Turkish officials wary of new humanitarian crisis

As Russian-backed Syrian attacks are prompting a refugee exodus in Idlib province, the last rebel-stronghold of the war-torn Syria, Turkish officials are wary of a new humanitarian crisis unfolding at their country’s sealed gates.

“It seems like there are around 1.5 million people who are near our borders. Turkey is currently not allowing any entry and we are supporting this position,” Lutfu Savas, major of Turkey’s Hatay province, located on the Syrian border, told Xinhua in an interview.

“We think it’s best to offer these people all the necessary accommodation on the other side of the border within a safe zone that the Turkish government wants to establish,” he pointed out, adding that all crossings from the Syrian sides have been halted at least six months ago.

Hatay is one of the cities in Turkey that hosts the greatest number of a total of 3.7 million Syrian refugees, causing economic and social consequences, disrupting the city’s and surrounding region’s demographic tissue, the mayor said.

“We host some 500,000 guests who constitute nearly a third of our population,” Savas said, noting that due to financial difficulties, the expense of caring for the refugees creates a very serious burden on the border province and its local people.

Hatay is a relatively small province and job opportunities are consequently fewer, and local young people are left unemployed because Syrians will accept any job, mostly illegal, and will not have to pay taxes, Savas pointed out, complaining about unfair competition.

The mayor insisted however that despite social problems, there had been no “major” incidents nor violence in Hatay because of the region’s historical multicultural tolerance, located at the crossroads of many civilizations over the centuries.

The Syrian government’s assault to retake the rebel-held territory has created since December one of the worst humanitarian emergencies of the nine-year civil war amid fears that NATO member Turkey, who has send thousands of troops into Syria to halt the offensive, might also be entangled in clashes.

Nearly a million Syrians have fled toward the border with Turkey over the past three months. Many are living in makeshift tents or in the open, with reports of babies dying from freezing nighttime temperatures.

The exodus is the largest of a war that has displaced 13 million people and taken hundreds of thousands of lives, and ranks among the largest in recent history.

With about three million residents trapped between a closed Turkish border and shelling from government forces, the crisis has the potential to grow far worse as the government battles to reclaim all of Syria, said observers.

During a speech in parliament on Wednesday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan touched upon the “big humanitarian crisis” in Syria and said it is out of the question to accept more Syrians amid rising anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey.

Turkey has been hailed internationally for its hospitality towards Syrians but the sheer number of Syrians scattered across the now saturated country have caused social tensions and in some places violence between refugees and locals.

“We cannot handle another million, it is not possible to silently accept these people in our country,” he said a few hours before a new round of talks between Turkish and Russian delegations in the Turkish capital Ankara to find a solution to the Idlib crisis.

Experts have expressed pessimism regarding finding a solution any time soon to the humanitarian drama in Idlib, arguing that it would only be solved in the framework of a concerted political dialogue between belligerents parties in the country, which seems very unlikely at this stage.

“Turkey’s fears are understandable, the new burden arising in Syria is certainly not something that Turkey can handle on its own, international support is imperative,” Didem Isci, a researcher from the Ankara-based think-thank Bosphorus Migration Studies (BMS), told Xinhua.

This expert on migration issues underlined that while there is not an organized anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey, the Ankara government is domestically under pressure of rising hostility towards Syrians at a time when the country is slowly recovering from a recession.

“There is an absolute need for burden sharing from the European Union especially, but is seems that there is also discord within the Union, but a just share of the burden is a must, otherwise we can only expect the worst,” Isci added.

Frustrated over lack of international response, Erdogan has threatened to “open the gates” to Europe for Syrian refugees if the EU doesn’t provide additional support for them.