ANALYSIS - Türkiye has done its part in the refugee crisis; now it's up to the West
Ankara adopted 'open-door policy,' exerted effort to persuade coalition to stop regime's massacres, eliminate threat posed by Deash/ISIS and PYD/YPG, establish 'safe zone' in northern Syria to facilitate voluntary return
- The author is an associate professor at Kilis 7 Aralik University's Department of Politics and Public Administration, studying the representation of refugees in media and political discourses, implementation of migration policies and integration of refugees into higher education.
Globally, mass migration and refugee concerns provide a significant challenge to countries and international organizations. Türkiye, on the other hand, is praised for its ability to host the largest refugee community in the world now and for its resilience and ability to manage refugee inflows from its neighbors and conflict-ridden regions.
For Türkiye, mass migration and refugees en masse are not new phenomena; the country has long hosted various displaced individuals from the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa and beyond. A combination of factors explains the paradigmatic shift Türkiye has undergone. Türkiye has maintained its political stability and economic growth against all odds compared to its volatile neighbors. Thanks to its EU bid and growing prominence in world politics under the current government, it has undergone legislative reforms involving the acceptance and accommodation of refugees. These features, together with other geographical and cultural characteristics, make the country an obvious choice for people fleeing death and persecution, as well as those seeking a better life.
Türkiye pursued an open-door policy
Türkiye now is home to 3.7 million Syrian refugees, apart from more than 200.000 Syrians who were granted Turkish citizenship after 2012. Back in 2012, Türkiye pursued an open-door policy and accepted all Syrians irrespective of their ethnicity and religion when Assad regime paid no heed to the reformation demands of the opposition groups and started massacring them with the help of the Iranian militia and Russian jets.
When the Obama administration declared it a “fantasy” for Syrian opposition fighters to win the war with US artillery, it meant open season for the regime and its protectors. The “strategic stalemate” --in The UN special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen's words-- has been created and prolonged via proxy organizations, first the Daesh/ISIS and then the PKK-affiliated PYD and its branch YPG, leading to the world's largest displacement crisis. While the former caused death, injury and calamity to Syrian Arabs, Kurds, Yezidis and Turkmens, as well as the destruction of Syrian cities, the latter never fought the regime, suppressed all Kurdish political parties and killed all dissidents, including well-known Kurdish political actors like Mashaal Temmo.
Millions of Syrians escaped the regime's atrocities and these terrorist groups. In order to eradicate the threats posed by these terrorist groups and strengthen its border security, Türkiye erected a 4-meter high wall along 98% of its land border with Syria and created safe zones in northern Syria after 4 successful military operations.
European countries never kept their promises
Both the Assad regime and Russia strategically forced Syrians to relocate both within and beyond the nation, similar to what Russia has been doing in Ukraine since February 2022. Türkiye’s response to this coercive pressure by opening its borders saved millions of lives and potentially the future of Syria. Almost half a million Syrian babies have been born in Türkiye since 2011, and Türkiye’s humanitarian and responsible approach to forced migration alleviated the situation. Framing the influx of Syrians as a “crisis”, particularly in 2014 and 2015, European countries have shunned their responsibility to protect by agreeing to share the burden of Türkiye but never kept their promises.
At the initial stages of the mass exodus of Syrians, Türkiye established temporary accommodation centers along the border and inside the country, most of which have been gradually shut down. Today, only 50,043 Syrian refugees reside in temporary accommodation centers, and the rest of the Syrian refugees live in city centers. Turkish cities today host Syrian refugees with varying proportions, with Istanbul and southeastern cities holding the highest numbers. Kilis, a southeastern Turkish city on the Turkish-Syrian border, has a Syrian refugee to local population ratio of 38.4%, which is unimaginable in most European cities.
Facilities for Syrians in Türkiye
All registered Syrian refugees in Türkiye are granted temporary protection under Law 6458 and have access to free healthcare. In addition, 185 EU-funded Refugee Health Centers cater to Syrian refugees in 29 Turkish cities to overcome language barriers. In these centers, almost 4,000 Syrian health personnel are employed.
To meet Syrian refugees' basic needs, the Turkish Red Crescent, in conjunction with Halkbank, created the Red Crescent Card concept to provide allotted relief amounts to persons in need while saving time and avoiding logistical activities. Cardholders can complete their shopping without using cash by transferring money specified by the Turkish Red Crescent into their own Red Crescent Card accounts.
Enrollment in primary education reached 65% thanks to favorable legislation and exceptional initiatives. 730,086 Syrian students were enrolled in Turkish schools in January 2022, with 40,547 attending preschool, 313,695 attending primary school, 268,753 attending secondary school, and 107,812 attending high school. Nearly 1.5 million Syrians have attended free courses, mainly aimed at teaching the Turkish language and vocational skills, at public education centers between 2014 and 2021.
Integration of Syrians
During the initial stages of mass migration, Türkiye accepted and ensured the smooth integration of Syrian university students into the country's higher education system by approving their certificate and statement when no other documentation was available. In time, Syrian university students under temporary protection registered in Turkish universities for the 2020-21 academic year totaled 47,482 or 21%, making them the largest group of international students in Türkiye. This means that 9.5% of the 500,000 Syrian refugees aged 19 to 24 were enrolled in Turkish higher education institutions, which is higher than the global refugee enrolment rate of 5%.
In 2019, Syrian refugees started 15,159 businesses, employing more than ten thousand Syrian workers. Syrian artists in Istanbul, in particular, have benefited from and contributed to Türkiye’s artistic and cultural life.
Voluntary return of Syrians
Overall, Türkiye has the longest land border with Syria and has been the most affected by the developing catastrophe and forced migration. Türkiye has done its part in the refugee crisis; now it's up to the West and the rest of the world. Initially, Ankara adopted an "open-door policy" toward Syrians fleeing conflict and terrorist attacks and exerted tremendous effort to persuade the Coalition, which was formed under American leadership, to stop the Assad regime's massacre of Syrians, and eliminate the threat posed first by Deash/ISIS and later by PYD/YPG, and establish a "safe zone" in northern Syria to facilitate a voluntary return. However, these efforts were in vain.
Using its right to self-defense as recognized in Article 51 of the UN Charter and customary international law and to secure its southern border and stop further refugee influx, Türkiye felt compelled to launch military operations in northern Syria in cooperation with the Syrian National Army. The safe zones lessen the need to approach the Turkish border and act as a vital barrier against new migrant flows by providing a safe sanctuary for the civilian population and facilitating the voluntary return of Syrians to areas where life has been returned to normal.
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