AFAD head Mehmet Güllüoğlu: Ready to build camps for Rohingya refugees if permitted

ALI ÜNAL @ali_unal
Published 24.09.2017 19:37
Updated 24.09.2017 19:42
Güllüoğlu said they are thinking about building camps for Rohingya people  that can initially accommodate 50,000 refugees.
Güllüoğlu said they are thinking about building camps for Rohingya people that can initially accommodate 50,000 refugees.

The head of the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency explained the organization's latest projects for the Rohingya people who fled to Bangladesh as well as for Syrian refugees both in Turkey and living in areas cleared of Daesh with Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria

Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD) has praised many international observers for their efforts to build and operate astonishing refugee camps for thousands of Syrians who fled to Turkey from their war-ridden country.

AFAD's newly appointed President Dr. Mehmet Güllüoğlu is now looking forward to offer a lifeline for the thousands of Rohingya people who escaped from Myanmar's Rakhine state by building them refugee camps.

Dr. Güllüoğlu was among the delegation of first lady Emine Erdoğan who paid a visit to the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar district in recent weeks. He believes that the first lady's visit was beneficial in terms of creating awareness and he expressed his hope that this visit and the following developments will change the Bangladeshi government's negative attitude toward immigrants.

Underlining AFAD's experience in establishing and managing camps along with matters regarding refugees, Dr. Güllüoğlu said during the visit that AFAD is ready to build camps if they are permitted. He added that they are thinking about building camps that could accommodate 50,000 refugees initially.

In an exclusive interview, Dr. Güllüoğlu stressed that AFAD is ready to cooperate with U.N. commissions and local administrations even if they are not granted permission to build.

What are the latest developments in the Rakhine crisis? As you were there recently, could you please tell us about what you saw?

It would not be wrong to say that the crisis is at its climax. When we visited the region, the crisis had been going on for two weeks. It was being said that around 200,000 people sought refuge in Bangladesh. Today, that number is well over 400,000. Immigration of such a large population was not foreseen by either the Bangladeshi government or the UN. We're not certain of how many more people will immigrate.

As a person who has been to refugee camps in various countries like Kenya, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, I would like to say that unfortunately, these camps were some of the worst I have seen. Moreover, the climate is unfavorable, there are people who walk for 5-10 days and there are camps of the U.N. or other organizations that are way over their capacities.

On the other hand, Bangladesh is one of the least developed countries who were obliged to take in around half a million refugees. People are fleeing war and are forced to seek refuge in a country that doesn't desire them.

Yet, after the most recent initiatives and refugee influx, the Bangladeshi prime minister visited the region. We deem this kind of developments positive, because the Bangladeshi prime minister had made a statement previously, roughly translating to, "We don't want the Rakhine people, they are the citizens of Myanmar."

The visit, we realized together with first lady Emine Erdoğan, was beneficial in terms of raising awareness. We hope this visit and the following developments will change the Bangladeshi government's negative attitude towards immigrants.

They previously stated that they are an impoverished country and lack the means to accommodate and sustain a new immigrant population. It is true to a certain point but these people have nowhere else to go.

Turkey has provided 1,000 tons of humanitarian aid to Rakhine refugees with the visit you've mentioned. Are there any updates on this?

Turkey's foreign development institution is the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA). TİKA has offices in both Bangladesh and Myanmar. The agency was granted a permit to distribute the 1,000 tons of food aid to the Rakhine people in need; TİKA is the only public institution that was granted a permit.

AFAD does not have offices abroad. For this reason, we have requested to establish and manage the direly needed camps there. We are experienced in establishing and managing camps along with matters regarding immigrants. We have built many camps and managed them.

Regarding this matter, we have cooperated with the officials of TİKA and Turkish Red Crescent on many occasions. In this respect, cooperating with the Turkish Red Crescent and the Turkish Diyanet Foundation (TDV), we have announced a campaign called "Protect Rakhine, Turkey Stands with the Rakhine People!" There have been ongoing campaigns of the Turkish Red Crescent and TDV since 2012; however, we were able to reach many people in a short period of time with this campaign.

Open to public access, has bank account details of every institution. While the state's budget is limited, people can contribute with donations.

We have stated that AFAD is ready to build camps if permitted; if not, we are ready to cooperate with U.N. commissions and local administrations. AFAD teams are currently working in the region; meanwhile, Turkish Red Crescent and TİKA teams have been there for years now. We are waiting for both the field reports and the assessment of the Bangladeshi government.

This is about people in dire need who have immigrated from Myanmar to Bangladesh. There are hundreds of thousands of people in Myanmar whose fates are yet to be learned. Diplomatic initiatives are required for these people. The need for humanitarian need is immense; therefore, it's a very problematic environment.

