September 16, 2016 | Interview with the Cipher Brief

Syrian Refugees: Ankara’s Trump Card Against Europe

The Cipher Brief: What is the current situation of the displaced Syrians in Turkey? How has the Syrian refugee crisis shaped Turkish politics and society over the past five years?

Aykan Erdemir: Of the 4.8 million displaced Syrians who have been registered as persons of concern by the UNHCR, 2.7 million currently reside in Turkey, comprising a community more populous than six of the European Union member states. Approximately ten percent of the Syrians are living in 26 camps located in ten provinces around the country. The rest have settled throughout Turkey by their own means.

Since 2011, Ankara has spent $12 billion to meet the growing needs of the Syrian asylum seekers. The allocated amount is used for the most part for Syrians’ basic needs, such as food, shelter, and medical care. There continues to be an acute lack of education, employment, and occupational training opportunities as well as comprehensive social integration policies.

Turkey’s initial response to the influx of Syrians was to initiate a de facto temporary protection regime. The government passed the Law on Foreigners and International Protection in April 2014, introducing a legislative framework and implementation guideline for all aliens, bringing Syrians on Turkish soil under the jurisdiction of the newly established Directorate General of Migration Management.

Turkey, however, does not grant refugee status to Syrians, since Ankara still retains a geographical reservation to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Moreover, 85 percent of the Turkish public is against granting citizenship to displaced Syrians, so there is little hope for them to settle for good in Turkey. For Syrians, as it is the case for other asylum seekers from outside Europe, Turkey is seen as a temporary destination in their search for a third country where their refugee status can be recognized.

So far, Turkish citizens have not developed a strong anti-immigrant sentiment that we are witnessing in the European Union countries. None of the political parties represented in the Turkish Parliament advocates an anti-immigrant platform. Polls, however, show that Turkish citizens are increasingly concerned about economic competition and crime resulting from Syrian refugees. Unless Ankara can develop comprehensive policies to incorporate Syrians, Turkey could begin to experience social and political upheavals like we have seen in the EU countries.  

TCB: Beside the apparent challenges, what are the opportunities presented by Syrian refugee flows?

AE: As Turkey’s democratic window of opportunity is approaching its end, the country is gradually becoming an aging society. Numerous experts have highlighted Ankara’s need to attract new talent to boost the economy and strengthen the strained social security system. Syrian refugees bring linguistic skills, new networks and know-how, and entrepreneurial spirit, as evident in the rapid rise in the number of companies Syrians establish and the international trade they generate. If Turkey can tap into the economic potential of the Syrians, it can overcome the middle income trap and raise the country’s per capita income that recently fell to9,000 dollars, which is even below the 2007 level.  

Syrian’s refugee crisis also presents an opportunity for Turkey to overhaul its democratic deficit by institutionalizing effective, inclusive, and decentralized governance policies. Programs designed and implemented to meet the specific needs of displaced Syrians could also improve conditions for Turkish citizens in general, and Turkey's ethnic and religious minorities in particular. If Ankara can see the challenges of the Syrian refugee crisis as an opportunity to tackle the country’s exclusionary, sluggish, and nepotistic public services, as well as indifference and prejudice, it can improve quality of life and key human development indicators for all.

TCB: How has Turkey leveraged refugee flows into Europe to shape negotiations with the EU? How has this shaped Turkey’s relations with the EU?

AE: The rise of populist parties running on anti-immigrant and anti-Islam platforms across Europe has presented Turkey a unique opportunity in its dealings with the EU. The EU-Turkey migration deal of March 2016 and Ankara’s subsequent tightening of border controls have played a decisive role in slowing down refugee flows heading through Turkey to EU countries. Thus, the Turkish leaders are aware of the leverage they have over their European counterparts, who are in a much more pressing situation compared to themselves.

Turkey has long-standing grievances against the EU over its stalled accession process and has skillfully used the Syrian refugee crisis against the EU to re-energize its membership talks, especially since the EU-Turkey Summit of November 29, 2015. Ankara hopes that the Syrian refugee crisis will result in the opening of new accession chapters, boosted financial assistance, and visa-free travel for its citizens.

TCB: Where does Turkey’s rocky history with EU accession and Turkish migration to Europe fit into the current situation?

AE: The EU missed a crucial window of opportunity in the years leading to the Syrian refugee crisis. Although Ankara was keen to make progress toward membership in the 2000s, the mood in European capitals was Turkey-sceptic. Brussels failed to provide Turkey with incentives and a membership perspective, which could have boosted Turkey’s democratic and economic reforms. Now, although Turkey is descending into authoritarianism and one-man rule, and is in clear breach of the Copenhagen criteria, the EU is perceived to be providing concessions in exchange for transactional cooperation in the refugee crisis. Misguided policies on the EU side have undermined the moral high-ground of the Union while also bolstering Eurosceptic and anti-Western sentiment in Turkey.

What are the consequences of the attempted military coup on July 15, and the failed Kurdish peace process on EU-Turkish relations?

AE: Following the abortive coup, Turkey declared a state of emergency and suspended the European Convention on Human Rights. The government is using the coup attempt as pretext to crackdown on dissidents across the political spectrum. The ongoing witch-hunts have had a devastating effect on the media, academia, and the economy.

Similarly, the escalation of the fight with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the crackdown on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) present additional challenges. The recent appointment of trustees to 28 HDP municipalities will further disenfranchise Turkey’s Kurdish citizens and give radicals an upper hand over the moderates.

The EU's hands seem to be tied with the Syrian refugee deal, and many European politicians feel the need to turn a blind eye to Ankara’s egregious breach of fundamental rights and freedoms. Such an appeasement policy will inevitably make matters worse both for Turkish citizens and for displaced Syrians. Only a democratic and inclusive Turkey with strong institutions can successfully incorporate Syrians and prevent them from continuing on to EU member states. Turkey’s growing democratic governance deficit and climate of fear could trigger new waves of asylum seekers, not only Syrians but also Turkey’s dissident citizens as well as ethnic and religious minorities.

Dr. Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a former member of the Turkish Parliament. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. 



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