Syrian Humanitarian Crisis: The Fundamental Difficulties Facing Turkey

The Syrian humanitarian crisis has developed in a way expected neither by Turkey nor by the international community and it continues to profoundly impact Turkey. When Turkey opened its borders to Syrian refugees in April 2011, and later when it expanded this to temporary protection in October of the same year, what was expected was that the crisis would be swiftly overcome and the refugees would return to their homes. However the crisis has taken on a lasting nature, accompanied as it is by steadily-growing destruction and displacement. The number of refugees in Turkey is now put at a total of 800,000, of which 200,000 are in the camps. According to the United Nations, this figure will reach one million by the end of the year. All the indicators suggest that the humanitarian crisis will continue and that Turkey will search for ways to share this burden with the international community.

Turkey currently faces five fundamental difficulties arising from the Syrian humanitarian crisis: (1) the sustainability of the aid and asylum provided for a steadily-growing number of refugees; (2) getting international solidarity into action; (3) the method of aid distribution at ground zero; (4) domestic security and refugee safety; (5) and the need to realize the fact that humanitarian efforts cannot take the place of political initiatives to solve the Syrian crisis.

The sustainability of the camps and asylum

For 34 months, Turkey has been making what might be called five-star accommodation available to refugees in camps. But it cannot continue setting up more camps; for that would require greater financial resources. In any case no one knows whether or not the hundreds of thousands of Syrians currently scattered across many Turkish cities wish to live in camps of this sort. Consequently, it is plain that the majority of the refugees will continue living outside camps and so Turkey is obliged to carry on with its policy of “temporary asylum” in a way that provides the hundreds of thousands of Syrians living outside the camps with their needs and security. At the beginning of next year, the Law on Foreigners and International Protection comes into effect. Though it will supply a legal framework for overcoming these problems, the law was not drafted to respond to a mass influx of refugees and does not contain provisions which would propose a lasting solution for integrating the refugees into the host society.

In the period ahead, integration will be an extremely controversial and politically sensitive topic. If one examines the situation in Syria and different examples from the Afghans to the Palestinians, one may anticipate that there will be no large-scale returns to Syria in the near future. Alternatives like settlement in third countries or comprehensive temporary evacuation to third countries are not realistic possibilities within the existing picture. In this situation, Turkey has two alternatives: (1) continue to manage the risks that the refugee crisis will bring or (2) think seriously about the prospect of refugees integrating into Turkey. Both options require increased international coordination and cooperation.

The need for international solidarity

The second difficulty which Turkey is up against—and it is very closely linked to the first—is the question of getting international cooperation under way, and it requires the most urgent solution. But the language and arguments used by the government in its appeal for burden-sharing have the potential to have exactly the opposite effect. It is therefore critically important that in the period ahead, the government adopts more constructive and realistic arguments rather than language which accuses or condemns. Also the government will feel the need to form coalitions both with other regional governments and with a broad spectrum of intergovernmental organizations, like the UN’s United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNICEF, and the World Food Program.

Turkey, working together with the other like-minded countries directly affected by the crisis, will be obliged in the name of crisis management to expend more effort in the UN General Assembly, if not the Security Council, to breathe life into the international community’s solution scenarios. On this point again it is important not to make burden-sharing into another problem that would exacerbate Turkey’s already broken relations with the EU. Rather, Turkey and the EU should regard the humanitarian crisis in Syria as an opportunity to develop the constructive climate badly needed in their relations. This would not only be beneficial to Turkey and the EU but would also produce important and positive results for the victims of the crisis.

Ground zero aid

Turkish officials are skillfully ensuring through a “ground zero delivery strategy” that humanitarian aid is taken across the border without infringing on Syria’s national sovereignty. AFAD (Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency), the Turkish Red Crescent, and the IHH (Humanitarian Relief Foundation) play a critical role in administering this aid. But this policy contains both legal and practical risks. Currently, all the responsibility for ensuring that aid sent to the inner regions of Syria reaches Syrians in need belongs to the IHH. In this part of Syria where disorder and chaos prevail, such responsibility mustn’t rest just on the shoulders of a single civil society organization. Consequently, it’s up to Turkey to find a way to make this aid an international responsibility and to go into partnership with the countries of the region, and in particular the UN, in order to guarantee the effectiveness, transparency, and safety of this policy.

Security problems

In addition to this, Turkey has to continue to protect both its own citizens and infrastructure and the refugees from the Syrian regime and military attacks coming from groups within the opposition. It is well known that many Turkish citizens in regions near the border have lost their lives to car bombs, rocket attacks, and stray bullets. Some refugee camps are either actually on the border or are close enough to it to be exposed to clashes between the groups in constant competition for control of the region. What is more, over 100,000 Syrian civilians on the Syrian side are at great risk, having been driven from their homes and living in temporary camps extremely vulnerable to harm.
Furthermore, claims that opposition fighters and smuggled weapons are moving along Turkey’s border are rather controversial and contentious. If true, this situation does not simply put Turkey’s national security at risk; it also endangers the entire security of the camps which, it is claimed, are used by the opposition for rest and recovery.

Aside from this, the presence of the Syrian refugee—and particularly those living outside the camps—are increasingly affecting social and economic life in all parts of the country. If social peace and harmony are to be maintained, attention needs to be paid to the growing distress and complaints on this subject. Because of the ethnic and sectarian minorities that exist on both sides of the border, and because of the risk that the conflict could spread to Turkey, an even greater security risk may emerge in this country.

Similarly, there are topics linked with the problems above which threaten the security and safety of the refugees, and particularly sensitive groups like women and children. For example, a growing amount of data exists on the refugees being exploited by criminals and opportunists; should the refugees be unable to receive sufficient assistance, the exploitation will grow. In this sense, extending help to the Syrian refugees should be seen as a basic element of security policy.

Political solution a sine qua non

Finally the fact that humanitarian efforts cannot replace political initiatives in solving the Syrian problem needs to be realized. The displacement crisis in Syria arises first and foremost from the decision of the Syrian government to bloodily put down the protests, and then from the expansion of the following conflict over a wide area, and the entry of radical elements into the equation. Syrian civilians are now not just fleeing from the destruction created by the regime, but at the same time from these radical elements that fight both among themselves and with other groups within the body of the Syrian opposition.

The conflict in Syria is a challenge to the government’s easy initial distinction between oppressors and oppressed, and has attained an insurmountable level of complexity. The number of oppressors has multiplied; the once easy solution to the Syrian conflict has grown difficult. However much the Turkish government may have preferred the regime to change (through the use of force if necessary), it has not happened and does not seem likely to happen in the near future.

Turkey is a key actor in this region and within the existing conditions, it is critically important that it adopts a foreign policy based on realism and diplomacy in pursuit of these two goals: (1) advocating the measures necessary to prevent a deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Syria and regional countries; and (2) whatever the solution may be, striving to configure it in a way that includes the Syrians returning to their country safe and sound and being rehabilitated within their own societies.

This article originally appeared in the Turkish language journal Analist and was translated by the Journal of Turkish Weekly.