Christian Europe” complicate matters. [If visa liberalization falters,] we have to see whether other parts of the deal will continue to be practiced.

If this refugee swap arrangement does fall through at the end of June, what is Europe’s plan B?

I’m not sure that there is a plan B. If anything, there is a widespread recognition that even if this deal works impeccably, there will still be people trying to make the crossing [to Europe by sea], and human smugglers will put into place other routes that are costly both in monetary terms and lives.

The end to this humanitarian drama will not come unless the conflict in Syria is resolved. One issue that is being debated is [establishing a] safe haven [on the Syrian side of the border]. The Turkish government has pushed hard for one from the beginning, and [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel signaled that she might be prepared to go along with one, but the United States is very much against it. Many humanitarian officials are against it, too, on the grounds that it could actually make civilians even more vulnerable than they already are. Furthermore, there is always the danger that such a zone risks being used for all kinds of political ends by the Islamic State, the opposition, or external actors, including Turkey.

Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) called a party congress to consider Davutoğlu’s successor for Sunday, a day ahead of the summit. How will this summit play out for Turkey?

When the World Humanitarian Summit [was awarded] to Turkey, it was a big deal, a bit like getting the Olympics. Today, Brazil, deep in political crisis, probably regrets that it got the Olympics. A similar situation exists in Turkey, if on a smaller scale. I suspect that the summit is not going to receive the attention it would have gotten had Turkey been in a different situation.

Tourism had been collapsing because of the security situation, so the World Humanitarian Summit was not only meant to reward Turkey for its humanitarian generosity, but also as a recognition of how great a country Turkey is to visit. That is not going to be the case.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Copyright © Council on Foreign Relations 2016, republished with permission.