It seems that February 2016 will mark a new milestone in the Syrian refugee crisis. Assad’s forces that have been advancing with Russian air support since November are now besieging the centre of the city of Aleppo. They have also closed the corridor between Aleppo and Turkey.
Tent cities along the Turkish-Syrian border are now filled with 50,000 refugees fleeing those attacks. The great majority of these pitiful people facing the harsh winter conditions are women, children and the elderly.
In the first stage of controlled admission of refugees into Turkey, 10,000 people have been allowed over the border. However, in the event that the Assad-Russia coalition seizes Aleppo - its next stated objective - then it will be only a matter of moments until a new wave of up to 1mn refugees reaches the Turkish border.
The flow of Syrian refugees began when 300 people reached the Turkish border on May 3, 2011. A group of 10,000 refugees was seen for the first time in June 2011 when the town of Jisr al-Shughur was surrounded by Assad’s forces. The total number of Syrian refugees then rose to 400,000 in 2012, 1.5mn in 2013, 3mn in 2014 and 4mn in 2015.
Cities that were bombed by the world’s most advanced warplanes now stand in ruins. In other words, the great majority of refugees no longer have a home or even a hometown to return to.
As the number of refugees crossing the border increased by the day, in March 2012 the Turkish government began building tent cities in four large cities. Turkey has maintained an open-door policy along its 600-km border with Syria ever since Day One; more than 2.5mn refugees are currently living within Turkey’s borders. These include 300,000 Syrian children receiving an education in Turkey, while 150,000 Syrian babies have been born in Turkey.
However, only 10% of the refugees are living in refugee cities: The other 90% are dispersed all over Turkey. The city of Kilis, which normally has a population of 130,000 but hosting 120,000 refugees now, has been made a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Many people describe this behaviour on the part of the people of Kilis as an example of matchless altruism.
Turkey’s total spending on refugees over the last five years is $10bn, which the state has provided almost entirely from its own resources. The international community has long ignored the presence of these 2.5mn refugees in Turkey and has left the country unaided and alone.
Turkey is still meeting the needs of the camps on the Syrian side of the border. Turkish civil society organisations and official bodies are working in excellent co-ordination in this mobilisation of aid. Many Turkish aid organisations, and particularly the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, are striving to alleviate, at least to some extent, the suffering of millions.
Turkey and its people occupy a unique place in the eyes of Syrian refugees. Abdullah Azizi, who fled the Syrian town of Azez with his family and is now living in the Harameyn camp on the Turkish border, describes their experiences thus: “It is as if we are in hell. The regime and its supporters attack us from all directions. The bombs dropped by planes destroy our homes. The only place we can shelter and our only guarantee is Turkey. Humanity has died here, and the world is watching us die.”
Ahmet Abdullah, a recent arrival at the newly constructed Harameyn camp, describes his feelings in the words: “We have only one friend, and that is Turkey. Although we are Arabs, it has never stopped supporting us with food and clothing. May God punish those who have reduced us to this plight.”
The most urgent problem that will soon be encountered is a giant group of some 1mn refugees that may emerge after the likely fall of Aleppo. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees wants Turkey to open its gates to refugees flooding out of Aleppo. It is literally unaware that Turkey has never closed its doors to these oppressed people, and is speaking dishonestly.
Turkey’s requests for urgent emergency aid from the international community, and particularly the UN and the EU, are not being treated with the same sense of urgency and seriousness. EU countries have been talking about a 3bn euro emergency aid package aimed at meeting the needs of refugees in Turkey for several months and they’ve also stated they are thinking of spreading it out over two years.
During her visit to Turkey last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would do what she can to ensure this money is released at the next session in Brussels.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu says this about that promise of aid: “The 3bn euros is not aid for Turkey. It is money given to the Syrian refugees. There is a misconception. Turkey is not so devoid of humanistic conscience as to negotiate over 3bn euros and the refugees. We have never negotiated the costs of the refugees with anyone, and will never do so. That money is humanitarian aid. It belongs to the Syrian refugees. It is an offer from the EU intended to share the financial burden. Not one cent of aid from the EU will be spent on Turkey.”
The 3bn euros in question is wholly inadequate in terms of meeting the refugees’ needs. The fact that it is purely symbolic can be seen by a simple mathematical calculation. The question is one of meeting the basic humanitarian needs, such as housing, food, heating, clothing, clean water and education, of millions of people.
The Syrian peace talks have again stumbled, and the rising tension and turmoil in the region make it uncertain when the war will ever end. However, even if the fighting does end, the refugees simply have no homes or towns to which to return; it is therefore very likely that the plight of the refugees for the last five years will persist for at least as long again.
For all these reasons, an aid package of at least 30-40bn euros needs to be approved as quickly as possible in order to make a more realistic contribution to these despairing people.
With its GDP approaching $20tn a year, the EU represents the world’s largest economy. It is totally unfitting for such a powerful community to hold out against such humanitarian aid and to negotiate over human lives in this way. European leaders must heed their consciences, rather than acting in the light of realpolitik or national interests.
It is time for humanity, not for haggling. European civilisation must serve as a role model for the world with its altruism and willingness to help others.
The EU’s decision-making mechanisms must not be left in the hands of a few atrophied consciences. Otherwise, the humanitarian drama playing out today will turn into the most unimaginable humanitarian disaster tomorrow.
Adnan Oktar's piece in Gulf Times: