Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees and has officially spent, per capita, more than any other nation on humanitarian aid. The country continues to make solid efforts to alleviate the plight of refugees. It is one of the most proactive and efficient countries in finding solutions for the humanitarian crisis stemming from the Syrian conflict over the course of 2019, experts say, underlining the lack of support from other international actors in spite of Ankara's calls for assistance.
After the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, Turkey adopted an "open-door policy" toward Syrians fleeing the conflict, granting them "temporary protection" status. Since then, Turkey has received a constant flow of displaced Syrians fleeing the conflict and their numbers have expanded from mere thousands to millions. According to Interior Ministry figures, while 3.7 million Syrians reside in Turkey, more than 415,000 Syrian children have been born in the country. Refugees from Syria now account for around 4.29% of the total population of the country. Women and children make up the majority of these figures. Furthermore, Ankara has spent around $40 billion in provisions, according to official reports.
In addition to the country's domestic efforts in providing humanitarian aid to refugees living in Turkey, Ankara has come up with a number of new initiatives to solve issues arising around humanitarian aid.
"Turkey has taken many concrete steps to support refugees by bearing its political and financial responsibilities; however, it has been abandoned by international actors," Talha Köse, an academic at Ibn Haldun University's Department of Political Science and International Relations, told Daily Sabah.
Regarding international support to Turkey's efforts for refugees, Murat Özer, president of the Association for Solidarity and Defense of Humanity (İMKANDER), said that neither the U.N. nor the EU had fulfilled their pledges regarding refugees, remaining indifferent to Ankara's calls for assistance.
"Since 2012, the brunt of the burden has been taken by Turkey. Also, hundreds of thousands of refugees are located in Lebanon and Jordan. Certain global powers exploit the problem of refugees as a tool against countries that seek to limit their influence area, thus destabilizing the region," he explained.
Throughout the year, one critical issue has been the ongoing situation in Idlib. As one of the guarantor countries of the Astana Process, Turkey has put forth many efforts to bring stability and peace to Syria. Despite joint diplomatic initiatives taken by Ankara and Moscow, the Syrian regime has conducted violent attacks on residential areas of Idlib to recapture the opposition-controlled province since April.
Reminding that terrorist groups were excluded from the condition of de-escalation in the Sochi deal, said that this left an open door for the regime to intervene.
"The regime and Russia are currently conducting their attacks by using the presence of HTS [Hayat Tahrir al-Sham] in the region as an excuse. However, the attacks targeting civilians and residential places reached a point that can be described as a slaughter," he said.
The Astana process was initiated by Turkey, Iran and Russia to bring the warring sides together and find a permanent solution to the eight-year Syrian civil war. The main agenda of the process has focused on the constitutional process, political transition, security and resettlement. The first meeting of the Astana process was in Turkey in January 2017 to facilitate U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Geneva.
During the previous rounds of Astana talks, the three countries agreed to strengthen the mechanism established to ensure monitoring of the implementation of the cease-fire in Syria and to create tension zones where the conflict is most intense between the opposition and regime forces.
Idlib, home to around 4 million people, is the last opposition enclave in Syria. Ankara and Moscow reached an agreement in Sochi on Sept. 17, 2018, which envisaged that the cease-fire in the Idlib region was to be preserved with the withdrawal of heavy arms and radicals from the region.
Despite the Sochi deal, the regime, backed by Moscow, intensified its attacks starting on April 26 under the pretext of fighting the al-Qaida-linked HTS terrorists holed up in Idlib. Since then, the situation has gotten worse, taking more civilian lives with each passing day.
More than 1,300 civilians have been killed in attacks by the regime and Russian forces in the de-escalation zone as the cease-fire continues to be violated. Over a million Syrians have moved near the Turkish border following intense attacks. If aggression by the regime and its allies continues, Turkey and Europe face the risk of another refugee influx.
Köse said that the entire burden of refugees coming from Idlib was left to Turkey following the Sochi deal.
Given that Russia and Iran side with the Assad regime in Syria, Turkey is the only side supporting the opposition among the Astana process guarantor countries. The lack of support from the international community left Turkey alone with Russia to solve this issue, Köse explained.
"Russia exploits the issues of Idlib and refugees as tools of political pressure against Turkey," he said.
New refugee wave
The Idlib region has seen an uptick in violence in recent weeks as forces loyal to the regime of Bashar Assad, supported by Russian airstrikes, have launched a fresh assault to capture one of the largest urban centers in the area. Assad's regime has repeatedly vowed to take back the area, and bombardment has continued despite a cease-fire. More than 250,000 civilians have been displaced since the beginning of November. These displaced Syrians are moving toward the Turkish border and liberated areas, especially to Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch regions, to seek refuge.
In response to these developments, Turkey warned Europe about a further refugee influx, underlining it will not bear the burden of a new refugee wave alone. Presidential Spokesperson İbrahim Kalın also said last week that Turkey called on Russia to reach a new cease-fire after increased bombardment in Syria's northwestern Idlib province.
Turkey has frequently warned the international community of the immanence of a humanitarian disaster and fresh wave of refugees unless actions are taken and the Syrian regime is restrained. However, no worthwhile actions have taken place, as airstrikes and artillery continue to target thousands of civilians.
