In Istanbul, signs of the Syrian influx are everywhere. Syrian mothers sit on pavements clutching babies wrapped in blankets; children from Homs, Syria’s most completely devastated city, push their way through packed tram carriages begging for coins. Arabic adverts offer rooms for rent. It’s almost inconceivable how many Syrians Turkey has taken in as refugees — around 2.5 million of them so far. That’s almost three times the number who have sought refuge in Europe. And while the Turks are hospitable, Turkey has more than any country should bear. Yet still more refugees arrive. This is a serious cause for concern, not just in Turkey but in Brussels too, because if Turkey can’t cope, their migrant problem will quickly become ours.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian war, Turkey has acted as a buffer zone between the Middle East and Europe. It’s one of the places refugees head first, to safety, while they work out what to do next. In the early days of the conflict, many refugees arrived in Turkey hoping that the violence in their own country would subside and that they could return home. Five years on, they see Syria sinking ever further into chaos. Some, understandably, make the decision to leave for new lives in prosperous Europe. Of the one million refugees and migrants who ended up in Europe last year, 800,000 arrived in Greece via Turkey.
Far from all of them were Syrian — they comprised roughly half the newcomers, with Afghans and -Iraqis making up much of the rest. But Syria is now the world’s biggest refugee generator, and things are getting worse. So it’s easy to see why Turkey’s -ability (or willingness) to accommodate the 2.5 million Syrians is of such intense interest in Brussels: if the Turks decide they have had enough, and enough of their refugees decide to move, we could see a fresh wave of immigration — maybe even larger than last year’s.
Refugees can be amazingly tough and resourceful, but their living conditions in Turkey — though better than they would be in Lebanon and Jordan — are far from ideal. Most Syrians do not have the right to work, and taking an illegal job means low pay and the fear of being sacked without notice. Access to schooling and healthcare is limited. Many Syrians struggle to get to grips with the language, which leaves them isolated and confused. Looking at a future with no prospects, what parent wouldn’t at least consider gambling on a fresh start for the sake of their children? No wonder then that Turkey’s Aegean coastline is now filled with people-smugglers offering passage to Europe, selling the dream of a new life in a Germany or Scandinavia. The journey can cost anything from €800 to €6,000, depending on demand. The trafficking trade is now a multi-billion-euro business.
What should a panicking EU do? So far the answer has been to bribe Turkey to make the refugees stay where they are. Some €3 billion of EU funds has been pledged to Turkey, with more to come. Brussels has also dangled the enticing prospect of visa-free travel to the Schengen zone for its citizens. A leaked transcript of EU-Turkey talks from November gave a feel for the kind of horse-trading going on. The Turkish foreign minister is -quoted as denouncing the EU billions as an ‘insult’, and Recep -Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, reminded Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, that his country was the size of a Turkish town. ‘We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria any time,’ Erdogan was quoted as saying. ‘We can put the refugees on buses.’ This sounded very much like blackmail.
The EU has proved willing to hold its nose and strike a bargain while Turkey locks up journalists and arrests academics. It has also capitulated to President Erdogan’s demands. An EU report denouncing his crackdown on freedom of expression and a return to violence in the mainly Kurdish south-east was delayed until after his re-election last November, apparently at his request. This caused astonishment in Brussels, with one ambassador saying that the EU was now ‘at the whim of the Sultan’.
As for Turkey’s part of the deal, it has taken some steps to crack down on people-smugglers, and has promised to build more schools for refugees. Turkey has finally said that it will give Syrians access to work permits — although it hasn’t said when, and this isn’t an entirely trouble-free proposition. Employers have been happy to hire refugees on the black market, so they work in factories and on farms for much less than the minimum wage. It’s far from clear that these jobs would still be on offer when Syrians must be paid properly.
Many Turks are proud of the hospitality their country has shown. But there are signs that some people are beginning to lose patience. I know a wealthy Istanbul family that refurbished six empty flats and gave them over to refugees — only to receive a petition from the neighbours complaining that they didn’t want the new occupants to be there and accusing them of petty crime. Last year, a 13-year-old boy made the headlines after a shopkeeper in the city of Izmir beat him for selling tissues outside his store. A photo showed him with a bloodied nose and tears running down his cheeks.
Turkey already has a deeply polarised political climate, with a frenzied and often aggressive public discourse over the role of religion, the rights of minorities and the conduct of the ruling Justice and Development party. It would be all too easy for the precarious mood in Turkey to tip over into resentment, which is why both Erdogan and Europe are looking so nervously at Syria. How many more will come? And how will we cope?
The trouble for Turkey (and therefore Europe) is that the root cause of the refugee crisis is the fighting in Syria — which -continues to intensify. Blithely ignoring the first attempt at Syria peace talks in two years, Russian jets have ploughed on in support of Syrian government offensives, showing no regard for who or what they attack, bombing schools, homes and crowded market-places, and sending desperate families fleeing to the border.
Turkey has suggested that Vladimir Putin is deliberately trying to increase tension in Europe by creating more refugees. More likely, Putin sees this as just a handy side-effect in a bigger plan. If he crushes all those opposed to Bashar al-Assad — other than Islamic State — he knows that the West will have no option but to accept that the Baathist regime is here to stay. The recent attempt at peace talks in Geneva was abruptly halted after this onslaught. So the chaos in Syria looks set to continue for years. This means tens of thousands more Syrians trudging towards Turkey — and almost inevitably another influx into Europe.
The recent deal with Brussels, and heavy pressure from the United States to prevent the transit of Islamic State fighters back and forth from Syria, means that the Turkey–Syria border is much less porous than it once was. There is no longer an open door for refugees. Ankara has prevented the entry of about 50,000 people displaced after the recent fighting in Aleppo, prompting breathtakingly hypocritical demands from Europe that Turkey let them in immediately. There is speculation that Turkey — deeply unnerved by the approach of pro-Assad forces towards its border — is seeking to create by default the buffer zone that it has long demanded from Washington. Its exact intentions remain unclear but, whatever happens, aid agencies warn that the vast numbers of uprooted civilians and the fierce fighting can only mean one thing: more and more refugees.
Turkey is not an easy political partner. Erdogan is a mercurial leader who is aware of the power he now wields over the EU, and if he feels that the EU is not holding up its end of the bargain, he won’t hesitate to cause trouble. Turkey already feels resentment that the EU has not yet paid the money it pledged; there are no signs of a promised direct resettlement programme. Brussels says that it cannot begin until there is a significant fall in the number of people crossing to Greece, but this looks unlikely to happen. There’s just too much money in it for the traffickers and too many people willing to risk their lives. Last week, 38 more drowned in two boat accidents in a single day. Eleven of them were children.
Every day, the number of Syrian refugees grows larger. As I write, thousands of those who have fled Aleppo and converged on the Turkish border are sleeping in the open air, anxiously watching the skies for Syrian and Russian jets on bombing raids. This week, the United Nations warned that upwards of 150,000 more people could soon be fleeing Aleppo; Turkey says the total number displaced from Aleppo alone could eventually be 600,000. Syrians living (or seeking refuge) in the rebel-held Idlib province could be next to move, and in Damascus, the only talk is of continuing the offensive as the rebels continue to lose ground.
The effect of all of this is not hard to imagine. In the first six weeks of this year, 70,400 refugees and migrants have crossed from Turkey into Greece — almost ten times as many as in the same period last year. The pace will probably intensify as the weather warms up, just in time for the referendum on Britain’s EU membership. The great migration may be just beginning.
Laura Pitel lives in Istanbul and writes for the Independent.