Turkey’s crackdown on press freedom and political dissent is of great concern to many, for good reason. But as regrettable as the government’s repressive policies are, Turkey’s role in protecting people who have fled armed conflict and persecution is worthy of support. Unfortunately, opposition to Turkey’s record on civil liberties is preventing many countries from working with Turkey on refugee protection.


Turkey currently provides safe haven to more refugees than any other country in the world. More than 3.4 million live in Turkey, of which 3.3 million are Syrian. Turkey also shelters tens of thousands of refugees from other conflict-ridden countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq. Nearly 5% of Turkey’s 80 million people are displaced from somewhere else.

Some Western countries have been generous in accommodating refugees from these conflicts. But, despite being poorer, Turkey has still taken in more than twice as many refugees as Sweden, Germany, and Canada, the three most accommodating Western countries. In fact, in recent years, Turkey has resettled more people fleeing violence than Europe and the United States combined.

A study by M. Murat Erdoğan, Director of Hacettepe University’s Migration and Politics Research Center, offers important insights into Turkish views on supporting these displaced people. Erdoğan found that, although Turkish society is “anxious and deeply pessimistic” about Syrian refugees, the prevailing sentiment is one of “reluctant acceptance.” Despite lingering concerns about coexistence, societal attitudes “do not escalate into reactionary behavior except for very exceptional circumstances.” While Turks rarely define Syrians as brothers and sisters in religion, or consider them cultural allies, they nonetheless tolerate their presence.

As in other countries, immigrants in Turkey exacerbate existing economic anxiety. The majority of Turks do not think Syrians should have the right to work, and many Turks are skeptical of refugee assimilation. While more than 70% of Turks believe Syrians will one day become permanent residents in Turkey, nearly 76% oppose giving Syrians Turkish citizenship.

But Erdoğan discovered that, despite the standoffish attitude of their hosts, more than half of Syrian refugees in Turkey are happy in the country, and that only 21.9% are “not happy at all” or “not happy.” Despite the difficulties they face finding work or accessing education, two-thirds of Syrians surveyed said they did not want to settle anywhere other than Turkey.

In addition to being unpopular among Turks, the accommodation of so many refugees from Syria and other conflict zones has cost the Turkish economy tens of billions of dollars. This suggests that the Turkish government has acted for humanitarian reasons, rather than in pursuit of domestic political gain. Even if the Turkish public is unenthusiastic, it has broadly accepted the government’s approach to the crisis, making the authorities’ actions all the more admirable. It is all the more impressive that most Syrians appear satisfied with their treatment.

There has been a great deal of discussion in Europe about how to manage the large inflow of refugees. Burden sharing by the European Union has produced very modest financial support for refugees in Turkey, with most of the aid going to help Turkey’s government stop further westward migration of the displaced.

But the findings of Erdoğan’s study – which was funded with support from the Open Society Foundation of Turkey – suggest that there may be a better approach. Rather than fund programs that prevent refugees from leaving Turkey, why not provide financial support to help them stay? Erdoğan’s data show most Syrians prefer remaining where they are, and no doubt Turkey could use help bearing the huge costs.

Turkey’s curbs on political freedom have made Europe understandably hesitant to provide financial support for any human-rights-related initiative that entails cooperation with the government. But Turkey’s humanitarian response to the refugee crisis is deserving of support; indeed, to the extent that such support advances integration of refugees, it would reduce the need for aid intended to keep asylum-seekers out of the EU. For the international community, decoupling two legitimate concerns – human rights and management of refugee flows – may be the only way to address either successfully.


*Aryeh Neier, President Emeritus of the Open Society Foundations and a founder of Human Rights Watch, is the author of The International Human Rights Movement: A History.


[Source: The Project Syndicate]