Europe's Refugee Capital

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Syrian refugees in front of their tents at a refugee camp in the Suruc district near Sanliurfa in Turkey.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Under political pressure over rising refugee numbers at home, European leaders are looking to Turkey for help – despite signs that Ankara, too, has serious troubles coping with the influx.

  • Facts


    • Leaders from Turkey and the European Union are due to meet in Brussels on Sunday to discuss solutions to the refugee crisis.
    • Brussels has offered €3 billion in aid to Turkey to help the government shoulder the needs of some 2.5 million refugees in the country, many of them from Syria.
    • The European Union has also pledged to review Turkey’s bid for E.U. accession, in light of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cooperation on the refugee issue.
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On a street in Istanbul, two-year-old Banu started to cry again. Her mother Rania held the child, wrapped in a blanket on her lap, but seemed not to hear the high-pitched cries over the wail of passing cars and honking taxis, passersby and the sound of checkout scanners at a supermarket next door.

Rania looked at the street with an empty gaze. In front of her was a cardboard container with three coins inside. Beside her, husband Ali turned to their small daughter. He reached out his left hand to anyone who passed by – but came up empty most of the time.

Ali, Rania and Banu are among hundreds of refugee families living on the street in Beyoglu, one of the city’s high-rent districts. Many spend their days begging for change or selling tissues for about 20 cents a pack, or camping out on cardboard boxes on the ground.

Istanbul’s refugees also gather near the mosques of the Old City, or head to the square in Aksaray to meet smugglers who arrange the costly and dangerous passage to Greece. All around the city, it’s difficult to overlook the suffering of these people.

Altogether, about 2.5 million people have sought shelter in Turkey – fleeing war in Syria, dictatorships in Africa, and political persecution in Asia. Now, the European Union wants Turkey to take in even more refugees. To make that happen, Brussels has promised €3 billion, or $3.2 billion, to Ankara, and E.U. member states are already gathering up the money.

The European Union has also pledged to take another look at Turkey’s bid for E.U. membership. In light of the refugee crisis, the bloc’s concerns over Mr. Erdogan’s record on human rights could prove to be less of a sticking point this time around.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is among those E.U. leaders who see a pivotal role for Turkey in efforts to cope with the influx of refugees, a point she stressed in a recent debate in the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament.

“This requires us to support Turkey, also financially,” Ms. Merkel said. “That will be part of the discussions at the E.U.-Turkey summit.”

Ahead of that meeting on Sunday in Brussels, the chancellor has come under pressure from both the left and right over her government’s approach to Germany’s growing refugee population. Ms. Merkel recently rejected calls from her conservatives’ Bavarian sister party to set an upper limit on refugee numbers.

Altogether, about 2.5 million people have sought shelter in Turkey – fleeing war in Syria, dictatorships in Africa, and political persecution in Asia.

Yet even as Ms. Merkel maintains an open-door policy for those fleeing war zones, she has acknowledged the need for change. “Reducing the number of refugees is also our goal,” she said.  To that effect, the chancellor is also calling on Turkey and Greece to crack down on people smuggling networks – and to coordinate their responses along the countries’ shared border.

Germany’s is not the only European government to take heat from critics over the refugee issue. In France, both former president Nicolas Sarkozy and the far-right National Front party are pushing for tougher border controls. And like Germany, France is looking to Turkey to provide shelter for refugees closer to their country of origin – and to help political talks aimed at ending Syria’s civil war.

For his part, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is on board. On Wednesday, he pledged to curb the flood of refugees into the European Union, saying Turkey was determined “to take all necessary measures to prevent another flood of immigration.”

Yet for all the talk of E.U. plans to reduce refugee numbers with Turkey’s help, there has been far less attention paid to Turkey’s own treatment of refugees. Though Mr. Erdogan has promised to boost humanitarian efforts on both sides of Turkey’s border with Syria, many critics say the government has no plan to cope with the large numbers of  people entering the country.

“There is no public debate on the topic,” said Ertugrul Kürkçü, a member of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or HDP. Mr. Kürkçü complained that many media outlets – and most Turks – are too busy either glorifying or criticizing Mr. Erdogan. As a result, the debate over refugees has been sidelined. “That is dangerous,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kürkçü said he does not believe that the billions of euros in E.U. aid will reduce the flow of refugees. “The money pledged for implementing border controls won’t keep anyone from finding a loophole into the European Union.”

Critics say the Turkish government has no plan to cope with the large numbers of refugees entering the country.

Like many Syrians who have fled to Turkey, Ali and his family have more basic worries – like finding a place to spend the night. Two weeks ago, he tried his luck at the office of Asam, a refugee aid organization, located on a steep street in the working-class neighborhood of Tarlabasi. Since the 1990s, Asam has been helping refugees from across the Middle East who have sought shelter in Turkey.

Wearing a white T-shirt, dirty jacket, wool cap and old flip-flops, Ali looked like most people in the neighborhood. But he drew stares as he stood outside the office, waiting. Ali glanced through the window before entering a small, noisy room equipped with a metal detector. More than 30 women were crowded into a space the size of a kiosk, as their children played on the floor.

Ali took a ticket, only to be told that he’d have to come back the following day: The place was full, and an employee told him there was no guarantee that he’d get help the next day, either. With a wave, Ali left and headed back to his wife and their daughter Banu, who was crying again.

Aid worker Anna Tuson said many Turks are reluctant to help the refugees. The New Zealand native works for Small Projects Istanbul, an organization that helps Syrian children living in Turkey. Ms. Tuson and her colleagues offer recreation and reading hours, as well as courses in English and Turkish for Syrian mothers.

Some 400,000 refugee children in Turkey don’t attend school at all, according to information released recently by Human Rights Watch.

Small Projects Istanbul is based in a small room in Capa, a simple residential area in the Old City. Ms. Tuson said the organization’s staff ran into trouble as soon as they started looking for a place to rent. “When the landlords found out what we wanted to do, at first they all rejected us,” she said.

Ms. Tuson and her colleagues rely on donations to buy toys and learning materials. “We don’t get a cent from the government or the city,” she said. “Most of the donations come from Australia and New Zealand, from our friends and families.” Small Projects Istanbul uses that money for scholarships for Syrian students.

Saleh, who is studying engineering, is one them. He said he would have liked to stay at home in Damascus. “But after finishing my studies, I’d have been forced to join the military,” he said. Faced with the prospect of having to fight against his fellow Syrians, Saleh fled to Istanbul.

So far, Small Projects Istanbul has awarded 15 scholarships to young Syrians, but that’s a drop in the ocean. Some 400,000 refugee children in Turkey don’t attend school at all, according to information released recently by Human Rights Watch.

The organization has also accused Turkey of turning away refugees – effectively sending them back into the war-torn areas they’d fled.

Those who make it into Turkey face other hardships. Only a fraction of the the country’s refugee population lives in camps along the border. Some head northeast, to work on hazelnut farms for little pay. Others go south to work illegally in beachside hotels.

Still others, like Ali and his family, end up on the streets of Istanbul. Asked whether any of his relatives in Syria are still alive, the 45-year-old shrugged.

In halting Arabic, Ali said that he came to Turkey from Aleppo. The city had been under siege for weeks, as IS battled Syrian regime forces, backed by Russian fighter jets, for control.

Eventually, the fighting was too much for Ali and his family to bear. They scraped together all the money they had and paid a smuggler to cross the border into Turkey at night, slipping past the border posts.
They arrived with no money, let alone enough to cover the trip to Europe. Their only hope is to one day be able to return to Aleppo. In the meantime, Ali said he hopes to collect enough money for a night in an Old City motel for his family from time to time – even if it means going hungry.


Ozan Demircan is part of Handelsblatt’s investigative team and is currently based in Istanbul. To contact the author: o.demircan@vhb.de

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