"The international community should build political pressure on Russia and the regime to halt attacks on the region," Köse said, adding that Turkey should cooperate with the U.S. and EU against Russia's political pressure and they also should develop a new strategy in Syria by putting Turkey at the center.
Köse said that Turkey has no capacity to handle a new migration wave and may abandon the previous deals, referring to the migration deal signed with the EU in 2016.
Turkey has been a key transit point for irregular migrants aiming to cross into Europe to start new lives, especially those fleeing war and persecution. To reduce the number of illegal migrants on the dangerous Aegean Sea route and to find a solution to the influx of refugees heading to the union, Turkey and the European Union signed an agreement in March 2016.
According to the deal, Turkey was also promised a total of 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion) in financial aid, which was initially planned to be given to the country in two installments to be used by the Turkish government to finance projects for Syrian refugees. Visa freedom for Turkish citizens traveling to the EU was also promised under the agreement.
The deal also pledged an update of the customs union Turkey enjoys with the EU. In return, Turkey took the responsibility of discouraging irregular migration through the Aegean Sea by taking stricter measures against human traffickers and agreed to maintain suitable conditions for accommodating more than 3.5 million Syrians living in Turkey.
Despite significant developments in the control of migration traffic, the EU has not delivered on its commitments. Similarly, although the first installment of the funding pledged has been provided to Turkey, the EU has yet to fulfill other articles, such as that promising visa-free travel for Turkish citizens and an update of the customs union.
The bloc is wary of any recurrence of the 2015 crisis that sowed bitter divisions among EU states, strained social and security services and fueled support for populist, anti-immigration, Eurosceptic and far-right parties.
Turkey also looks to ensure the safe and voluntary return of refugees to parts of Syria liberated from terrorist groups.
The only successful project to end the war and to provide a life with humanitarian standards to refugees is the project carried out by Turkey in areas that were liberated through three military operations, Özer said, adding that the only regions where violence has ended and daily life returned to normal are the safe areas built by Turkey's unilateral efforts.
"The return of refugees has already begun. If the international community and actors support Turkey's efforts on the issue, we will see a rapid decrease in both the refugee problem and violence in a short time. This will also ease the problems of both the region and Europe," he said.
Turkey on Oct. 9 launched Operation Peace Spring to eliminate YPG terrorists from the area east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria in order to secure Turkey's borders, aid in the safe return of Syrian refugees and ensure Syria's territorial integrity.
Turkey has also carried out two cross-border operations targeting the area west of the Euphrates River – Operation Euphrates Shield launched in August 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in January 2018 – to drive terrorist groups, including the YPG/PKK and Daesh, from its borders.
Since then, Turkey has ramped up efforts to get daily life in these areas back to normal and make local people's return to the region possible. As the Defense Ministry announced last week, nearly 580,000 Syrians voluntarily returned to the areas cleared of terrorist elements through Turkey's three cross-border operations.
"Turkey should solve the migration problem with an organized settlement plan as it did in Afrin and the area of Operation Euphrates Shield. In doing that, Turkey also should not harm the existing order created with big efforts, because the attacks on Idlib also aim to disrupt the successful project conducted by Turkey in the region as a result of three successful anti-terror operations," Özer said.
Ankara has also proposed the establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria cleared of all terrorist elements in order to allow for the resettlement of Syrians who have fled to Turkey from war-torn areas. Turkey's safe zone plan aims to host millions of Syrians in a safe and stable environment.
According to Turkey's safe zone plan, 140 villages and 10 district centers will be established within a 30-40 kilometer-deep safe zone in northern Syria, housing 5,000 and 30,000 inhabitants each, respectively. The settlements will be provided with various facilities so that the people living there will be able to have a normal life with every necessity met. Each village within the area will have 1,000 houses, and each district will have 6,000 new homes built, making 200,000 new residences in total. The construction is expected to cost about $26.6 billion.
"If this safe zone can be declared, we can resettle confidently somewhere between 1 to 2 million refugees," President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told the U.N. General Assembly in late September.
"Whether with the U.S. or the coalition forces, Russia or Iran, we can walk shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand so refugees can resettle, saving them from tent camps and container camps," he added.
Özer reminded that Turkey has defended the idea of a no-fly zone in northern Syria and the establishment of a safe zone there, since the beginning phase of the civil war in Syria.
"However, countries aiming for larger interests from the growing crisis have always opposed the idea. As we see in the U.S. military equipment support to YPG, Western powers do not aim the end of war or (allow for) the return of refugees," he added.
Underlining the lack of international support for refugees, Köse also said that there is not enough support for Turkey's safe zone plan.
Ankara is struggling to secure financial support from foreign governments or financial institutions, he said, adding that there is also a need for the U.N. to provide air defense support to the region.
"Turkey is left alone in this issue, too," he added.
What to expect from the new year? According to Köse, there is no place for optimism about the refugee issue in 2020.
"The attention of the international community has been diminished with the diminishing refugee waves. Turkey should bring the issue back to the agenda of the international community," he said.