Unpleasant refugee arithmetic with the EU

The issue of forced migration and internally displaced persons (IDPs) is perhaps the most defining problem of our age, and the civil war in Syria is its most typical case. It is very difficult to deal with because it is a regional problem that can only be addressed through global cooperation. Yet our European partners so often seem to be forgetting this simple truth, and try to wish away the refugee crisis at their door.

Today let me direct your attention to some unpleasant facts about this problem.

As of February 2020, there are 3.5 million documented Syrians living in Turkey. If you consider the undocumented Syrians in Turkey and internally displaced Syrians living in the Turkish-controlled regions on the Syrian side of the 822-km border, the number of Syrians living under some kind of Turkish protection is 9.5 million. Note that the number of Syrians living in areas controlled by President Bashar Al Assad of Syria is substantially lower than this figure.

On the opposite side of the Aegean, there are officially 73,569 Syrian migrants living in Greece as of January 2020. This is thanks to the EU-Turkey migration deal. Now I come to the part with the unpleasant arithmetic. Turkey has received a total of 3.2 billion euros as EU financial aid so far. Greece on the other hand, has received 2.77 billion to deal with the same problem, as of March 2020.

What does that mean? It means that EU financial aid per refugee jumps more than 41 times when a Syrian migrant passes the Maritsa river. If a Syrian refugee or an internally displaced person stays in Turkey, the EU pays around 900 euros for his or her care. Note that this declines to around 400 euros, if you consider IDPs and Turkish-controlled territories in Syria. EU aid per refugee jumps to 37,651 euros, if this person crosses the Maritsa.

Forced migration and IDPs are local problems, but their management requires global cooperation. It is unfair to expect one country to deal with all of it alone. Yet this is more or less what the EU has asked of Turkey.

If it feels like Turkey might be creating this refugee problem for its own reasons, and that Syrians could simply walk back into their country undisturbed if they wanted, think again. The mass exile of Syrians has now become an intentional policy of the Assad regime, changing the dynamics of the Syrian civil war totally regarding the neighboring countries. EU has to recognize the negative repercussions of this maximum Syria, minimum Syrians policy of President Assad.

Jamil al-Hassan, previous Air Force Intelligence Chief, now security advisor to the President, reportedly told a room of 33 officers in August 2018: “A Syria with 10 million trustworthy people obedient to the leadership is better than a Syria with 30 million vandals. … After eight years, Syria will not accept the presence of cancerous cells and they will be removed completely.”

This maximum Syrian territory with the minimum number of Syrians policy means Syria is not keen on taking back its citizens and indicates that Syrians in Turkey are here to stay. That’s what developments in Idlib have shown so far.

On our side, it’s all about domestic politics. This is a big political problem in Turkey. 80 percent of Turkey’s citizens would like Syrians to leave immediately. They feel that the war in Syria is not Turkey’s fault, and that the Europeans should share its burden.

On the European side, there is the idea that Europe has had nothing to do with the war, and shouldn’t have to host people just because they are treaty allies with Turkey, or because these refugees mostly want to go to Europe. In short, Europeans want the right to live in Europe as Europeans, among other Europeans. When push comes to shove, they take birth rights over human rights. Europe must realize that in modern world it has given birth to, it cannot just walk away without taking responsibility.

As James Baldwin has said, “forays, frontiers and flags are useless. Nobody can go home anymore.”

This commentary was published in Hürriyet Daily News on 07.03.2020

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Notes from Turkey and its vicinity: It’s the economy, stupid

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