As Europe takes a ‘fortress mentality,’ Turkey...
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Jan 25, 2016  |  Vote 0    0

As Europe takes a ‘fortress mentality,’ Turkey quietly struggles with its own refugee crisis

Near the front lines of war, Turkey is quietly struggling to cope with the hundreds of thousands of migrants moving through and living within its borders

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In Europe, anti-migrant feelings are rising with the tide of would-be refugees from Syria and other countries.

Hundreds of thousands have reached Europe via people smugglers and through permeable borders, as countries push back with growing alarm.

International Organization for Migration chief William Lacy Swing says an “unprecedented anti-migrant, anti-foreign sentiment” in Europe has created a fortress mentality.

In Turkey, it’s a different story.

Situated near the front line of the war in Syria, Turkey has taken in more than two million desperate people, built widely-praised camps for them and under a new deal with Europe, agreed to grant refugees work permits in exchange for $4.6 billion — a move Europe hopes will cut down on the number of destitute people heading for the continent.

“We now have 2.5 million (Syrian refugees) living in Turkey,” says Dr. Mehmet Gulluoglu, director general of the Turkish Red Crescent, the country’s front-line aid organization. Twenty-five camps have been built, he added, while the numbers of refugees living outside has been steadily increasing.

“What can we do?” he asks. “They are our neighbours. Turkey can’t say ‘sorry, we are full to capacity.’ We have to do our duty.”

It’s a growing dilemma for a country squeezed between the Middle East and Europe.

In November, Human Rights Watch accused Ankara of pushing refugees back into Syria — an allegation the government rejected. Nevertheless, thousands continue to pour into Turkey, as European governments chide the country about the would-be refugees who have passed through its borders to attempt perilous crossings into Europe.

Gulluoglu, who spoke during a visit to Toronto last week, said even though 270,000 people are living in Turkish camps — and thousands more have entering the country since the Syrian war began in 2011 — no more camps are being built.

Turkey has spent more than $11 billion to care for refugees in camps in the past five years. But the total cost is likely far higher, as an estimated two million are living outside of them.

Providing chronic and acute health care for refugees, including vaccinations and medication, Gulluoglu says, is “more costly with every day that passes.”

Not all the news is bad. For the refugees, conditions have improved inside and outside the camps.

Instead of dishing out meals to camp-dwellers, Gulluoglu said, Turkey is “giving them electronic (debit) cards so they can do their own shopping. It’s good for their dignity, and they can eat the food they like.” The World Food Program supports the operation.

Work permits have also been issued to Syrian refugees under the terms of the EU agreement, allowing thousands who would otherwise be forced to live on handouts to find jobs. (Italy has so far blocked the release of the money to Turkey, calling for more scrutiny of how it would be spent.)

Education for Syrian refugees has been stepped up, and the government says nearly 700,000 children now receive free schooling. Language and skills training for adults have been expanded. And Gaziantep University, near the Syrian border, has plans to offer 18 majors taught in Arabic to accommodate the refugees.

Meanwhile, says Gulluoglu, a project to aid the most vulnerable refugees outside the camps is sending workers house to house to track down widows, orphans, lone children and disabled people who are in urgent need.

All this at a time when Turkey’s economy has been battered by the Syrian war — with an estimated loss of more than $10 billion in trade and tourist revenue. The Turkish lira has slid against the dollar, and economic growth has shrunk, but international funding to Turkey to cope with the refugee flood is only $600 million a year.

And few countries have offered to take large numbers of the refugees who are sheltering in Turkey, and likely to stay indefinitely.

During his visit to Canada last week, Gulluoglu praised the Trudeau government for its decision to take in 25,000 Syrians — a breakthrough for North America, but a fraction of Turkey’s burden.

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Canada has provided about $31 million to support “experienced humanitarian partners” responding to the refugee crisis in Turkey.

Toronto Star

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