Why the Open Doors? How Turkey May Benefit from Accepting Syrian Refugees

This comment is a continuation of the YIRA Winter 2016 International Trip Group’s Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, Turkey Trip Summary.

Reports have been emerging in recent weeks of thousands of Syrians waiting at the Turkish border, a passage now closed to them. On February 5, 2016, the United Nations reported an estimated 20,000 Syrians waiting at the Bab al-Salam border crossing and an additional 5,000-10,000 at other points. As of February 11, estimations had risen to 51,000 civilians. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoğlu declared that they would be provided with food and shelter, but denied entrance to Turkey.

The highly criticized decision to close the border could be motivated by a lack of capacity, to pressure the international community to work towards resolving the conflict in Syria, or to pressure the European Union to deliver the 3 billion Euros it promised Turkey last November in exchange for stemming the tide of refugees to their territories. Davutoğlu announced to a London conference of donor countries to Syria, “Ten thousand new refugees are waiting in front of the door of Kilis because of air bombardments and attacks against Aleppo…Three hundred thousand people living in Aleppo are ready to move towards Turkey.”

While President Erdoğan said on February 11 that Turkey is preparing for the new wave of refugees, he accused the United Nations of pressuring Turkey to do more to assist Syrians instead of taking action to stop the violence driving refugees from their homes. Turkey’s closed borders and the condemnation it has recently received represent significant shifts from the circumstances just one month ago, when I visited Turkey to study the treatment and impact of the refugee crisis. Turkey’s past actions do not excuse its current decision to close the border, but Turkey deserves credit for admitting significantly more Syrian refugees than any other country. Turkey houses 2.3 million registered Syrian refugees and hundreds of thousands more unregistered Syrian refugees.

The numerous government officials, NGOs, academics, and journalists we interviewed all praised how much the Turkish government was trying to do for Syrian refugees. Against the backdrop of exclusionary European states, I began to wonder why Turkey opened its borders to so many Syrians. How was Turkey benefitting from spending $8 billion dollars on another country’s civilians and accepting millions of refugees into its cities?

The first explanation I found is that Turkey miscalculated the duration and intensity of the Syrian Civil War when it announced its “Open Door” policy at the start of the conflict. Merve Ay, of the Alliance of International Doctors, explained: “The government was late to see that the conflict would be so long.” Nearly every speaker we met pointed this out. It helps explain why only about 12% of Turkey’s Syrian refugees reside in its refugee camps, and an overwhelming majority resides in Turkish cities, but also could hint at why Turkey formed the policy in the first place. Having made this commendable commitment, it would have reflected poorly on Turkey to close their borders, especially since they oppose the Assad regime. Furthermore, Cengiz Çandar, a prominent columnist and advisor to Turkey’s eighth President pointed out to us that “Turkey’s longest border is with Syria and Syria’s longest border is with Turkey.” The border is largely flat, was porous before the war, with families sometimes divided by it, and thus, difficult to patrol.

However, many Turks who would balk at the view that they are just avoiding embarrassment, credit the open border to Turkish compassion. Three different government officials proudly reported that Turkey’s actions are saving “human dignity.” Aziz Kocaoğlu, the Mayor of Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city and a common departure port for refugees attempting to migrate to Europe says, “Turkey supports refugees not out of necessity, but out of human dignity.”

Ibrahim Kalin, Erdoğan’s Chief Advisor told us, “We are carrying the major load here, as far as refugees are concerned.” Turkey’s actions have “probably saved tens of thousands of lives.” Kalin gives all credit for the policy to “the President himself: he really has forced this policy—[he] said look, this is a humanitarian issue: we will take them in whether the rest of the world helps us or not.”

While one government official said that his agency does not consider citizens’ opinions in forming refugee policy, Turkish citizens deserve some credit for the hospitable policies, as he pointed out that the government has “never been criticized [by the public] for providing financial assistance” to Syrian refugees. Moreover, that migration was not a topic in the November 2015 General Elections implies a populace generally sympathetic to the refugees.

Çandar explains, “we are a nation of immigrants…We can never think of rejecting refugees because our psyche is one of immigrants.” A few speakers mentioned that Turks and Syrians feel somewhat bound by their shared Ottoman kinship, one government official even claiming, “that is what brought the Syrians [to Turkey].” Bahadir Dincer of Uluslararası Stratejik Araştırmalar Kurumu (USAK) Think Tank’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies explains that Turkey has been on migration routes since Ottoman times, and frequently offered refuge to people of different cultures and religions in times of conflict, including Jews, Kurds, Iranians, Bosnians, and people from the Caucasus and Balkans.

While Dincer clarifies that “many [of those emigrants] did not stay in Turkey because it lacked the capacity,” Turkey’s asylum policies seriously challenge attempts to describe Turkey as historically open to refugees. While Turkey has ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the main international law on refugees, it is one of the only signatories who has not expanded its definition of refugees to include applicants from regions beyond Europe, which the law explicitly discusses. That means that to this day, only Europeans can apply for asylum status in Turkey.

Since the 1990s, Turkey’s refugee policy has been a “hot item with the E.U.,” says Ahmet İçduygu, Professor of International Relations and Director of the Migrations Research Program at Koç University. İçduygu explains that when Turkey began E.U. negotiations in 2005, “the second large paragraph of the fourteen page document was on migration issues.” Accepting so many refugees—and retaining them—stands to improve EU’s judgment of Turkey’s human rights record. Dilara Yurtseven, Board Member of International Refugee Rights Association, believes “90% of the laws” Turkey recently established giving Syrians temporary protected status, with rights to health care, education, and eventually employment, “are posturing to the EU.” “The temporary protection was modeled after their wishes,” she says.

Turkey’s handling of the Syrian refugee crisis has indeed attracted the EU’s attention, largely because they are depending on Turkey to stem the flow of refugees to Europe. Even though Kalin, Erdoğan’s advisor, argues, “I don’t believe we needed the Syrian refugee crisis to jumpstart EU talks. They would’ve happened in own right,” the crisis has rejuvenated negotiations. One government official says the EU “rediscovered” Turkey after the crisis, and since, negotiations have been proceeding in a “positive manner.” Not only has the EU commended Turkey for taking care of refugees and according to Professor İçduygu, stopped pressuring Turkey about its treatment of Kurds, but they agreed in November 2015 to reopen accession talks and to give Turkey $3 billion Euros to assist in supporting Syrian refugees, in exchange for Turkey preventing refugees from leaving Turkey for Europe.

Turkey’s acceptance of refugees has also benefitted its global image, and given Turkey a valid reason to be morally superior. Kalin criticized other countries’ treatment of refugees “in numbers, as if it’s an auction. It is unbelievable and below human dignity.” Turkey reports to have spent as much as $9 billion on Syrian refuges, and to only have received $418 million in assistance. One government official remarked, “Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan have saved the grace of humanity.”

Of course, sheltering Syrian refugees can bring Turkey other benefits. Some believe it will lead to economic development. Kalin envisions this unique experience for Syrians to learn Turkish culture, language, and to make connections will turn them into “voluntary ambassadors,” who can help promote Turkish business in the Arab world.

Many of these benefits that hinge on Turkey’s reputation for accepting Syrians may fail to be realized if Turkey closes its borders to Syrians. Turkey may not only have miscalculated how many refugees would come and how long they would stay at the beginning, but also throughout the continuation of its open door policy. Eventually it will be faced with capacity, funding, and public opinion constraints and will have to decide whether whatever the incentives of an open door policy outweigh their national constraints.