How can Turkey protect itself and save Syrians?

For four years Turkey appeared to be inoculated against the Syrian crisis. The violence that ravaged its southern neighbour was largely contained on the other side of the border.

That relative calm has been shattered in recent months. A number of attacks, including a suicide bombing in July, threaten to drag Turkey, which has NATO’s second-largest army, further into the conflict.

In response, Ankara has sought to protect its borders and gather better information about the 1.9 million Syrian refugees inside them. But, as the country restricts movement for refugees and imposes tough fines on NGOs, critics say the policies risk damaging the relief effort.

Less open

The square in the small southern Turkish town of Suruc is still taped up, a visual reminder that Syria’s conflict can have deadly consequences here too.

Just over six weeks ago, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowd gathering for a press statement by student activists on their planned trip to help reconstruct the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani. The horrors were caught on camera as 34 young people, mostly Kurdish Turks, were killed and more than 100 injured.

Believed to be the first time the so-called Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS) carried out an attack inside Turkey, it was not to be the last. A few days later, the Islamist militant group, which controls large parts of eastern Syria, launched a cross-border attack on Turkish troops. 

At the same time, violence between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a militant group that demands autonomy for parts of southern Turkey, has erupted again after the breakdown of a 2013 peace deal.  

Seven kilometers from Suruc, a refugee camp houses roughly 20,000 Syrians, most of whom fled Kobani when IS fighters tried to seize it in August 2014. The Suruc bombing in July had an immediate impact on residents of the camp. For a week afterwards, residents say, they were not allowed to enter or exit. Even now, no one is allowed to visit the camp, not even the family members of those inside.

“It has become like a prison,” a representative of the Syrian community, who wished to remain anonymous, told IRIN.

Attitudes are changing, too. Suruc itself is largely Kurdish, as are the Syrian incomers. Initially, they were welcomed with open arms. After nearly a year, relations were starting to sour. Since the bombing, both Turkish officials and local residents have turned increasingly against them, the refugees say.

Nadia*, a brash 21-year-old from Kobani, said residents had become more hostile. “Even the Kurdish Turks now don’t say, ‘you are Kurdish’ and, ‘you are Arab.’ They say: “you are Syrian.”

Dana, her more soft-spoken friend, said the Turkish authorities were also beginning to clamp down. “I heard from the security inside the camp they are searching for an excuse [to expel people]. Even if a small child makes a problem for them, they take him and put him outside the camp.”

Turkish officials argue that the measures are necessary to protect the Syrians.

“In the wake of this terrorist attack [in Suruc], the authorities have introduced additional security measures to prevent any harm to the refugee community,” a government spokesman told IRIN.

But Orhan Mohammed, head of the Assistance Coordination Unit, a humanitarian organisation aligned with the official Syrian opposition, said this hardening of attitudes was common across Turkey.

“The Turks here thought: ‘The Syrians are our guests. They will stay for one year or two years, maximum three.’ Now they found they are here [to stay]. They (the refugees) are changing the demographic life, the cultural life. The acceptance of the Syrians is less than before.”

That's not fine

It is not only the refugees who have noticed the atmosphere changing.

Last month, Turkish officials walked into the offices of a major international NGO based in the southern city of Antakya and handed out a fine of more than $200,000.

It was the latest in a spree of fines given out to NGOs, initially mostly in the Hatay governorate, but now in Gaziantep as well. While most of the NGOs fined have been larger international ones, local Syrian groups have also been affected. Conservative estimates suggest the fines add up to more than $1 million.

The NGOs admit they cannot technically dispute the fines, which are for not registering employees with the Turkish government. But the registration process is so difficult, cumbersome and expensive that they say it is almost impossible to abide by the regulations. Every cent they pay in fines is one that can’t go to a Syrian in need, they argue.

All the NGOs IRIN spoke to were anxious not to draw attention to themselves. Most were unwilling to go on the record for fear of upsetting Turkish officials.

“Turkey is a country and they have their laws and regulations and we are violating them,” said the head of one Syrian NGO that has not yet been fined. “Maybe for a while they were easy on us but not any more.”

“But we can’t afford to pay the fines. We won’t be able to support the Syrians,” he added. “So we need to find a deal.”

The UN’s emergency aid coordination body OCHA has been trying to encourage the government to let up on the fines, which have soured Turkey’s relations with the donor community. Western diplomats talk privately of cutting off funding in protest if the fines are not lifted.

ACU’s Mohammed, one of the few people who would speak on the record, told IRIN he understood the government’s concerns but was wary that the fines would hurt the overall response.

“We have to understand their situation on the borders right now. They have 711 kilometers [of border] with Syria. It is an open area and there are different groups. They are fighting with terrorists. They are facing different groups and this is really reflecting badly upon us [Syrian NGOs]. How we can separate these two issues? I don’t know.”

For the Turkish government, much has changed since the outset of Syria’s civil war in 2011. The emergence of IS and the nature of the conflict has seen an unparalleled exodus. “In light of these developments, we must adapt,” the government spokesman told IRIN.

“We appreciate the contributions of international NGOs, but doing a great job doesn't mean immunity from legal obligations. They must register with the Turkish authorities and avoid unfair labor practices like everybody else.”

*Names have been changed to protect their identities

jd/ag