Migration is a hot button issue in pretty much all parts of the world, particularly Europe and North America. As people flee from wars, persecution and poverty out of a sense of helplessness, they naturally attempt to go to developed countries.
Turkey by virtue of its geographic location has always been a bridge for migrants from East to West rather than a host. However, since the beginning of the civil war in Syria in 2011, Turkey has witnessed an unprecedented influx of refugees from its southern neighbor, with which it shares a border of more than 400 miles.
As the numbers increased, so did xenophobia. Since the Turkish government meddled in the internal affairs of Syria and supported the opposition, the country had an open door policy for Syrians including extremists and fighters, which led to concerns about safety inside Turkey. Given the unfavorable conditions for refugees in Turkey, however, many saw Turkey as a transit country toward their final destination in Europe. Not only did Turkey not have a planned refugee policy, but also the public became increasingly intolerant of Syrians for providing cheap labor. Although Turkey received a significant amount of financial aid from the European Union to keep refugees inside Turkey, false claims of government support for refugees with taxpayers’ money regularly circulate on social media. Historically, the Turkish people tend to have a more favorable view of Europeans than Middle Easterners. Coupled with the strains of the migrant influx, those biases became more visible.
According to UNHCR’s June 30, 2021 Turkey Operational Update, Turkey hosts 4 million refugees and asylum seekers including more than 3.6 million Syrians under temporary protection status and close to 330,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers of other nationalities. Any crime and/or social tension that was linked to Syrians has already been magnified by the media, but lately the “anxieties” of Turks from almost every part of the political spectrum are on the rise with the new developments in Afghanistan. Following the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, a flow of migrants reached Turkey’s borders through Iran due to fear of the Taliban, which is now the dominant force in the war-stricken country. The scenes of young men entering Turkey undocumented raises already existing concerns among almost everyone. The liberal minority emphasizing the helplessness of refugees and their human rights are often accused of being elitist and out of touch with the realities of Turkey. People often lack empathy and forget the fact that anyone can become a refugee some day, especially if coming from a volatile country that could unexpectedly turn even the most privileged into refugees.
However, it is not only a significant portion of the Turkish population that is concerned about yet another wave of poor, uneducated and unregulated refugees from the East. German Chancellor Angela Merkel apparently felt the need to reiterate Turkey’s crucial role when it comes to refugees amid the newcomers from Afghanistan. “Turkey is doing an excellent job of taking care of Syrian refugees. We provided support to Turkey, but of course, that was a small amount,” she said, referring to a 2016 refugee deal. It is no secret that the EU has had a quid pro quo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since 2016. Despite Turkey’s slide into dictatorship, the EU turns a blind eye to massive human rights violations just to keep refugees at bay. Although Erdoğan openly uses refugees as a bargaining chip with Europe, Merkel is merely interested in the EU’s own interests. She claims an extension of the migrant deal with Turkey “would be the best for the affected people.”
Tolerating Erdoğan’s arbitrary one-man rule for the sake of domestic political calculations could be the best option for Merkel and other European leaders, but claiming that it is the best for the refugees is an insult to everyone’s intelligence.
Indeed, the EU should be ashamed of its policy of appeasement with Erdoğan at the expense of the suffering of millions of Turkish citizens and refugees.
Sevgi Akarçeşme is the former editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman and Turkish Minute.