Given its geographical location, as well as shared social, cultural and historical ties with its neighbors, it is no surprise that Turkey has been a destination for people seeking asylum and refuge for many years. Today, it hosts more refugees than any other country, a record of which it is proud — but which has not been easy.
It is hard to fault the Turkish government’s long-standing refugee activity, whether you like its foreign policy or not. From the very beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Turkey did not hesitate to open its doors to millions of people fleeing the war-torn country, even though there was no concrete long-term plan.
The first Syrian refugees crossed the border on April 29, 2011. Almost seven years later, there are 3.5 million Syrians in Turkey. There are also a considerable amount of Iraqis, Iranians and Afghans. But the Syrian crisis was particularly difficult, posing challenges to Turkey in the realms of economics, politics, security, social policy and foreign policy.
How, then, is Turkey coping with the crisis?
The country has managed to pursue a far more humane refugee policy than its neighbors. It operates an “open-door policy” toward Syrians and has established several refugee camps, providing all kinds of services with generosity to the tune of $30 billion — even granting citizenship to about 60,000 Syrians. About 300,000 are in camps while the rest are living in cities on monthly allowances provided by the government.
Turkey’s response to the crisis not only significantly enhances its image in the region, but also sets an example and teaches considerable lessons on how to deal with the reality of refugees.
Moreover, Ankara’s refugee policy is not limited to its borders. The Turkish army’s results-oriented operations in northern Syria, called Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch, have offered the possibility of a return home for Syrians who want to do so.
According to recent reports, more than 150,000 have returned to northern Syria, where the Turkish military liberated a number of key towns and cities from Daesh and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units.
The policy of creating the necessary humanitarian conditions for all Syrians to eventually return home was first mentioned after a high-level security summit in the Turkish capital on Jan. 23. The meeting concluded: “Our operations will continue until the separatist terror organization is fully cleared from the region and around 3.5 million Syrians who are now sheltered in Turkey are able to safely return to their homeland.”
In line with this, the authorities in Ankara rolled up their sleeves and engaged in a twofold policy. Firstly, a comprehensive strategy to integrate Syrian refugees into Turkish society in case many of them choose to remain in Turkey. Secondly, government agencies started to construct infrastructure — including homes, hospitals and schools — in Turkish-liberated Syrian towns for the benefit of those who want to return. In buildings where once Daesh was carrying out public beheadings, there is now the joyful sound of children playing.
The main aim of Turkey’s dual policy is to decrease the flow of refugees across the border and ensure Syrians can return to their normal daily lives in their homeland. As another part of this policy, Turkey also granted scholarships to 20,000 Syrian students to prepare them to help in the future reconstruction of their country as “friends of Turkey.”
Nearly 500,000 Syrian children are enrolled in Turkey’s public-school system, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, and an additional 230,000 are at accredited “temporary education centers,” which teach an Arabic-language curriculum. Providing education has been a significant aspect of Turkey’s refugee policy. Needless to say, when the chance of education is taken away by war, it is not just a loss to the individual child, but a loss to the whole of society and its hopes of recovering from the conflict.
Many young Syrians have obtained degrees at Turkish institutions and do not know life in another country.
Beyond its borders, Turkey also built camps for refugees in Syria, particularly Idlib province, where Euphrates Shield was launched in the summer of 2016. Turkey also established a refugee camp in Daraa province, an opposition stronghold with a population of 2.5 million. In addition, Turkey’s disaster agency is currently focusing on two humanitarian operations in Afrin province: Refugee camps for the possible movement of civilians in Afrin, and humanitarian aid for civilians in towns where the Turkish army has carried out military operations.
While discussing the Afrin operation during the Ankara summit held last week between the so-called Astana trio — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin — Erdogan proposed that Putin agree to build a mobile hospital on the edge of Damascus, which the Syrian army has taken over, to help treat civilians from formerly opposition-controlled parts of Eastern Ghouta. Just last week, volunteer doctors in Turkey treated 2,500 Syrians living in refugee camps in Aleppo as part of the Healing with Goodness project. Erdogan also proposed building housing on both sides of the border. “We can save these people from tents and container cities by building housing” he said. “We can, all together, make that zone safe.”
Humanitarian assistance is one of the common points that the Astana trio agreed to cooperate on. Recognizing the diversity of voices among refugees, whether they want to stay or return home, Turkey seems to be providing options that are genuinely in the best interests of the displaced Syrians, who started their journey with dashed hopes but can now dream of a more hopeful future.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.