While EU leaders at the 23 September emergency summit on the refugee crisis struggled to reach agreement on how to cooperate, they all seemed to agree with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s observation that “solving problems of [the EU] external borders is not possible without working with Turkey”.
Many Europeans are asking: Isn’t Turkey a safe country for Syrian refugees? Why don’t they just stay there? In fact, the overwhelming majority of people who have fled the violence in Syria for Turkey have stayed there. Turkey not only hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees, 1.9 million, but also the largest number of refugees of any country in the world. Turkey has been remarkably generous: it has built and maintained 25 refugee camps along the Syrian border and has a temporary protection system for Syrian refugees.Many Syrians are, in fact, now leaving Turkey or just travelling through without staying.
I have been talking with some of the asylum seekers as they trek through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia, asking them about their reasons for fleeing, their experiences during the journey, and their hopes for the future. I heard no single reason why Syrian refugees are moving on from Turkey. Instead, there are many factors involved. These reflect living conditions in Turkey, the varied backgrounds of refugees from Syria with varying levels of disquiet about their potential future in Turkey and, of course, the draw of Europe.
There is no data yet on how many of the newest Syrian arrivals in Europe have come directly from Syria compared to those that have lived as refugees in Turkey. Some of the new arrivals in Europe we met with said they had just recently left Syria, however, and were spending only the time it took to travel through Turkey on their way to Greece.
Others said they came from parts of Damascus and other areas controlled by the Assad government. Early on in the conflict, Turkey called for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, and has openly sided with rebels. Nearly all of the long-term refugees in Turkey have come from areas of Syria held by armed groups, but it is no longer the case that one’s political sympathies will be immediately evident based on place of origin.
When pressed, refugees coming from government-controlled areas simply told me that they saw no future in Syria, no end to the conflict and that they feared conscription or being drawn deeper into the war. They would not, however, be more specific about why they were unwilling to remain in Turkey.
Unlike Syrian refugees I have previously interviewed in Turkey, who expressed a desire to return to Syria as soon as they were able, amongst these newer arrivals more expressed the view that the Syrian ship is sinking and that their exile is likely to be permanent, hence the preference for Europe.
As evidenced by the drowning death of the toddler Aylan Kurdi, the exodus to Europe also includes Syrian Kurds. Any Kurd living in the region is aware of the violence that has erupted this year in Turkey between government forces and Kurdish militants. This violence has halted a peace process that had offered some hope to end a decades-long conflict between the government and the country’s large Kurdish minority.
Beyond these tensions within the country is the Turkish government’s well known antipathy to the armed Syrian Kurdish forces on its border. The Turkish authorities have become much stricter in limiting movement in and out of predominantly Kurdish refugee camps after a suicide bombing in southern Turkey.
There are also distinct reasons why the Sunni Arab Syrian refugees who have been living in Turkey for several years are leaving now. When Turkey first opened its doors to Syrian refugees, it expected that Assad would fall quickly and the refugees would return home. The persistence of the Assad regime was unexpected in Ankara, and popular tolerance for the refugees appears to be waning. In a 2014 public opinion poll, 86 percent said that Turkey should not admit any more Syrian refugees.
Turkey's Foreign Minister, Mevlü Çavuşğlu, wrote a letter to the EU leaders prior to their September 23 summit meeting. He demanded their support for a “safe zone” 68 miles long and 40 miles deep on the Syrian side of the Turkish border as a quid pro quo for Turkey’s cooperation on migration control.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced earlier this summer that this safe zone would constitute “the basis of 1.7 million Syrian refugees' return." The US has made clear, however, that it would not be willing to enforce a no-flight zone, and so it’s likely this prospective border space would be more “unsafe area” than safe.
Turkey’s is committed to carving out a place of return in Syria and talks openly about this as the basis for placing the refugees there. This, combined with its unwillingness to give Syrians a firm legal refugee status, is a serious basis for Syrians to be uncertain about Turkey’s commitment to continue to provide temporary protection to Syrian refugees.
After five years, Syrian refugees in Turkey - 80 percent of whom live outside the camps- have exhausted their resources. They are prohibited from working legally, so those who do work illegally are exploited and underpaid, increasing social tensions between the refugees and their hosts.
As humanitarian support has waned, with UN appeals still less than 40 percent funded, refugees in the camps also have cause for concern. The UN food agency announced earlier this year that it had to withdraw from nine refugee camps because of financial shortfalls.
Only about 20 percent of the refugee children living outside of camps in Turkey went to school last year. Human Rights Watch will be publishing a report later this month that shows the impact on Syrian children in Turkey of being out of school for more than two years.
This includes being cut-off from education not only by the violence inside Syria, but also because of language and other barriers in Turkey. Seeking education was the most common reason young people told me they were going to Europe.
Those of us who have been bearing witness to the Syrian exodus to Europe have certainly felt their desperation, but we have also felt their enormous sense of hope. Not hope for Syria, which is crumbling fast, but hope for Germany, and Sweden. “For me, I have no hope, but for my children,” a Syrian mother said to me.
The Syrian families I met seeking to give their children to a future away from horrors of a brutal war deserve Europe’s protection, not fences and deadly obstacles.