Refugees in Turkey are a time bomb

By Elif Naz Guvenis and Joris Voorhoeve

For many people, the world is a dangerous place. Sometimes we are very surprised by unexpected crises, but often serious crises are quite predictable. It is probable that we will see more and more migration crises, due to wars, suppressive governments, religious strife, and environmental threats. At present 1% of the world’s population is forced to flee from their dwellings. Half of them are children. In most cases their future is destroyed.

Most of mankind lives in coastal areas threatened by sea-level rise, or the opposite: droughts due to changing rainfall, or disastrous storms and excessive rain. Most of mankind also suffers from very bad governments, which exploit their own people and persecute minorities. They cause increasing migration. There will be large and often sudden streams of survival migrants. More attention should be paid to countries that are close to natural or man-made disasters, as they have to deal with large refugee streams. On paper, the best approach is to prevent such upheavals, but climate change is already accelerating. And bad governments are difficult to improve or remove.

Every human being has the right to survival, but this is not easy to guarantee. Most of the lucky people who live in safe and prosperous states do not really want to share and have so many newcomers. The return of nationalism in recent years, and fear or dislike of foreigners in many societies, makes it hard to let in very large numbers of refugees. But where should they go? Back to a war zone? To a country that is destroyed or ruled by a dictator? Or into a life in the EU as an illegal person, prone to fall into the hands of criminals and employers who exploit their weak position by paying extremely low wages?

Part of a solution will be to better assist those countries that let in large numbers of refugees, such as Lebanon, Turkey, Greece and Libya.  That is why the Sen Foundation is doing some research on the questions they are faced with. We start in this issue of Making Sense with refugees in Turkey.

Amongst the many countries that host many refugees relative to the size of their population, three stand out: Lebanon, Turkey and Greece. Turkey hosts 3.6 million[1] registered Syrians, over 157.000[2] registered Afghans and around 300.000 refugees from other nationalities. The estimated number including the non-registered migrants and refugees are over 5 million[3]. Relative to the Turkish population this is almost 5%.

Such a large number is a heavy task for a country that is not rich. The average income per capita in Turkey is 14.400 USD, while in a country like  the Netherlands the average is 53.800. Turkey is also a country with serious social tensions between the “old school” nationalists, Kurds, and fractions of conservatives. Itt has a Sunni Muslim majority, a new generation of seculars or reformists, including LGBTQ and non-Muslim religious minorities. Turkey also has complicated  tensions with several of its neighbors: Greece, Armenia, Syria, and Iran.

The Turkish government is often criticized by members of NATO and the EU for its actions in foreign, defense and other policies. But let us be fair and not blind to what the Turkish government and population have to deal with: Turkey officially takes care of more than 3.6 million refugees and asylum seekers, in areas where living conditions are far from ideal. Many refugees have not found employment and many of their children are not attending school. Returning to Syria or Afghanistan is not what most refugees can or want to do, as life at home is very dangerous. Many want to move on to the EU, but Greece and other EU neighbors of Turkey make such a trip very dangerous, if not impossible.

In the deal between the EU and Turkey concerning refugees, concluded 18 March 2016 [4],  the EU promised Turkey significant financial assistance of 6 billion USDs to be paid by the end of 2018. This consisted of placing and integrating Syrians in Turkey’s borders while reassuring that the borders to the EU would be shut. Of the 6 billion, only 3.6 billion was paid, according to our findings. This enabled Turkey to use the refugees as a bargaining tool and menace the EUwith “we will open the borders.”

The EU did no tkeep its  promise of “no visa for Turkish citizens,” nor pay the promised amount to the government, according to some accounts, due to Turkey’s failure in democracy and its use of  refugees for political blackmail. After 33 Turkish policemen were killed in Jabal al-Zawiya, just before the corona pandemic broke out, the Turkish government decided to open the borders to the EU. Over 75,000 refugees went to Greece  and a big portion of it still is stuck there in bad refugee camps.

The Turkish government is still overwhelmed by the large mass of refugees. Turkey experiences high inflation and many Turkish citizens blame the government for raising taxes. They also blame the refugees. The economic crisis is not directly caused by the refugees, but they make it more severe. Living conditions of refugees are poor. Refugees received  in camps flock to cities, as there is no work and income in camps. Hence, they to migrate to Turkish cities, in which life quality for Syrians is below the Turkish working class.

There are many international organizations  in Turkey trying to assist the refugees,  as well as Turkish  NGOs. They try to improve the well-being of refugees, the education of their children and their health and social integration. These NGOs deserve praise for their efforts. The financial help provided by EU is not enough to cover the costs of  basic education. Local NGOs and humanitarian people are big contributors to primary education and to learning Turkish and Arabic.

The Turkish government deserves that its efforts to host so many refugees are well supported by the EU. That is also in the interest of those EU countries which want to keep immigration in the EU low. It is not consistent to blame Turkey for its shortcomings in the treatment of refugees, demand that it should not send the refugees on to the EU, and not assist Turkey adequately.

If  inadequate policies of the Turkish government make it difficult for the EU to render more assistance to the government, the EU and its member states and NGOs can increase assistance to those Turkish NGOs and international agencies which have a proven record of good care. There is no excuse for not increasing aid to the refugees in Turkey to give their children proper education and health care. Otherwise, the problems of millions of uneducated  and unemployed refugees will come to haunt Turkey and the member states of the EU.


[2] This is the approximate number indicated on a work published in June 2020. The number of Afghans in Turkey is way higher since there are many unregistered Afghans as well as ones that go as Syrians to benefit from the advantages of temporary protection status



[4]For the full deal e.g. ‘Refugee Deal’ URL: