Turkey could see more Syrian refugees

An ally just 18 months ago, the creaking Assad regime is now proving a real headache for policymakers in Ankara.

By Jonathan Levack for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 26/04/12

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Having first tried to encourage Damascus to reform, Turkey has now placed itself firmly on the side of protestors in Syria. Consistent with its stance in support of the Syrian opposition, Turkey has opened its doors to those fleeing the violence from its southern neighbor.

But with the situation far from stable, the likelihood that Turkey will need to keep its borders open for the foreseeable future to those seeking refuge is extremely high.

A handful of UN monitors were deployed to Syria at the weekend, but there is a real sense that the Kofi Annan brokered ceasefire is already showing signs of failure.

If the ceasefire fails, a lasting return to arms could result in a vast new influx of refugees into Turkey from Syria. But what is likely to happen to those who have sought shelter in Turkey in the longer term?

Currently about 25,000 Syrians have sought refuge in six camps in the southernmost province of Hatay, having benefited from Ankara's decision to keep its borders open to those fleeing the ongoing turmoil.

In the early stages of the crisis, Ankara referred to those seeking safe haven in Turkey as "guests" instead of granting them refugee status -- the idea being that as guests, Syrians were free to come and go as they pleased.

Following heavy criticism, the government changed its position, granting Syrians in Turkey "temporary protection" in November 2011. While not full refugee status, the policy allows unobstructed admission to Turkey for Syrian nationals without ID, and accommodation and basic needs in a camp in the province of Hatay.

Such temporary protection status is fine for the time being, but according to Sabiha Senyucel Gundogar, director of foreign policy at the Istanbul-based think tank TESEV, "this cannot be a permanent solution."

She told SES Türkiye that the problem arises because "Turkey is not able to grant refugee status; it has not fully signed the 1951 UN refugee convention."

The longer the turmoil continues, the more this legal ambiguity becomes a problem for those in the camps. "If the situation is to continue, then the people will need refugee status -- legally not possible in Turkey," Senyucel Gundogar said.

And this is unlikely to be resolved in the medium term. Oktay Durukan, of the Helsinki Citizen's Assembly's refugee programme, told SES Türkiye that "there is no asylum law in Turkey right now and, as such, whatever Turkey was going to do, there was going to be a degree of legal ambiguity about it."

With the monthly cost of housing several thousand Syrians in the region of 26.5m TY (11.3m euros) and climbing, and a large movement of people across the border a distinct possibility, the need for a contingency plan is self evident.

An internationally policed safe zone inside northern Syria has been touted by Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, but such a policy would require the deployment of force.

Thus it seems that Turkey may be home to many thousands of Syrian nationals for some time. Senyucel Gundogar told SES Türkiye that "according to some Western officials, there is a long term expectation for Turkey to house these individuals, but how this will be done is unclear."

But a change in policy is not likely, according to Durukan. "The number that has arrived has not reached critical level; so much depends on the situation in Syria. I don't see Turkey radically changing its policy -- Turkey is very committed to supporting the Syrian opposition."


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