If permitted, how many camps will AFAD build in Bangladesh? Moreover, how many people will be accommodated in these camps?

We are talking about a refugee population that is growing by the minute. There are certain services provided by the U.N.; however, the situation is beyond them. For this reason, it's not easy to talk with precision. Nevertheless, we're thinking about building camps that could initially accommodate 50,000 people.

This is just an approximation, as there are many elements at play here: Physical environment, space, authority, issues with partnership and such. We are to operate in a sovereign country, after all. We have to assess the local conditions if we are to decide to build tent cities or container camps. In that region some of the Bangladeshi people's own houses are in worse conditions than the containers.

In this sense, following general guidelines of humanitarian aid, we're aiming to establish a sustainable aid environment taking refugees and the locals into consideration. We know that the correct answer to our questions will appear if we take the probability of crisis's prolongation into consideration, and provide food, healthcare and education services regularly.

There are different types of camps; we are seeking an economically sustainable solution that is worthy of our country and Rakhine refugees. It's not only technical work; it has social consequences. We're currently working on this matter and will shape our decision according to the field reports.

AFAD continues to realize projects for Syrian refugees that are commended by the international community. Could you please inform us about the latest developments in this respect?

After the crisis that emerged in March 2011, the first camps were built by the Turkish Red Crescent. After two or three camps, AFAD started to build and manage camps. With the support of governors and administrators of respective cities, 25-26 camps were established in 10 cities. There were 270,000 refugees staying at these camps; those who did not want to stay there spread across Turkey.

Now, approximately 3 million refugees are living in Turkey. A total of 10 percent of these are staying in camps, while the remaining 90 percent are outside of the camps. The Syrian crisis is yet to be resolved. Many cities of Syria are in inhabitable conditions.

Many of the Syrians that sought refuge in Turkey relocated six or seven times within Syria before coming to our country. Numerous public institutions and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) took the charge in their arrival process. AFAD was entrusted with the responsibility of building and managing camps, taking care of logistics of trans-border aid and lastly the coordination of the readmission after the agreement between the EU and Turkey.

An area of 2,000 square kilometers was liberated from Daesh with last year's Operation Euphrates Shield. What kinds of projects are being realized by AFAD in this region?

In order to facilitate aid activities in Syria, we have built a logistics warehouse in Çobanbey. We're providing aid to those in need through our local partners. Similarly, near Idlib, the Turkish Red Crescent and AFAD have certain responsibilities in trans-border aid activities; transportation of these aids is coordinated.

On the other hand, there are operations aiming to satisfy the needs of existing camps. There are 12 official camps in this region and new ones are occasionally being built. All of these camps are within the said 2,000-square-kilometer area that was liberated through Operation Euphrates Shield and are home to more than 300,000 people.
AFAD coordinates aid to these camps; sometimes we cooperate with NGOs, use our own resources or collaborate with other public institutions.

Returning to Turkey, at what stage is the project that foresees the registration of Syrian refugees outside of camps?

There are around 3 million refugees who are biometrically registered. However, we are also working on updating residence information of refugees who relocated. There are many operations that are being carried out as part of EU aid. Health centers for refugees are being built.

Meanwhile, schools are being constructed in districts that have high populations of Syrian children. Schooling rates have to be improved. The rates are good at the primary school level; however, we need more middle schools and high schools.

I believe more than half a million Syrian children are receiving education in Turkey. What is being done by AFAD regarding this matter? Meanwhile, there were discussions about the language of education in the previous years. Could you inform us about the developments?

The number of initiatives regarding the education of Syrians increased in the recent years, which is a positive development. A part of the EU fund was dedicated to the need of education, provision of physical facilities required for education and salaries of teachers.

Currently, around 600,000 Syrian children are able to go to school. Most of them are primary school students. There are less Syrians studying at middle school and high school levels because of cultural and physical conditions. In this respect, the main actor is the Ministry of National Education (MEB), of course. There is a department dedicated to this matter in MEB and one of our deputy undersecretaries is tending closely.

Education is a must for the future of Syrians and Syria. Even though it was not considered as emergency humanitarian aid, education was expressed as a prominent need by the MEB; now, the need of education is being addressed. Syrian children are able to attend school like any other child in Turkey and are being educated in Turkish. Arabic education was provided by Syrian NGOs in the first years of the crisis; however, ultimately, these people are living in Turkey. They're adapting to the Turkish education system.

What is AFAD's role in the Turkish Red Crescent Card project?

Turkish Red Crescent Card was implemented incrementally. Firstly, it was used by Turkish citizens in 2011; then, it was expanded to Syrians living in camps in 2012. By 2015, it was also provided to Syrians living outside camps.

