The Syrian crisis has shaken the foundations of the ‘European’ Project and polarized the European community. However, the continent is dealing with a small number of refugees in comparison to states in the Middle East. Lebanon and Turkey have taken significant amounts of Syrian refugees since the crisis began in 2011. Turkey has adopted an open-door policy to the flow of refugees; however, there are many questioning within Ankara whether Turkey has maybe reached its limit.
Currently, around 2.5 million refugees who have fled the civil war in Syria are living in Turkey. On top of this, there are tens of thousands waiting at the Turkish border for entry to escape the escalation of violence that has occurred between Russian-backed Syrian forces, the Islamic State (IS), opposition ‘moderate’ and jihadist forces. With the potential fall of Aleppo, the refugee crisis is set to worsen.
Turkey has built several high functioning refugee camps and has provided free access to health and education for all registered refugees. This has come to a massive 5.37 billion Euros since refugees started arriving in 2011. So far this has been funded through Turkey’s budget however on a domestic level there is increasing strain on the national economy. As a consequence of its policy, Turkey has found itself as a buffer zone between the EU’s fear of increasing numbers of refugees and the continuing influx of Syrians into Turkey’s southern border and from the Aegean Sea. This has led the situation to become increasingly polarized and politicized.
However, inaction and bargaining from both the EU and Turkey have meant that there are increasing political and economic consequences which will continue to create problems both domestically and regionally for Turkey in finding a resolution to this refugee issue.
The arrival of Syrian refugees has had both positive and adverse consequences on the national economy. On a domestic scale, Syrian refugees have filled many positions for cheap labor in which local populations would not work such as in manufacturing and agricultural sectors. This has also spurred on local industries by Syrians with business and commercial interests who have set up successful firms in the border towns of Gaziantep and Mersin with great success.
It has also established a favorable environment for investors due to cheap labor costs and has seen many local Turkish firms helping with aid projects in these Syrian camps. However, there is growing concern about the effect of the influx of refugees on the unemployment rate of Turkey that has already reached double digits to 10.5% with an even higher youth unemployment rate. The flow of cheap labor increased smuggling operations and the illegal status of a majority of Syrian refugees are causing some friction with local populations.
Public services including free health care are already under massive strain due to increasingly unstable conditions and lack of operational space and personnel. As a consequence, there has been a resurgence of diseases such as measles and polio, which had disappeared from Turkey many years ago. On a social level, there is also an increasing ghettoization of Syrian refugee populations in bigger cities such as Istanbul and Ankara leading to long-term problems of integration and social friction in an already divisive political and social environment. As the numbers continue to increase, Turkey’s ability to maintain its policy of helping Syrian refugees will come under increasing economic strain, especially since the lira is weak and inflation rises.
On a regional and political level, it has been revealed that Turkey has been using the crisis as a political and economic bargaining chip to leverage its allies and the EU. This comes at a time when Turkey is increasingly isolated regionally and internationally due to numerous ideologically driven foreign policy mistakes.
The AKP has tried to use the Syrian refugee crisis as leverage against fellow NATO members to implement a no-fly zone in northern Syria as means to protect civilians. However, it appears that this is a tool to try directly to influence Syrian politics and oust the Assad regime. President Erdoğan has stipulated that he will ‘open’ the floodgates to Europe if sufficient funding is not provided to help the refugee crisis. Consequently, the EU has provided around 3 billion Euros and reopened the ascension process for Turkey’s membership including visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. It comes at a time when Turkey has cracked down on freedom of speech and jailed opposition critic which has been seen as a gradual shift towards authoritarianism.
However, so far Turkey’s policy has been met with much resistance by the US and NATO particularly after the fallout between Russia and Turkey who see the establishment of a no-fly zone leading to a possible confrontation with Russia. On top of this, a lack of strategy and continued military campaigning in Turkey’s southeast is also creating the further internal flows of Kurdish refugees from predominately Kurdish areas.
Turkey is in economic and political crisis, but it can play a crucial role in demonstrating to Europe the benefits of a sound refugee policy. However, its open door policy for refugees is looking more and more unsustainable, and its use of refugees as politics tools only serves to undermine its previous humanitarian role. As the economy starts to show signs of weakening, it will be difficult for the government to justify allowing more refugees from Syria into Turkey and will need to seek sustainable outside funding.
The social and economic grievances with Syrian refugees (although unfounded) will increase as the country fails to solve increasing unemployment and the social and political divide that permeates Turkish society.
However cheap political bargaining and blackmail will eventually backfire against the AKP. As the Turkish government seeks to continue to interfere in Syria, this will only exacerbate the current Refugee Crisis. Unfortunately Syrian refugees will continue to be used as political leverage in Turkey’s political strategy in Syria as it seeks to influence the US and its allies to unseat Assad and curtail support for the PYD controlled areas on the Turkish-Syrian border.
Turkey is at a precipice. It can work with the international community to solve the refugee crisis; however, it will come at a cost. For Turkey to assume a dominant role in solving the crisis, it will be necessary for Turkey to remove itself from interfering in Syrian affairs. At the moment, this seems extremely unlikely. Turkey is trying to reposition itself as a major player in the future of Syria through increased border assaults and proposed military intervention but in the end of it all Syrian refugees will remain pawns in the ever-expanding Middle East game of Risk with no discernible end in sight.