Turkey has treated Syrians fleeing to its territory better than most countries in the world ever would or could. Refugees receive three hot meals a day and live in modern facilities, in much better conditions, they say, than their counterparts in Lebanon and Jordan.
For months, Turkey insisted to the outside world that it could handle the refugee influx on its own. Initially, it was not alone in thinking the Syrian crisis would be a short-lived event, with refugees staying a few weeks, or months at the most, before returning home.
But 20 months, 115,000 refugees and US$235 million of Turkish government spending later, observers say Turkey is realizing its approach is unsustainable.
“The capacity is there,” one senior aid worker said. “The point is: Is it not an international obligation now?”
Each camp costs the government $2.7 million per month to run. And as the numbers keep growing - the UN estimates 280,000 Syrian refugees could be in Turkey by year-end - the government increasingly wants the international community to carry a bigger share of the burden.
“Humanitarian aid and financial help from the international community is far less than we expected,” said Onur Takil of the Prime Ministry’s Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) press and public relations department.
Food voucher scheme
Last month, the World Food Programme (WFP) began a partnership with the Turkish Red Crescent for a new food voucher programme that will initially provide 13,000 refugees in Kilis camp with cash credit on electronic cards with which to buy their own food. It will be expanded soon after in four camps hosting some 10,000 Syrians in Hatay Province.
The programme significantly reduces the high cost of feeding people through hot meals and food parcels, and will be covered by WFP and its donors. It will also allow Syrian families to buy the foods that they prefer and to cook for themselves.
“This Turkish Red Crescent/WFP Food e-Card system will help the government make very substantial savings,” Jean-Yves Lequime, WFP’s emergency coordinator in Turkey, told IRIN. “It’s an innovative approach for providing food assistance that is sustainable and replicable and could also serve as a model for supporting other refugee populations in the region.”
The first phase of the programme will target 25,000 people for 2.5 months with 80 Turkish liras (US$45) per person per month; but WFP hopes to eventually expand and standardize the programme across all the camps in close cooperation with the government authorities.
Closer cooperation with UN
For the first time, the government has also endorsed the UN’s regional response plan for Syrian refugees, which outlines projects to help refugees in Syria’s neighbouring countries, for which it is seeking funding from the international community.
It has also created a project pool, in which outside aid agencies can coordinate proposed projects with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and AFAD, Takil told IRIN by email.
The government is also increasingly collaborating with UN technical staff to make use of expertise gleaned from decades of working in crisis zones.
|Humanitarian aid and financial help from the international community is far less than we expected|
“The mistakes that are to be made, we’ve made them and learned from them,” one UN official said. “There is no need for Turkey or any other state to go through all of those cycles. We’ve been through it.”
While Turkey has been applauded for its open-door policy and generous aid to the refugees, it has also been criticized for failing to uphold some international standards, including establishing refugee camps at least 50km from the border. But as Takil pointed out, Syrians are not considered refugees in Turkey, but rather “guests”.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has been giving the government technical advice, for example, on how to register refugees. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNCIEF) are also distributing supplies through the Turkish Red Crescent, which, according to IOM, has allowed the UN agency to be present in the camps to monitor its distributions.
The government has also asked Turkish NGO IHH to top up some of the government-provided services with extras like fridges, fans and the Turkish sweet halva. IHH also runs a mobile clinic and is helping install container houses.
Still, until now, most of the aid has been administered by AFAD and the Turkish Red Crescent. But this is beginning to change, as the government opens up to other players.
The Saudi Relief Committees and Campaigns, a group which raises money from the Saudi public for relief work, is currently investing $10 million in building a camp - complete with water, schools and other services - for 12,000 people in Turkey’s border province of Gaziantep. Asked why it had been given the rare permission to participate in the response, Mubarak Saeed Al-Baker, the group’s executive manager, told IRIN:
“Our brothers in Turkey were expecting the number of refugees to stop at 10 or 20 or 30,000. Now, there are [115,000] refugees in Turkey. The cost of administrating the camps has reached [nearly] half a billion dollars for the Turkish government. They have come to want a partner.”
Still, despite the openings, aid and human rights groups say there is still some way to go.
“Unfortunately, there is no transparency,” said Veysel Essiz, who campaigns on behalf of refugees through the Istanbul-based human rights group Helsinki Citizens Assembly. “Civil society does not have any access to camps.”
The government does allow members of the UN and other international organizations, diplomats and journalists to visit the camps with prior government approval. But Essiz says that is not enough.
“All parties expect increasing numbers [of refugees],” he told IRIN. “There has to be room for our intervention and for us to use our expertise to assist people seeking asylum.”