Syrian refugee camps and conflict in Turkey

Now that the short term crisis has transformed into a long term stalemate, the inadequacy of the temporary protection regime of camps in Turkey is revealed. Turkey is a party to international treaties arising from the basic obligation to open its border to refugees. But the international community also has responsibilities.

There has been an increase in violence along the Turkish-Syrian border as tension continues to grow, arousing new concern about the faltering diplomatic efforts to end the conflict in Syria. In recent weeks Ankara has increased its military presence along the border in response to mortar shells and bullets falling on Turkish border towns. Ankara has retaliated with its own artillery and has begun pushing for greater military intervention, at a time when the question on NATO political leaders’ minds seems to be how to end the conflict without resorting to military intervention.

Meanwhile, as a result of the violence, between November 8 and 9, 2012, over 9,000 refugees have fled into Turkey from Syria while stray bullets wounded Turkish nationals near the border. More than 110,000 Syrians have sought refuge in camps in Turkey. There are currently refugee camps in eight provinces in Turkey, with a total capacity of only 128,000 people. It is estimated that over 70,000 Syrians are living outside the camps in Turkish cities.

The refugee camps in Turkey are run by the Turkish Prime Ministry's Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) in cooperation with Turkish Red Crescent, surrounded by gated fences and barbed-wire, security cameras, x-ray scanners, and personal checks. The interior of the camps consist of tents or container houses, hundreds of security officials responsible for security, hospitals, schools, and social centers.

Security measures around camps in Hatay have arisen in response to demographic conditions there. Hatay is a slice of the Mediterranean once part of Syria which continues to enjoy deep cultural and economic ties with Syria, with 40 percent of the population of Arab Alevi origin. Ankara is worried that tension between refugees and locals might turn into unrest. Police have urged Syrians living in rented houses in Hatay to either move into refugee camps or leave the province. Special cameras have been installed to monitor the exterior of the refugee camps in Hatay. Cameras have also been placed in streets and alleys near the camps. Security forces are on patrol near the camps, while police checkpoints in the area have also been increased. In another camp, entries and exits are tightly controlled. Those who enter the camp, a compound formerly used by Turkey's alcohol and tobacco monopoly Tekel, need to go through x-ray screening as well as physical security searches.

Three months ago, Turkey began to limit the number of refugees allowed to enter, increasing security checks along the border aimed at reducing the number of refugees. The effect was to prevent people from entering Turkey, with swift criticism from human rights groups. Because of the reduction strategy, thousands of Syrians have been stranded along the Syrian-Turkish border with no escape from the violence in Syria and no refuge in Turkey. It is estimated that 8000 Syrians are waiting at the Turkish border in Syria to enter Turkey. With nowhere else to flee, informal camps have developed just inside Syrian territory along the Turkish border. The Atmeh camp was established by local opposition forces who distribute tents and food. In another camp, thousands have poured into a makeshift tent village overlooking the Turkish border. Those who first arrived slept rough under the trees before charities began to aid them. Tents provided by Turkish charities were erected as many more families began to arrive. Some escaped to nearby villages in an effort to find refuge. Others went to a nearby border crossing hoping to cross, but were rejected when they found Turkey only grants entrance to those with passports. Many fled without passports or other forms of identification. Conditions in the tent camp are poor – there are two toilets, a small first aid tent, and public baths preventing women from washing in private. With numbers now rising, charities are calling for more aid.

Refugees can increase the chance of conflict in the country that hosts them.  In Turkey, we have recently seen the escalation in cross-border conflict with Syria, partially related to the cross-border movement of refugees. Ankara has done much to prevent the spread of conflict by catering to the humanitarian and security needs of the arriving refugees. However, recent events indicate that insecurity and the potential for more conflict spreading to Turkey have risen. There are three potential policy measures required to diffuse refugee-related conflict in host countries: 1) manage the humanitarian needs of refugees, 2) contain security risks to refugee communities, and 3) tackle the root causes related to the refugee movement. Ankara has attempted the first two through establishing and managing refugee camps to respond to both the humanitarian needs of refugees and reduce the potential security risks of having over 100,000 newcomers arrive in a short period. The third policy measure – tackling the root causes of the refugee flows – has up to this point failed.

Turkey has been recently accused of preventing Syrian refugees from entering Turkish territory. Turkey says it is filled to capacity until it can build more camps. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has said Turkey would not accept more than 100,000 refugees, a number described as a “psychological threshold.” Reaching that threshold could involve the creation of a “buffer zone” – a militarized zone accommodating the refugees, most likely outside Turkish soil. Closing the border to Syrian refugees increases the vulnerability of refugees, as restricting exit options could lead to the escalation of people resorting to riskier methods to flee Syria. This would entail even greater security risks and the potential for a modified humanitarian response.

There are legal uncertainties surrounding the refugee issue. Turkey still refers to the refugees as “guests” or “Syrian citizens” and not “refugee.” The political discretion of the Turkish government not to use the term refugee has created regulatory uncertainty over the form of temporary protection which is provided. Temporary protection is perceived as a short term solution in order to manage an acute crisis. The camps were never designed to be a long term solution, as Ankara perceived that Assad would be ousted quickly and the “guests” would return home. Now that the short term crisis has transformed into a long term stalemate, the inadequacy of the temporary protection regime of camps in Turkey is revealed. Turkey is a party to international treaties arising from the basic obligation to open its border to refugees. These basic human rights issues trump national and regional interests. If Turkey hopes to be a leader of democracy and rights in the Muslim world, then it should remain transparent in its obligations to international law. 

Managing the camps is not a final solution for the refugees. Camp management only meets the first two policy options of meeting basic security and humanitarian needs. Improving the capacity of the Turkish state to manage camps should be a high priority for allies. Another option available is through resettling Syrian refugees in safe countries. Overseas resettlement programs, long a cornerstone of Turkish asylum policy, need to be seriously considered for Syrian refugees in Turkey. Resettlement of Syrian refugees to other countries could assist in releasing some of the pressure on Turkey and surrounding states. European countries such as Denmark can assist in this exercise, as they will face the consequences of the rising numbers of refugees. People unable to find protection and meet their needs in Turkey will flee to other European countries with the assistance of facilitators working for profit and under the radar of states. Human smuggling has had consequences seen in Greece and other parts of Europe. By assisting Syrian refugees to resettle with dignity in safe European states, we can help prevent their continued vulnerability.

European countries should fully support Turkish efforts to provide for the humanitarian and security needs of Syrians fleeing the conflict. Turkey could do more to prevent the refugees from becoming further victims of conflict. But safe European countries can also help by providing safe haven to Syrian refugees.

The ability of Turkey to prevent further conflict rests on the ability to prevent conflict among local refugee populations and prevent the diffusion of the Syrian civil war into Turkey proper. This can be aided by European assistance. Although it may be necessary to increase and continue the humanitarian response, including resettlement, it is also necessary to address the root causes of the conflict.  The third policy option for mitigating refugee-related crises – ending the root causes – means ending the war. Turkey has taken on a huge responsibility regarding the refugees, and we should call on Europe and the international community not to leave Turkey isolated in hosting Syrian refugees. The international community should not remain indifferent and insensitive.

About the author

Theodore Baird is a PhD fellow at the Department of Society and Globalisation in Roskilde University in Denmark. He is currently completing a thesis on migrant smuggling and trafficking from East Africa to the Middle East.