Turkey's 2 million refugees and why Europe must do more to help

Published 14.06.2015 22:50

When I visited the Elbeyli refugee camp on the Syrian border a few weeks ago, I was deeply moved by what I found. I saw children, some born into the misery of war in neighboring Syria, laughing as they played. I saw young people learning new skills. I saw disabled and elderly refugees being treated with dignity and respect. I saw mayors and municipalities doing their best to cope with the influx. I witnessed ordinary Turkish families living alongside and supporting these new arrivals, sometimes even when outnumbered by them. I was struck by both the enormous generosity of the Turkish authorities and society, but also by the signs of hope among refugee families that they may return one day to their homes. But - and this is a big but - I also saw that this situation could deteriorate - quickly. The numbers are huge; so far, around 260,000 Syrian refugees are accommodated in a series of 23 camps strung along the southern border with Syria. Another 1.5 million are living in Turkey's towns and cities, absorbed by the local population. As a result, Turkey has become the largest refugee-hosting country in the world.

The generosity shown by Turkey and the Turkish people puts the rest of Europe to shame. At a time when some EU countries are refusing to accept small quotas for refugees and anti-migrant discourse is on the rise, Turkey can be justly proud of its humanitarian response. Despite the size of the challenge, the emergency response of the authorities - according to the UNHCR - has been "of a consistently high standard." Only this week, Karim Atassi, the organization's deputy representative in Turkey, warmly praised what he dubbed "the Turkish model" for emergency refugee management, hailing it as a template for other nations to follow. I saw for myself what that means. At the Elbeyli refugee camp, some 3,500 yellow container huts stretch out across paved walkways in neat lines providing hotspots of humanity. Schooling is provided in Arabic, from kindergarten up to the age of 18 - important when up to a third of the camp's population is of school-age. Basic healthcare is guaranteed in well-run clinics as well, and there are mosques, community centers and sporting facilities. The "mukhtar" (village head) system ensures that refugees have a voice in how they are treated. Moreover, there are special committees for young people and for women, and vulnerable individuals receive special support.

In short, Turkey is providing humanitarian assistance in line with the highest international standards. As the war drags on and the prospect recedes that the refugees may return to their homes, it is also working on longer-term local integration strategies. This is an unprecedented crisis unfolding at Europe's doors, yet Turkey, which is "on the frontline," is bearing the brunt. It has spent an incredible $5.5 billion on emergency assistance to refugees to date. But Turkey cannot be expected to bear the growing strain for much longer. As the war drags on in Syria, refugees continue to flow across the border - thousands more only this week. There have been remarkably few social problems so far, but this cannot be taken for granted. The country is also now facing a downturn in its economy, and comes fresh out of new elections, which presents new challenges.

Today, I am returning to the camps at Elbeyli and Nizip and the surrounding areas, this time leading a large delegation of leading parliamentarians from our assembly, representing 20 Council of Europe nations. I want to show my fellow parliamentarians what I had seen earlier. I want them to see with their own eyes "the Turkish model" for managing refugees, and to raise awareness for how Turkish hospitality cannot be unlimited, that Turkey needs help and that providing this help can benefit all of Europe. During our visit, we will be encouraging Turkey to continue on its impressive path. But above all, as parliamentarians, I hope we will also be taking a message back to our parliaments, our governments and our peoples that the rest of Europe must do more.

With World Refugee Day coming up on June 20, I am inviting parliaments to hold debates on this issue - to raise awareness of the humanitarian effort taking place here in Turkey, to press their governments for greater financial support for Turkey and to encourage resettlement of Syrian refugees elsewhere in Europe. I will point out that these actions would benefit not just Turkey but also the rest of the continent. Europe does not want a Turkey destabilized by the refugee situation it is facing, nor does it want these refugee communities to fall victim to traffickers and terrorists. But ultimately this is a question not of self-interest or politics but a simple question of humanity. I believe it is the duty of Europe as well as the rest of the international community to shoulder its fair share of the responsibility. As president of the Parliamentary Assembly, I will do everything I can to ensure that it does.

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