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Turkey refuses to abandon Syrian refugees but EU must do more to help

The main focus of attention in Turkey at the moment is the upcoming municipal elections scheduled for March 31. Many column inches in newspapers are devoted to predictions of the outcome and the rhetoric of party leaders.

In previous polls, terrorism was identified as the main concern for voters. However, recent surveys suggest that the economy is now their main worry, followed by the Syrian refugee crisis. When voting, the Turkish people tend to focus on the economic and domestic issues that affect them most, and it is no secret that the issue of Syrian refugees has been high on the agenda of most elections in the past few years.

This week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that the country would not be able to shoulder the burden of a possible new wave of migration on its own.

“Building higher walls, with barbed wire, is no way to prevent irregular migration,” he added. It was a crucial statement that sent a clear message to EU countries, who are signatories to a deal with Turkey on the Syrian migration issue but have been dragging their feet and turning a blind eye to the migration risks that lie ahead.

Erdogan made it clear in his speech that trying to contain the flood of Syrian refugees within Turkey’s borders cannot be considered the sole strategy for solving the problem, and that the “safe zone” formula he proposed at the start of the crisis remains the most practical method for the return of refugees. Ankara proposes the creation of this safe zone in northern Syria, which Turkey would control and monitor, to serve as a temporary refuge for those who have fled to the Turkish border. While Russia and the US agree in principle to the establishment of such a zone, Washington objects to the idea of Turkey having sole responsibility for it, out of concern for America’s Kurdish allies, who are considered terrorists by Turkey, which is also a US ally. Turkey, which has spent more than $37 billion of its national resources hosting refugees, cannot repatriate the millions of Syrians this way, said Erdogan. Sooner or later, they will start knocking on European doors, he added.

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu later said European politics are being influenced by the migration issue, and that EU migration policies need to be updated. Turkey and the EU signed a deal in March 2016 that allows European nations to send Syrian asylum-seekers and migrants back to Turkey, in return for financial aid.

When Syrians began arriving at the Turkish border in the spring of 2011, all of them were allowed to cross. Those with passports entered normally, while those without the proper documents were placed in “temporary” refugee camps. As the number of people fleeing Syria grew, Turkey established more camps along its border with the war-torn country and provided the refugees with all it could in terms of assistance.

About 4 million Syrians have taken shelter in Turkey, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans. The Turkish government has made great efforts to prove itself a humanitarian state, and this has become an effective diplomacy tool in Turkish foreign policy.

The truth is, Turkey’s open-door policy has its limits but the Turkish government has so far resisted reversing the policy. However, it is clear that after eight years, it is no longer prepared to shoulder the burden alone, with no sign of the crisis ending any time soon.

The recent statements by Erdogan and others are clear reminders to the EU that it must not remain indifferent to Turkish concerns. Around the time of the president’s remarks, the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee accepted a draft advisory report that called for the suspension of EU accession negotiations with Turkey. Ankara harshly criticized the report, which is expected to be voted on by the full European Parliament in March.

Turkey has been the key route for refugees trying to cross into European nations, many of which have been rocked in recent years by growing signs of racism, xenophobia and discrimination, accompanied by the resurgence of far-right parties. Failing to cooperate with Turkey effectively or taking decisions that actively oppose Ankara does not only harm the Turkish-EU accession process but also the refugees, who are the real victims here.

As EU countries clamp down on migration, Turkey is pushing for a proper debate on the issue and calling on the EU to update its policies, because it is not only a political or a security issue; it has humanitarian and social aspects that cannot be ignored or neglected.

As in Europe, there are political parties and factions in Turkey that adopt anti-refugee rhetoric to garner votes, and the issue will certainly play a role during campaigning for the upcoming elections. However, the reality is that the majority of the Turkish people do not share the xenophobic feelings of those nationalist leaders.

Of course, there is a segment of society that is disturbed by migration. However, despite their grievances, they do not adopt a hostile stance toward the refugees themselves. As long as this attitude continues to prevail in Turkey, anti-refugee rhetoric will fail to garner many votes.

Despite its limited resources, Turkey seems determined not to reverse its refugee policy — but it seems Europe needs to push its limits and do more to help.