Notes from the Turkish Border

A few days in southern Turkey, in cities which have received Syrian refugees, leaves a complex feeling of both achievements and failures.

Turkey is currently the largest refugee hosting country in the world. More than two million Syrians have arrived over the past four years, and more are arriving as the conflict back home continues unabated. Every day, living conditions inside Syria become more precarious and dangerous.

Some 265,000 refugees have been settled in camps in Turkey. Established and run by the Turkish government, the camps deliver high standards of living conditions unmet by the international community in any refugee camp in the world: refugees are provided with shelter, water and sanitation, health care, schooling, and food, which they can buy with a government provided credit card in the camps’ markets. Presence in the camps is mostly voluntary and refugees are allowed out on a regular basis.

“Here we feel safe,” is what I heard repeatedly from refugees living inside the camps when I visited Turkey in March. Yet the trauma of their recent experience lingers as the drawings children make in their classrooms cruelly attest.

The Turkish government reckons it has spent almost 5.5 billion dollars in the past four years and received very little international support. “We have no reliable partners,” was the more diplomatic way senior officials both in Ankara and border towns put it to me.

Schooling is every day a more dramatic unmet requirement. While the world has lamented loudly the “lost generation” of Syrian children missing out on schooling, it is not right to expect that the Turks (or any government in the region, for that matter) should assume alone the responsibility of providing schooling for hundreds of thousands of Syrian children. As a local district governor put it to me, “We receive Syrians on behalf of the international community. But where is this community today?”

A patchwork of small, uncoordinated initiatives (different curricula and schedules, spotty coverage, differences of views on the language of teaching etc.) does not make up for a consistent policy supported by substantial international funding. Deeds, not words of commiseration, are required. Four years have been lost and it is high time for the international community to generously support a master plan for educating  Syrians in exile. This is not within the competencies and possibilities of humanitarian aid, and should be laid at the door of development agencies (bilateral, multilateral, and development banks), with the aim of providing Turkey (and other host governments in the region) with the means to address what they recognize as a critical need beyond their financial capacity.

A drawing by a Syrian refugee boy living now in Turkey. Photo courtesy Demet Öger

Despite the overall safe conditions in the camps, most refugees have however chosen to live outside camps to avoid the artificial set up of camps. Well over a million are spread out across border towns. In some instances, refugees represent easily a fifth of the population. Others have moved further away to Ankara and Istanbul. For those with few means, or those whose own resources are drying up, life can be much more difficult. Child labor, survival sex, and street begging are on the rise. So is the number of refugees who move to Egypt and Libya in search of smugglers who will pack them into leaky and often fatal boats towards Europe, their only remaining hope of a chance to recover from an impossible future.

In 2014, the Turkish government passed a comprehensive Law on Foreigners and International Protection which will eventually recognize the rights of Syrians to access services and perhaps some level of legal employment will be permitted. But the law’s implementation is taking precious time.

In the meantime, refugees continue to cross the border. Last year saw protests by the local population, which have mercifully not yet been politicized and to which the government has responded with restraint and quiet continuation of their policy of tolerance. As time goes on, the Turkish-Syrian border is becoming more difficult to cross. This is regrettable, but with each new refugee arrival, it is becoming more difficult for Turkey to shelter and care for them given the woefully inadequate international support.