After pursuing a decade-long “open-door policy” for people who flee their conflict-torn countries, Turkey seems to have recalibrated its refugee policy due to several pressing domestic and regional factors. High-level visits to Ankara from both UN and EU officials last week were a clear indication of Turkey’s new direction.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi were in Ankara to meet top Turkish officials, including the president and the foreign and interior ministers. There was only one topic on their agenda: Migration. The most important part of Varhelyi’s statement to the press was that “there is no other way but to work together with Ankara” on the refugee issue due to the current crises related to Afghanistan and Syria.
Turkey, located between the Middle East and Europe, hosts more refugees than any other country in the world. Its hosting of refugees is not new. However, the Syrian war and now the crisis in Afghanistan have changed the dimensions of the story. Turkey currently hosts about 4 million Syrians and about 330,000 Afghans, which is believed to be the second-largest refugee community in Turkey after Syrians.
Varhelyi underlined that the EU needs to establish a “new kind of partnership” with Turkey in terms of their joint handling of migration, adding that, unlike in 2015, Turkey had strengthened the protection of its borders, but there is still the challenge the Afghanistan crisis presents to Turkey and Europe. In 2016, Turkey and the EU signed a deal aimed at preventing Syrians from moving to Europe in return for funding of up to €6 billion ($7 billion), causing millions of refugees and asylum seekers to stay within Turkey’s borders.
With the expected Afghan refugee influx at Turkey’s doorstep, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month warned that “Turkey has no duty, responsibility or obligation to be Europe’s warehouse for refugees.” He added that his country cannot handle the burden of another wave of migration from Afghanistan or Syria.
Following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, European countries, including Turkey, have increased their measures to prevent a new influx of irregular migrants. A wall that is to cover a third of Turkey’s 534-km border with Iran is the most striking feature of the Turkish effort to keep Afghans out. Turkey’s population, which is already exhausted by the repercussions of the Syrian war, is unlikely to welcome another refugee flow and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan can only exacerbate anti-refugee sentiment in the country.
With elections on the horizon in 2023, the government is likely to recalibrate its refugee policy in face of the growing public resentment.
Therefore, Ankara seems set to draw up a new refugee plan, which is to deal with both Syrian and Afghan refugees, due to the pressures it faces both within and outside its borders. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated on Sunday that Turkey is working with the UNHCR on a plan to repatriate Syrians to their home country. Noting that the migration problem causes “unease” in society, Cavusoglu said the situation in Afghanistan was “very different from Syria.” His comments came only a few days after Grandi’s visit.
Although the Turkish resentment that millions of refugees are not returning home is long-standing, there seems to be two main triggering factors that have caused Ankara to consider the repatriation of Syrians. The first is related to Turkey’s domestic environment. In the last few years, there has been societal and political pressure on the government over the way it has handled the refugee file. According to a recent survey, more than 70 percent of the Turkish people would vote for the party that promises the toughest action on the refugee issue. Needless to say, the influx of Syrian refugees is an important factor that has had and will continue to have an effect on voting behavior in Turkey.
Turks are highly divided in their perceptions of Syrians. Today, there are a lot of complaints, ranging from security-related issues to the Syrians’ role in the labor market and educational problems. The faltering economy, with currency devaluation and rampant inflation over the last three years, has also soured public sentiment toward refugees, even among the supporters of the ruling party. With elections on the horizon in 2023, the government is likely to recalibrate its refugee policy in face of the growing public resentment.
The second factor is related to what has been going on in Afghanistan. Qatar, a major transit point for Afghan refugees, and Turkey have taken the international lead in direct talks with the Taliban in recent weeks. There is also increasing international pressure coming from the EU in particular to deter new arrivals.
Turkey took on a daring political experiment from 2011 onward that made it home to the world’s largest refugee population. This open-door policy is laudable on ethical and humanitarian grounds. However, the country has accepted more refugees than it can treat and hosted them for a longer time than it can afford. The poor planning of the policy and the lack of capacity have left Turkey to carry most of the burden of caring for these refugees alone.
Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz