Atatürk's Republic

Following Turkish News, Politics, Arts and Culture

Turkey still has a Refugee Crisis

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Some very harsh light has been cast on Turkey and its malignant neglect of its ISIS problem over the past week.  Turkey joined the US led coalition against ISIS only to almost immediately backtrack.  Whether or not this was the right decision for Turkey to make, and in the long term I believe it is not, is complex and the subject for another blog post.  In addition, investigative reports,  in Newsweek by A. Christie Miller and Alev Scott and in the New York Times today by Ceylan Yeginsu, have made it clear that ISIS has successfully convinced thousands of vulnerable Turks and Turkish Kurds to join their nascent state.  Miller, Scott and Yeginsu’s reporting has not only proven that Turkey’s boarders remain dangerously porous but also reveal that despite Turkey’s notorious internet censorship and surveillance the Turkish government has neither been able to identify  potential ISIS recruits nor stop ISIS propaganda. Why Turkey has not stopped virtual ISIS infiltration is again the subject for another blog post.

Turkey’s undoubtedly serious ISIS problem has diverted attention from the fact that is still also facing a serious, and continually growing, refugee crisis.  In addition to the more than a million Syrian refugees already residing in Turkey, ISIS’s rampage through northern Iraq has driven yet another wave of refugees into Turkey, the Yazidis.

The vast majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey are outside of the highly lauded refugee camps, living mostly in Turkey’s southern cities or in Istanbul.  Syrian refugees have swelled the population of cities like Reyhanli, Killis and Gaziantep.  Despite the largely welcoming attitude of the Turkish population toward the refugees, recently tensions have been rising.  In August there were violent anti-Syrian protests in Istanbul and riots targeting Syrians went on for several days after a Turkish landlord was murdered by his Syrian tenant in Gaziantep.  In order to try to prevent even more Syrians from entering the country, Turkey has encouraged the building of refugee camps just inside the Syrian border.  The conditions in these camps are decidedly worse than the camps located inside of Turkey.

After Kurdish fighters pushed back the ISIS invaders which had displaced and killed thousands of Yazidis, members of this religious minority began fleeing over Turkey’s southeastern border.  Official estimates put the number of Yazidi refugees at 16,000.  Camps are being set up for this new refugee group but like the Syrians many find themselves living either in ad-hoc shelters or in camps inside Iraq.

Yazidis are an ethno-religious minority whose religious beliefs are widely misunderstood.  Yazidis follow a syncretic religion that is based on pre-Islamic, Pre-Christian Zoroastrian beliefs.  They speak Kurdish dialects and most (but not all) consider themselves to be ethnic Kurds.  Muslim Kurds for their part appear to embrace Yazidis as their ethnic kin, fighting heroically to allow trapped Yazidis to escape from the barren Sinjar mountain and even training Yazidis who volunteered to fight against ISIS.  Kurds inside Turkey have gathered donations and personally delivered necessities to Yazidi refugees.

The Turkish government is already overwhelmed trying to manage the Syrian refugees inside its borders.  It needs a new strategy in order to effectively manage and accommodate a vulnerable refugee group like the Yazidis.  I wrote an unpublished policy paper last fall addressing the issue of Turkey could better accommodate other ethno-minority refugees, specifically the Alawite and Alevi refugees from Syria.  The data is somewhat dated, but the essential argument I make still stands.  In brief, I assert in this paper that the most productive and efficient plan of action for Turkey regarding minority urban refugees is to work with Turkey’s own indigenous Alevi and Alawite minority communities to provide services to these refugee groups.  This proposal is doubly beneficial.  It not only addresses the problem of these under-served refugee groups who are hesitant to ask for assistance directly from the Turkish government but also, in working together to address the needs of refugees, it also would build trust between the Turkish government and its long marginalized Alevi and Alawite citizens.

This proposed plan of action can be directly translated for the current situation of Yazidis, who have taken refuge in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast provinces. Kurdish municipalities and individuals have been providing aid independently but do not have the resources to deal with a crisis of this scale in the long term.  The Turkish central government on the other hand has the resources but not the contacts on the ground.  In order to address this crisis effectively, the two need to work together.  Additionally, the Turkish-Kurdish peace process, while not yet broken, has stagnated.  Partnering with local Kurdish authorities and civil society organizations to asses and address the needs of this latest group of refugees would be just the kind of good-will initiative that the peace process so desperately needs right now.  The Turkish government needs to set aside its phobia of everything Kurdish (read: anything with the remote possibility of being affiliated with the PKK) and directly engage with all willing partners in order to both manage this crisis and demonstrate that there can be a lasting peace between Turks and Kurds.

However, I can almost without a doubt predict that Turkey will continue its current plan of action, or lack there of, regarding both Iraqi and Syrian refugees.  Over the past year Turkish efforts to address both Sunni and minority Syrian refugees have flatlined.  The only discernible change stems from disconcerting reports that urban refugees, particularly those begging on the streets, have been rounded up and sent to camps against their will.  I have yet to see any investigative reports regarding these camps, if they do indeed exist.  I certainly hope that when the current crisis cools down that both the Turkish government and the media will realize that the Syrian refugee crisis is turning into a permanent population displacement.  Sending refugees to camps is not a long term solution, no matter how good the conditions in said camps may be.  Major policy changes, such as issuing work permits for refugees, need to be paired with creative grass-roots based solutions in order to prevent Turkey’s refugee population from becoming a major, and likely long-term, social, economic and political burden.

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Written by ataturksrepublic

September 16, 2014 at 5:46 pm

One Response

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  1. […] and events of 2014 that was noticeably absent from the major stories last week, including the ongoing refugee crisis and the Soma […]


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