How world can respond to Syria's refugee crisis
May 12th, 2014
02:09 PM ET

How world can respond to Syria's refugee crisis

“The Syrian crisis crashed onto neighboring Turkey’s doorstep three years ago and the humanitarian, policy and security costs continue to rise,” the International Crisis Group notes in a new report. “Ankara needs to find a sustainable, long-term arrangement with the international community to care for the Syrians who arrive daily.”

But what could a long-term solution look like? Didem Akyel Collinsworth, Turkey and Cyprus analyst for International Crisis Group's Turkey/Cyprus Project, answers readers’ questions on the issue.

What are the conditions like for Syrian refugees?

According to official numbers, Turkey has already received nearly one third of all the Syrian refugees in the region. Around 220,000 of these 720,000 people are in 22 refugee camps in Turkey. The camps have high standards compared to similar shelters around the world; some international experts refer to them as the world’s best refugee camps. In addition to food and shelter, they provide healthcare, schools and other types of assistance. Nonetheless, they are an emergency response, expensive to build and run, and simply not enough to host the continuous inflow. Most of the new arrivals therefore add to a growing “urban Syrian” population inside Turkey; these are officially around 500,000 but unofficial estimates reach one million. Some of them have the means to support themselves financially but most are destitute and in need of assistance.

There are ad-hoc efforts by Turkey’s government and other countries as well as several international and local agencies and NGOs to help them, but these are currently not enough. In the southeastern Turkish provinces along the border, Syrians have a hard time finding accommodation and access to sustained aid. In February, we met new arrivals who had fled the barrel bombings in Aleppo and who were now living out in the open in makeshift tents in Turkey’s border Kilis Province because they couldn’t afford or find housing. Even for people with accommodation, conditions are difficult – we talked to a group of around 20 people living in a bare, one-bedroom apartment with no furniture or heating.

In our report, we recommend that the international donor community and Turkey agree on a housing scheme for the Syrians, where the outside parties fully fund a rent subsidy mechanism through housing vouchers or conditional cash assistance while the Turkish government provides the necessary housing supply. Outside parties can also help by supporting local infrastructure in cities that receive a large influx to make the conditions better for both Syrians and Turks living there. The Syrians in Turkey in general need a better nationwide registration system, which will provide them with identification papers, access to legal rights including employment, full education and social care.

How is the influx of refugees being viewed by the Turkish public? Does Erdogan's government have the political and popular support to cope with the crisis?

The Turkish public feels a mixture of resentment, frustration and empathy. Cultural and lifestyle clashes are most visible in border provinces, where locals complain their cities’ fabric has been destroyed by the new arrivals. They complain Syrians create a security problem and that crime rose, even though this isn’t always backed by official figures. Some locals resent that these newcomers take jobs that could have gone to Turks, but at the same time they fear that unemployed Syrians would be an even bigger menace. Nonetheless, there have so far been only a few cases of open tensions between locals and refugees. This is partly because there’s still widespread empathy toward Syrian civilians and their suffering. There’s also a sense of “kinship” in the provinces along the Syrian border.

On a larger scale, Turkey has been spared the worst of the sectarian spillover from Syria that we see elsewhere in the region. Turkey’s government has contained intercommunal tensions well so far, and the risk of major sectarian contagion remains low. Nonetheless, its Syria policy is unpopular domestically. In our report, we point to a December 2013 poll by Turkey’s Kadir Has University where 65 percent of respondents considered the Syrian crisis Turkey’s most intractable problem, and only 27 percent thought the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Middle East policies were successful. Another poll in January found that 65 percent thought Turkey should immediately stop taking Syrian refugees, and 30 percent of these also wanted to send back those already in the country.

On the other hand, the unpopularity of its Syria policy hasn’t yet seriously hurt Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or his AKP government at the ballot box. AKP emerged victorious from the March 30 local elections, winning over 43 percent of the vote nationally.

Do you expect Syrians to return home, or could they eventually be absorbed into Turkey?

In our interviews, many Syrians said they wanted to eventually go home when the fighting stops. That’s one of the reasons why they prefer to stay close to the Syrian border, in Turkish cities like Gaziantep, Kilis, Hatay, Mardin or Urfa. But in reality, as the Syrian crisis extends into its fourth year, integration is happening and Turkey is already absorbing them in large numbers. Even if the violence in Syria stops, many Syrians will remain here for years, and all over the country Syrian workers have become a new class of cheap labor. We think Ankara should take more control of this currently haphazard process by working with the international community to establish better planned housing arrangements and giving those refugees who wish to integrate better opportunities for education, employment and cultural and social integration.

What would you like to see other nations doing to assist Turkey?

Turkey handles the situation better than Jordan and Lebanon, but it still needs to feel supported so that it will continue to keep its doors open to incoming Syrians. Turkish officials say they spent around $3 billion on humanitarian costs related to Syria, but have received less than a tenth of this amount as assistance. Both sides need to do more: Turkey needs to further facilitate international humanitarian NGO operations on its soil and find more creative ways to work with international donors. The international community should no longer hide behind Turkey’s initial rejection of outside assistance, or the fact that it’s richer and bigger than some of Syria’s other neighbors.

In our report, we recommend that the international donor community and Turkey agree on a housing scheme for the Syrian refugees, where the outside parties fund a rent subsidy mechanism of some sort for the Syrians through housing vouchers or conditional cash assistance, while the Turkish government simultaneously and appropriately increases the housing supply.

Outside parties can also help by supporting local infrastructure (such as healthcare, water, waste management) in Turkish cities that receive a large influx of Syrians to make the conditions better for both refugees and locals living there.

The Syrians in Turkey in general need a better registration system that provides them with uniform identification papers and access to legal rights including employment, full education and social care. Donor countries as well as major international agencies can offer their assistance to Turkey in these areas.

Turkey has reason to argue that it accepted the refugees on behalf of the international community and it shouldn’t have to deal with the consequences of this crisis on its own. Western countries can accept more Syrians overall, further facilitate family reunions, and uphold the principle of non-refoulement (non-expulsion) of Syrians, not only back to Syria but also back to neighboring countries like Turkey.

Does the United States have any role to play?

Our recommendations to the international community at large – in terms of helping Turkey financially care for the Syrian refugees and relieving the suffering inside Syria as much as possible by allowing displaced Syrians to come over the border to find sanctuary in its territory – stand true for the U.S. as well. In addition, it should continue to provide humanitarian aid to all parts of Syria where roads are secure, including across the Turkey-Syria border, and push harder for the United Nation’s approval of the widest possible cross-border humanitarian operation into Syria.


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Topics: Syria • Turkey

soundoff (34 Responses)
  1. Get Rid Of Islam

    That's how.

    May 12, 2014 at 2:12 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      Erdogan had done a good job in coping with the influx of Syrian refugees. It's a pity that he's so thin-skinned and reacts testily to critics in recent events that convulse Turkey. Or else something could have been done in response to Syrian rebels' reversal of fortune.

      May 15, 2014 at 7:03 am |
  2. mina

    hmm that's a tough the world can respond to syrian rufegees...oh i got an idea!
    how about stop sending weapons to al qaeda terrorist in syria instead we can send food and water with it's money!!
    oh but mr obama still insisting to arm terrorists...too bad all we can do is to pray for them

    May 12, 2014 at 3:17 pm |
  3. John Smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    May 12, 2014 at 4:26 pm |
    • Patrick

      Sorry John, I never posted any of those stupid comments above. As the true Patrick here, I read your comment above and fully agree with what you said.

      May 14, 2014 at 11:08 am |
  4. Patrick

    Stfu spam john

    May 12, 2014 at 4:44 pm |
  5. Patrick


    May 12, 2014 at 5:10 pm |
  6. Patrick

    John smith. I hope u die next winter by freezing to death .

    May 12, 2014 at 5:11 pm |
    • Die, Roem. Soon.

      May 12, 2014 at 9:16 pm |
      • Jeff Roem

        Die! Die! Follow your own advice, dooosh bag of sh!t

        May 13, 2014 at 2:48 am |
      • Die, Roem. Soon.

        The nozzle answered! What a f'ckin tard!

        May 13, 2014 at 11:11 am |
      • rupert

        Jeff Roem does not exist
        Jeff Roem does not exist
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        Jeff Roem does not exist

        May 13, 2014 at 3:50 pm |
      • Die, Roem. Soon.

        I am just a sick be tch. I like trolling. That's me.
        I apologize Jeff Roem. Forgive me, cup cake?

        May 13, 2014 at 4:44 pm |
  7. bobcat2u

    Here's an idea. How about the Arab League nations come off some of those trillions of dollars in oil wealth and take care of their brethren ?

    May 12, 2014 at 6:45 pm |
    • Ferhat Balkan

      Agreed. They can certainly contribute quite a bit, but I don't see it happening.

      May 12, 2014 at 7:00 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        This is what makes the whole war so cynical. It's a proxy war fought between Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies and the Shia Iran, backing the Assad regime. Ordinary Syrians have to bear the brunt of this power struggle in the region. Without the outside players, the Syrian people would have been able to deal with Assad accordingly.

        May 15, 2014 at 6:57 am |
  8. Ferhat Balkan

    What is happening in Syria right now is nothing short of human slaughter by a ruthless dictator. Syria will soon be a no man's land as the relentless and indiscriminate bombing continues by Assad's military forces. As a Turk, I feel sympathy and sadness for the Syrian people and I hope and pray that they'll survive these dark times and one day be free from the clutches of a selfish dictator. The UN Security Council's failure to reach a decision or respond has also added to the never ending misery that the refugees are living right now. Turkey does it's best to provide for the refugees, but we need financial support from the international community. No single country can deal with the huge influx of refugees at this magnitude. How can the world respond? First, there needs to be more support from the international community in the form of supplies, medicines & money. Second, the veto power of all UN Security Council members need to be taken/removed (such as Russia, China, France, England, US etc). If a single country can block a unanimous vote, then deadlocks will happen and people will suffer as a result. It's not difficult to see that. A majority vote decisions will ensure a prompt response and less calamity.

    May 12, 2014 at 6:56 pm |
    • Shang Luo

      Turks cannot even fight Greeks, haha

      May 13, 2014 at 2:10 am |
      • Ferhat Balkan

        I suggest you read some history before making an ignorant statement like that.

        May 13, 2014 at 2:47 am |
  9. chrissy

    Ok now i can understand wanting the derpasstroll to die but to specifically wish that on a person is just way wrong!

    May 12, 2014 at 10:06 pm |
    • ✠RZ✠

      Rock 'em Sock'em Trollbots!

      May 12, 2014 at 10:16 pm |
    • Die, Roem. Soon.

      Ain't no dif.

      May 13, 2014 at 11:14 am |
      • rupert

        JEFF ROEM

        May 13, 2014 at 4:03 pm |
  10. Allen

    A very qualified and well and well thought perspective. Keep up the good work International Crisis Group!

    May 13, 2014 at 7:16 am |
  11. rupert

    Thank u

    May 13, 2014 at 9:39 pm |
  12. Darrell

    Elections in Ukraine – good
    Elections in Syria – bad
    Hurr durr


    May 14, 2014 at 12:06 am |
  13. SAM

    It is interesting that Turkey with more than 74 million population is having a problem coping with 1 million refugees How about Lebanon which has a population of 4 million people hosting about 2 million Syrian refugees and 600,000 Palestinian refugees. Imagine the US is hosting over 200 million refugees.

    May 14, 2014 at 4:03 pm |
  14. Wim Roffel

    Turkey caused this problem itself with its massive support for the uprising. So it shouldn't complain. On the contrary: it should be ashamed that it is keeping so many refugees out.

    May 15, 2014 at 8:56 am |
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