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EU Refugee Crisis: Turkey as an Effective Partner?

Appeasing Erdogan’s Turkey without regard for European values won’t create an effective border.

March 6, 2016

Appeasing Erdogan’s Turkey without regard for European values won’t create an effective border.

Numbers alone are sufficient to convey the grim reality of Syrian refugees in Turkey: Of the 4.3 million displaced Syrians who have been registered as persons of concern by the UNHCR, 2.2 million currently reside in Turkey.

That number is higher than the entire population of six of the EU’s 28 member states.

Despite the magnitude of this humanitarian crisis, the social, economic and security challenges that are directly related to it have not received sufficient public attention in Turkey.

This fact, paired with Turkey’s democratic governance deficit and the basic absence of domestic consensus-building efforts, present substantial risks for the long-term sustainability of Ankara’s current refugee policy as well as the envisaged cooperation with the EU.

Simply put, a Turkey that continues to drift away from European values and Copenhagen criteria – the rules that define whether a country is eligible to join the EU – cannot be an effective partner for the EU’s efforts to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis.

Foreign policy failures

For Turkey’s AKP, which has been in power since 2002, the Syrian refugee crisis is an unanticipated and unfortunate outcome of its botched efforts to redesign Syrian politics by advocating swift regime change (moving from Bashar al-Assad’s rule to a Muslim Brotherhood-led government).

Even when the Syrian crisis turned into a civil war-cum-proxy war waged to a considerable degree by violent extremists, Turkey was unable to foresee the potential fallout from its proxy involvement in Syria through its support for armed Islamist groups.

Turkey: Permanent waiting room?

Since 2011, when Turkey started receiving substantial numbers of Syrians fleeing the civil war, Ankara has maintained an open door policy and committed generous funds and resources – to the amount of $9 billion – to accommodate displaced Syrians.

However, Turkey does not grant refugee status to Syrians. Ankara still retains a geographical reservation to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to the effect that it grants refugee status only to asylum seekers arriving from Europe.

For Syrians and other asylum seekers from outside Europe, Turkey sees itself only as a temporary destination in the refugees’ search for a third country where their status can be recognized.

Accordingly, the Turkish government’s approach to dealing with Syrian immigrants has changed over the last four years. In the early stages, displaced Syrians were seen simply as guests, with the expectation that this was a short term arrangement.

As the political and humanitarian crisis deepened, they were reclassified as persons in need of temporary protection.

When the government finally gave up hope of Syrians’ return to their homeland, Syrians came to be seen as akin to the waves of asylum seekers from around the world who pass through Turkey looking for resettlement in third countries subsequent to recognition of their refugee status.

The experience of other displaced persons in Turkey shows that ultimately for most asylum seekers – and this could be the case with Syrians – Turkey turns into a permanent waiting room.

The net result is that individuals who fail to resettle in a third country often struggle to make ends meet without the opportunity to be fully incorporated into the Turkish society.

The government’s use of Islamic symbolism

In order to promote its religious worldview at home and abroad, the Turkish government has used Islamic symbolism to convey what it believes are its duties related to the Syrian refugee crisis.

This elevates public and private efforts to accommodate Syrian refugees from a humanitarian responsibility to a religious duty.

Those efforts notwithstanding, the AKP leadership is acutely aware that the Turkish electorate might view the ongoing influx and plight of Syrian refugees as a result of its ill-conceived and misguided Syria policy.

To the Turkish opposition, the displacement and suffering of Syrian refugees have become a symbol of the political and human costs of the AKP’s failed regional policies – policies characterized by sectarianism, proxy war involvement, support for violent extremists and breach of international law.

Faced with such criticism, the AKP has barred members of parliament in the opposition from visiting and monitoring the camps.

Caught in the crossfire

Caught in the crossfire of government propaganda and opposition polemic, Syrian refugees live under precarious conditions. Unable to regularize their migration status through permanent residence or work permits, they have to depend on the discretion of the Turkish government as well as the hospitality and tolerance of society.

In practice, such a marginal existence often ends up translating into panhandling, homelessness, exploitation, child labor, forced marriage, and even the sale of individuals into indentured servitude or slavery.

Syrians also have to cope with a public opinion that is gradually but surely turning against them as their numbers swell.

Although none of the political parties represented in the Turkish Parliament advocates an anti-immigrant platform, polls show Turkish citizens increasingly concerned about economic competition and crime resulting from Syrian refugees.

Eighty-five percent of the Turkish public is against granting citizenship to displaced Syrians, so there is little hope for Syrians to settle for good in Turkey. This precarious existence is one of the key factors leading to the Syrian exodus from Turkey to the EU and beyond.

Using the refugee crisis as leverage

In order to make the most out of what seems like a bad hand, the Turkish government sees the rise of populist parties running on anti-immigrant and anti-Islam platforms across Europe as a unique opportunity in its dealings with the EU.

Ankara believes with good reason that European establishment parties need a game-changer in migration policy to survive the next round of elections against anti-immigrant parties.

Turkey has long-standing grievances against the EU over its stalled accession process. It is skillfully using the Syrian refugee crisis as leverage against the EU to re-energize its membership talks.

Despite Turkey’s self-righteous rhetoric on the Syrian refugee crisis, the government’s ongoing negotiations with the EU thus have less to do with migrants than with political gains on the domestic and international front.

Erdogan is acutely aware of the desperation of the European leaders. They are now willing to pursue transactional relations at the expense of values-based policies.

EU compromising over its own core values

Despite all the constraints at the national and supranational level, the EU should continue to express to Turkey that the Union is first and foremost joined together by values.

Unfortunately, the November 2015 summit – in which the EU sought to appease Turkey by fulfilling its list of demands while turning a blind eye to its democratic deficit – has sent the opposite message. It underscored the extent to which refugees can be used as leverage against the EU.

Even leaving all this political gamesmanship aside, even in the best of all worlds, it is unrealistic to expect that Turkey could succeed single-handedly where the 28 EU member states have failed.

Syrian refugees, who have so far outsmarted the EU’s measures to restrict and regulate migratory flows, will likely also find ways of outsmarting Turkey’s attempts to stop them.

As the European Council President Donald Tusk stated during the November summit, “the EU cannot outsource the obligation to protect the Union’s external borders to a third country.”

This applies all the more so as the EU has chosen to ignore Turkey’s crackdown on minorities (particularly the Kurds), opposition businesses and independent media, all acts in violation of the afore-mentioned Copenhagen criteria.

Looking ahead, two considerations stand out: First, ultimately the most effective and sustainable strategy to prevent mass displacement is preventing authoritarian regimes from carrying out atrocities toward their own citizens.

Second (and completely overlooked to date) is the point that a Turkey that descends further into authoritarianism under the AKP’s majoritarian rule is a candidate not for reducing the magnitude of the refugee crisis, but for magnifying it further.

Lest we forget, in the 1980s and 1990s masses of Turkish political refugees streamed into Europe – most of them Kurds. Given the crackdown at home, the latter surely have reason again to be on the move.

Vain EU hopes

The policy of appeasing Turkey with the hope of transforming it into an effective border guard will not turn Europe into an impregnable fortress – as some in the EU hope. Rather, it will turn Turkey into a mass prison.

Syria aside, what is most frustrating to millions of Turkish citizens who have long struggled against illiberalism and authoritarianism and shown their unyielding allegiance to EU values is the degree to which the EU has failed to show any genuine commitment to, and cooperation with, their Turkish brethren.

Make no mistake about it: An authoritarian Turkey drifting away from European values and democratic governance cannot be an effective partner for the EU’s efforts to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis.

Editor’s note: Adapted from policy quarterly Civis mit Sonde, where the article originally appeared


Turkey does not grant refugee status to Syrians, only to asylum seekers arriving from Europe.

Turkey sees itself as a temporary destination in the refugees’ search for a third country.

Turkey turns into a permanent waiting room for individuals who fail to resettle in a third country.

Syrian refugees are caught in the crossfire of government propaganda and opposition polemic.

Eighty-five percent of the Turkish public is against granting citizenship to displaced Syrians.

European leaders are ready to pursue transactional relations at the expense of values-based policies.

Turkey is not reducing the magnitude of the refugee crisis, but magnifying it further.

An authoritarian Turkey cannot be a partner for the EU’s efforts to deal with the refugee crisis.