Since the start of the armed conflict in Syria in 2011, Turkey has been a key player in the ensuing refugee crisis. From day one, Ankara conducted an open-door policy and allowed all refugees to enter the country. Today, more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees have found shelter in Turkey. On top of that, an additional 4 million people in Syria have received help from Turkey in the form of food or clothing.
A lot has been written and said about the Ankara's role in dealing with the refugees, and it has not always been positive. So when I left my cozy home in Brussels and went to Gaziantep to visit the refugee camps near the Syrian border last week, I was anxious and curious.
I had no idea what to expect. As a German of Turkish origin and a true European by heart, I have been following the refugee crisis in Europe very closely. All I knew about the situation in Turkey, however, was that a large amount of people have been arriving in the past months, desperately seeking protection from the war in their home country.
I expected similar circumstances to those in Idomeni, Greece. The tragic pictures of the camp in Idomeni had gone viral over the past year and were stuck in my mind. But when I first entered the camps, I was astonished. Instead of the expected tents, I saw containers everywhere and in between was a small but nice playground for children. The refugee camp I visited in Nizip, a small village close to the Syrian border, has two grocery stores allowing women and men to cook their own Syrian dishes, and every container is equipped with kitchen items.
The camp also has a kindergarten, a primary and a secondary school. When entering a classroom, I noticed that the teacher was teaching in Arabic. To my surprise, I found out later that all children are being educated according to the Syrian school system so when they return one day it will be easier to adapt. Nonetheless, they also receive Turkish classes. On top of that, sewing and hairdressing classes are offered, the latter for both women and men. For the youngsters there is a football field and a mosque for the religious. All in all I was positively surprised.
'Why do Europeans not want us?'
While walking through the refugee camps, I noticed that the majority those there were children and women. When I asked about the whereabouts of the men, they answered: "Where do you think they are? Dead." Most of the children have lost their fathers, brothers, uncles and grandfathers.
I saw an elderly woman sitting in the shade peeling zucchinis. I sat down next to her and asked about life in the camp and her expectations for the future. Suddenly, she asked me something that has been on my mind up to now: "Why do you Europeans not want us? Why do you refuse to help?"
This question hit me hard. I had no answer. Instead, tears started to fill my eyes and trickle down my cheeks. I am ashamed; ashamed of being European. I am ashamed that this wealthy continent, which has survived the horror of two world wars, leading to the creation of the European Union - created to prevent such horror from ever happening again - is losing its values. We are forgetting why we created this bloc and we are forgetting about the value of human life and dignity.
Right-wing populism is haunting the continent
There is a famous line from a speech Robert Schuman gave on May 9, 1950: "World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it." Our founding father was very wise to acknowledge after World War I and World War II that we finally need world peace and that we need creative efforts.
When it comes to Syrian refugees, I see no such creative efforts. Germany has undertaken important measures and I was very thankful that Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the refugees. But looking at the latest developments in Germany, you can see that Merkel's efforts are losing support within German society as the far right, anti-Muslim and anti-refugee Alternative for Germany (AfD) party won more than 20 percent of the vote in the last regional elections. General elections will take place in 2017, and I am already dreading their outcome. But this is not only the case in Germany. There are parties in Austria, France, the Netherlands, Hungary and Slovakia, just to name a few, that are playing with people's fears and gaining support with nationalist and racist ideas. So apparently this is what happens when you help people in need - the continent is turning to the political right. It is a true European drama.
Wake up Europe!
Obviously there are things to improve in Turkey. But what I do miss in the German media coverage is the credit for Turkey's efforts. Yes, the European Union has promised financial aid. But please bear in mind that the Turkish people are helping 2.7 million refugees, and so far, the Turkish government has paid for all their needs.
Germany's population is slightly larger than Turkey's. Can you just for a second imagine the public outcry in Germany if the country would have granted asylum to 2.7 million Syrian refugees? The support for the right-wing AfD would increase even more and Merkel would be threatened with losing her seat in the upcoming elections.The slogan of my political party in European Parliament, the Socialists and Democrats, is "EU Wake Up." I sincerely hope that the EU will wake up from this nightmare and finally act according to its values and historic duty. There is enough space and enough money for all the refugees seeking peace and freedom on our so beloved continent.
* Head of Office for the German MEP Dietmar Köster