Turkey’s refugee crisis: Time for Europe to take action

About 35,000 Syrian refugees are gathered near Turkey’s borders, but this time its doors were firmly shut.

Syria refugees Turkey border
More than 90 percent of Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey are women and children [Osman Orsal/REUTERS]

As Russian jets intensified air strikes on the rebel stronghold of Aleppo last week, around 35,000 Syrian refugees gathered at the Bab al-Salama border crossing like many of their predecessors, hoping to find a safe haven in neighbouring Turkey.

This time, however, Turkey’s doors were firmly shut.

Since Syria’s civil war began four years ago, Turkey has maintained an official open-door policy for the victims of the Syrian conflict, absorbing about 2.5 million refugees and spending nearly $8.5bn in the process. But today, Turkish officials say the country has reached its limit and its borders are, to all intents and purposes, closed.

As images of desperate women and children at the border gate appeared on TV screens around the world, Numan Kurtulmus, the country’s deputy prime minister, told the media: “Turkey has reached the limit of its capacity to absorb the refugees.”

While insisting that Turkey was still doing its utmost to ensure the safety of the refugees, a Turkish official told Al Jazeera that the border crossing was currently open “only for emergencies”. He added that several injured people had already been received by Turkish hospitals for treatment.

READ MORE: Can Turkey stem the refugee tide?

The European Union, like the United Nations, was quick to criticise Turkey’s new position and urged Ankara to re-open its borders as soon as possible.

Turkey is trying to figure out how it will educate these people and find jobs for them, while the EU’s biggest concern is to stop refugees from reaching its shores at any cost.

by Murat Erdogan, Hacettepe University

Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, said: “There is a moral, if not legal, duty to provide protection.” She emphasised that the support being provided by the EU to Turkey was aimed at guaranteeing that Ankara could accept and protect all Syrians fleeing the war-torn country.

Last year, the EU reached a deal with Turkey, offering it $3.3bn to care for Syrian refugees on Turkish soil.

But Turkish analysts told Al Jazeera that the EU was expecting Turkey to “perform a miracle”.

They emphasised that Turkey could not resolve this humanitarian crisis alone and said it was essential for Europe to carry its share of the burden. “Regarding the refugee crisis, expectations of the EU and Turkey are miles apart,” said Murat Erdogan, director of the Migration and Politics Research Centre at Ankara-based Hacettepe University.

“Right now, Turkey is trying to figure out how it will educate these people and find jobs for them, while the EU’s biggest concern is to stop refugees from reaching its shores at any cost,” he said.

Last month, partially as a result of the pressure coming from the EU, the Turkish government declared that it would be offering Syrian refugees work permits for the first time.

The government claimed that obtaining work permits would discourage refugees from crossing illegally into the EU. But analysts are sceptical of whether this policy will work.

“The work permits are really important. If you want to convince people to stay in Turkey, you have to give them the opportunity to live an honourable life. We have passed the point at which giving them a loaf of bread and a blanket is sufficient,” said Erdogan. 

“The work permits are not going to change anything. Maybe some of the highly skilled refugees will manage to get a job and make a living, but the majority of Syrians will keep working illegally for unacceptable wages, as they do today. And as a result, they will keep trying to reach Europe.”

READ MORE: Analysis: Is Turkey’s ‘open-door policy’ an illusion?

Other analysts concurred. Syrian refugees, according to Anna Tuson, director of communications for the Istanbul-based NGO Small Projects, are looking for low-skill employment. “They do not have the language skills or the necessary support network, so they are forced into the unskilled job market. And that market is already saturated in Turkey. Employers will not be eager to hire them,” said Tuson, whose NGO works with Syrian refugees.

Turkey to hand work permits to some Syria refugees

Safaa Sayah, a Syrian refugee living in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa, echoed similar views. “Even if a refugee can manage to secure a work permit,” she said, “he or she cannot overcome the language barrier, find acceptable work or afford decent accommodation.”

Sayah, who currently works for an NGO in Sanliurfa, says that she has four siblings living in Europe and can see how much more European governments are able to offer those refugees who make it across their borders.

“In Turkey, the government is providing you with nothing. But if you go to Europe and apply for asylum, you will get support from the government. Knowing this, what would you do? Would you stay in Turkey? Of course you would go to Europe”.

Sayah argued that the recent developments in Syria were only making the refugees’ situation in Turkey worse.

“The Turkish government is stuck. They can’t improve the conditions of the Syrian refugees living in the country at the moment. Many Syrians in Turkey know that the only future they can have is in Europe.”

IN PICTURES: Syrian refugees in Turkey

But, analysts also pointed out that most of the Syrians in Turkey wouldn’t be making the journey to Europe, even though their living conditions in Turkey were dire.

According to Erdogan, who conducted research on immigration in Turkey, most Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey are women and children who are not likely to take the risk of travelling to Europe illegally as their fathers, husbands and brothers did.

The latest estimates suggest that out of the  850.000 Syrian refugees  who entered the EU during the past year, only 13 percent were previously registered in Turkey, meaning they had been in Turkish territory for a relatively long time.


Erdogan claimed that these statistics showed that the majority of Turkey’s 2.5 million-strong refugee population would not be going anywhere in the near future. “We need to understand that Turkey does not have the infrastructure to take care of them, let alone accept more.”

Tuson agreed, saying that the recent developments in Europe and Syria have caused Syrian refugees to accept that Turkey may be their final destination.

“A couple of years back, the majority of the Syrian refugees in Turkey did not think they would stay here for a long time. Because either they thought they would eventually return to Syria or they thought they would continue on to Europe,” Tuson said.

“But obviously, as the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, most refugees are now accepting that they will have to build their lives in Turkey. And this is not easy,” she said.

Tuson also criticised the EU’s plan to give Turkey funds to deal with the immigration crisis on its own. “This is not a plan that can work,” she said.  “Turkey already has problems with its education system and the employment market is not in good shape either.

“This burden needs to be shared between other countries, especially the European countries which have strong economies and job markets; they should take the refugees in. I think it is unrealistic to think that Turkey can deal with the majority of these refugees singlehandedly.”

Source: Al Jazeera