Turkish authorities have detained 15 staff of a US NGO working on Syria relief operations – the latest in a series of moves restricting humanitarian aid groups in the country. Observers attribute the crackdown on foreign NGOs to a resurgence in Turkish nationalism and government concerns about Kurdish empowerment inside Syria.
Police detained the 15 employees, who were working for the International Medical Corps in the southeastern city of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, on Thursday 20 April. Four of those detained – foreign nationals from Britain, India, Indonesia and Ireland – were deported five days later. The 11 others are Syrian and remain in a detention centre near Gaziantep, from where they face deportation back to Syria.
Turkish authorities cited discrepancies in employment permits as the cause for the detentions, but Rebecca Gustafson, a senior communications adviser for the US-based NGO, said all the staff had valid work permits.
“[IMC] is working with the Turkish government to secure the release of those staff still detained as soon as possible, and we continue to support our team members and their families during this very difficult time,” she said in a statement on Wednesday.
Former IMC employees told IRIN the detained staff members had permits, but for districts outside Gaziantep.
The incident follows last month’s expulsion of Mercy Corps, which had been running one of the largest aid operations in Syria from Turkey, and the detention of 10 staff from Denmark’s DanChurchAid. Other NGOs, including one from Italy have also recently been banned from operating in the country. Turkish media reports and aid workers say representatives from the UN, the United States, and the EU have been engaged in diplomatic efforts to relax the clampdown, but with little visible effect.
An IRIN examination of documents provided by the Ministry of Interior shows that since mid-2015 a number of other international NGOs have dropped off the approved list. However, a number of NGOs have contacted IRIN to say they are permitted to work even though they are not on the list of approved "CSOs". Those who do remain listed as permitted to work on "direct activities", including World Vision and Save the Children, have licenses requiring renewal every six to 12 months.
Tougher working environment
Aid groups still operating in Turkey were reluctant to comment openly on the matter for fear of their own licenses being revoked. But off-the-record interviews with IRIN suggest a shrinking operating space for international NGOs, many of which are based along the country’s southern border, providing cross-border relief to the northern Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Idlib.
For several years, foreign NGOs have operated in Turkey under flexible mandates that waived certain bureaucratic requirements that would have slowed down the aid response to desperate Syrians. But there has been increased scrutiny of their operations since a US-led probe in 2016 into NGO involvement in corruption in the delivery of cross-border aid and since allegations, in pro-government Turkish media, of collusion between NGOs and Kurdish militants.
The problems have been compounded by the fall of Aleppo to President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the exclusion of Turkish forces in the battle to retake Raqqa from the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Largely shut out of northern Syria, Turkish officials fear that foreign aid may end up in regime-controlled or Kurdish-held areas across the border.
“We always had problems with work permits,” a former aid worker in Turkey told IRIN. “The state always knew about it. We were always transparent about those things, and due to smooth operations and because there is a huge contribution from the international NGOs in Turkey, they always let us work like this.”
Government officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but speaking at the annual conference of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies last month, Berk Baran, deputy permanent representative at the Turkish mission to the UN in Geneva, blamed the expulsions on international NGOs not following government protocol.
“If the channels are open and you are being told what you have to do, then it is very simple,” Baran said. “A government expects you to abide by its regulations.”
But many foreign aid workers complain that understanding Turkish regulations has become anything but simple. Following last year’s coup attempt and subsequent purges of more than 100,000 state workers, many government ministries have been thrown into turmoil. Administrative work has piled up as new protocols have been put in place, and the operating licenses for many NGOs have been stuck in extensive review.
“Every country we go into, we try and mitigate our risk. That’s how we work,” one aid worker said. “It should be a clear cut process where there is criteria to follow, but we still don’t know what that is.”
Another aid official in Turkey told IRIN: “They don’t need to do anything special to stop NGOs. They only need the normal bureaucracy, which is [effective] because we can’t say anything against that. So this is done mostly by law. Even in very painful situations when Syrian staff get deported.”
The NGO expulsions have caused reductions in aid, particularly to northern Syria but also for the three million Syrian refugees living inside Turkey. Mercy Corps alone said it was assisting up to half a million Syrian civilians every month, with an additional 100,000 beneficiaries in Turkey. If the banned international NGOs are not allowed to restart missions in Turkey, domestic organisations may fill the gaps, although with more restrictions on working in Kurdish areas. UN reporting suggests as many as 58 international NGOs and over 469 local NGOs supply aid to Syria from Turkey, reaching about a million people per month.
While the capacity of Turkish NGOs to take over has been questioned by international aid workers, Sema Genel Karaosmanoğlu, executive director of Support to Life, one of Turkey’s largest aid groups, said local agencies could scale up. Karaosmanoğlu added that the Turkish state itself may be seeking more involvement in relief efforts.
“In Turkey, we have a strong state tradition and so the government has always been keen on doing everything on its own,” Karaosmanoğlu said. "I think they’re looking for domestic solutions to resolving some of these issues.”
But the capacity of local aid groups has also been impacted by post-coup purges that have led to the closure of roughly 550 domestic NGOs for alleged links to terrorist organisations.
An internal “read-out” from the UN’s aid coordination body, OCHA, leaked to Voice of America last month, stated that Turkey’s interior ministry plans to cancel all existing registrations of foreign NGOs and will require new registration requests to be submitted according to new rules and regulations. OCHA officials warned that the Turkish government would use such a process “to choose which organisations they want to keep in [the] country”.
Such a move would not be unexpected, say observers familiar with Turkish politics. Soner Çağaptay, a senior fellow at the US-based Washington Institute and author of "The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern", said he was “surprised” by the amount of leeway Turkish authorities had given foreign aid groups in the early years of the Syrian war.
Traditionally, government officials have been suspicious of foreign entities operating within Turkish borders. Following Turkey’s intervention in Syria, known as Operation Euphrates Shield, which started last August, and the securing of border areas, the recent crackdowns on aid groups may be a signal that Turkish authorities are returning to the more restrictive policies employed before the war, Cagaptay said.
In addition, analysts suggest the NGO crackdown may be motivated by Ankara’s concerns about the balance of power and resources available in northern Syria, where Kurdish forces receive support from the United States for anti-Islamic State operations.
Only on Tuesday, Turkey bombed a base of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), a US-backed group, highlighting the complex alliances at play.
The ongoing conflict between the Turkish state and the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has strong links with the YPG, may also be a contributing factor, although aid officials who spoke to IRIN denied allegations of colluding with Kurdish militants. The PKK is listed as a terrorist group by the United States and the EU.
The general political atmosphere in Turkey has become more and more strained during a past year marked by instability, a coup attempt, several extremist attacks, and the tense run-up to this month’s tightly contested referendum. To shore up support for his bid to expand his presidential powers, and with an eye on re-election in 2019, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has adopted increasingly nationalist rhetoric.
“Until the next elections, Erdogan will remain hardline on the PKK, which would go with the strategy of weakening the Kurdish entity, targeting it militarily, but also politically,” Çağaptay said. “This means preventing international NGO access and therefore weakening its societal fabric and its resilience.”
In the meantime, the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and civilians who depend on aid delivered by international NGOs will be the biggest losers.
(TOP PHOTO: Families return home after visiting an aid distribution point in eastern Aleppo's Al-Shaar neighborhood. Hameed Marouf/UNHCR)