At the first stage, there were 150,000 cards and it only covered food expenses. From December 2016 onwards, with the support of EU, it has become a debit card that people could shop with and withdraw cash. This project has many partners. It is named the "Turkish Red Crescent Card" because the project was initiated by the Turkish Red Crescent, however, it's cosponsored and co-chaired by the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) of EU and AFAD.

It is a project that is being managed by 7-8 institutions like the Ministry of Family and Social Policies and the General Directorate of Immigration Management. There are around 1 million people outside camps who use the card; it's currently the most extensive cash support program in the world.

In this respect, it went down in history as one of the successful projects. In terms of budget and users, it is unprecedented. Indeed, Bangladesh has a similar system named, "Food Card." When I asked about their statistics, I learned that 32,000 people were using it. It's a small number when compared to our project.

You have mentioned only some of AFAD's projects. There are other projects that were initiated previously, like "Disaster Ready Turkey." Could you inform us about other projects?

Turkey is a country prone to many disasters, especially earthquakes, flood and fire. This is the jurisdiction of AFAD, so to speak. Therefore, it is a vast field. For this reason, the Ministry of the Interior's General Directorate of Civil Defense, the Ministry of Public Works and Settlement's General Directorate of Natural Disasters and the Prime Ministry's General Directorate of Emergency Management were closed down in 2009 with Law No.5902.

Instead of these institutions, AFAD was established as a general directorate of the Prime Ministry. There are stages of disaster management: Preparing for disaster, reducing risks of disaster, disaster intervention and reconstruction. In terms of intervention, AFAD has progressed significantly; we have good response times in dispatching search and rescue crews, reaching the disaster zone and providing emergency need to disaster victims.

Regarding reconstruction, an earthquake is a good example; we were able to reconstruct Van in a very short time. With the aid of ministries, their needs were satisfied. Yet, the most important stage is reducing the risks of disaster. Urban transformation, for instance, is a hot topic in the media. Demolition of unstable buildings and construction of durable ones, along with educating people on disasters are all a part of reducing the risks.

The state cannot do everything by itself; however, it requires active participation from the people as well. In the U.S. and Japan, volunteers took immense responsibilities during and after disasters. This is a necessity as it may take time for professional help to arrive. When there is a vast network of volunteers, the most basic first aid knowledge could prove handy. We have important projects in this matter.

With the Disaster Risk Reduction Plan, popularizing training and making it a part of our lives is a must for a secure life. I hope you will hear more about activities of AFAD in the following months.

A possible Istanbul earthquake is a reality Turkey has to face. In this respect, "How ready are we?" is a question AFAD is continuously being asked. What is your response to this?

In general, Marmara is a region that has active fault lines. As I have mentioned before, we're ready in terms of disaster intervention. However, reducing risks is a multidimensional process and it's still continuing. Urban transformation is an important component of this preparation, this process, especially in Istanbul, is constantly covered by the media.

Even though it may seem like some are benefiting from this process, its most essential aim is the demolition of unstable and structurally weak buildings and construction of durable and structurally sound ones.

For instance, the urban transformation process in Göztepe and Fikirtepe was frequently covered by the media. Prominent progress was made in these neighborhoods. Urban transformation processes in other districts of Istanbul are also continuing.

On the other hand, investments were made in Istanbul to increase disaster awareness and assess the conditions of historical and public buildings. Almost all of the public structures in Istanbul were overhauled. According to their conditions, some of them were fortified, while others were rebuilt. Loans from the World Bank and other banks were used for this process. It was a huge success.

A project titled "İSMEP" was developed and a special structure that bypasses bureaucracy was established. This project was awarded numerous times, as it is one of the momentous activities for Istanbul that was realized in the last 17 years.

Almost all school and hospital buildings that were in a bad condition have been either fortified or rebuilt. The Ministry of Environment and Urbanization and municipalities along with İSMEP will continue to supervise these projects. Even though important progress was made, there is still much to do.

You served as the president of the Turkish Red Crescent for a long time and now you're the president of AFAD. Do you believe your previous experience will prove to be an advantage?

Only time will tell. The Turkish Red Crescent and AFAD intersect in terms of disasters, immigration and international humanitarian aid. I was already familiar with AFAD. The Turkish Red Crescent and AFAD are usually present together in the field, in camps and in Syria.

A possible difference is that Turkish Red Crescent is an NGO, while AFAD is a public institution; thus, they have different levels of responsibility and accountability. Nevertheless, we have to improve our already established relations with the U.N. and respective institutions in the stead of the public and continue to reach those who are in need.

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