Why Syrian refugees in Turkey urgently need a new EU migration deal

Why Syrian refugees in Turkey urgently need a new EU migration deal
In-depth: Five years after the EU-Turkey migration deal was reached, the agreement desperately needs to be reassessed for the sake of millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey.
8 min read
08 April, 2021
There are 3.6 million registered refugees in Turkey. [Getty]
Millions of Syrian refugees and their children in Turkey are at risk of losing access to education, healthcare and critical cash allowances if a new EU-Turkey migration agreement is not made. 

Now, five years on from the deal to stem Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe, support for 3.6 million registered refugees in Turkey is in critical need of being renewed.

As an incentive for Turkey to keep refugees and asylum seekers within its borders, the agreement in March 2016 designated the EU to provide Turkey with €6 billion ($7 billion) in aid for refugee services.  

The majority of this money was allocated to education capacity building and conditional cash transfers for parents to keep children in school, and an Emergency Social Safety Net (SSN) based on income and number of people in the household. 

Turkish NGO Support to Life (STL) told The New Arab it was able to increase its operations and therefore its impact for refugee communities as a result of the funding from the EU. 

"For several years, STL has been running community centers for psychosocial support, providing individual protection assistance in order to facilitate access to services, and increasing employability for income generations," STL Director Sema Genel Karaosmanoğlu said. 

  Millions of Syrian refugees and their children in Turkey are at risk of losing access to education, healthcare and critical cash allowances  

"If EU funding came to an end, STL operations would have to significantly scale down, as a result of which refugees would receive less cash assistance, reduced community services and decreased support for their livelihoods in Turkey." 

Over 600,000 Syrian children were enrolled in Turkish schools, which can be seen as a positive outcome from the educational funding, but there are still around 450,000 Syrian children out of school, according to The Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey policy analyst, Omar Kadkoy.

In part, the reason for children not being enrolled is a lack of space in classes, though Kadkoy argues that the deteriorating economic situation in Turkey is adding to the difficulties of parents trying to keep their children in school.

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"They unfortunately are forced to drop out and integrate into the labour market so they can help their parents make ends meet," Kadkoy told The New Arab

The Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM) General Coordinator, Ibrahim Kavlak stressed the importance of renewing the funding for education which needs to reach over 1.2 million Syrian school-aged children in Turkey.

"These children are not only the hope of the country in which they have taken asylum but are also the hope of their own country and the ones who will rebuild their country if they ever return one day," Kavlak told The New Arab. "If opportunities for accessing education are not supported, a lost generation will emerge."

A conditional cash transfer to parents was also built into the agreement depending on the child's education level, though with the advent of Covid-19, school necessities now include internet packages and devices to attend online courses, meaning financial need is greater. 

A focus on training and increasing the skill of teachers and tutors to work with traumatised or bilingual children, or those who have been out of school for a number of years due to displacement, is also of great importance and requires continued funding.  

Further to the education projects, the SSN has been a lifeline for many refugee households, and as Kadkoy says, it's critical to renew it.

  Five years on from the deal to stem Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe, support for 3.6 million registered refugees in Turkey is in critical need of being renewed  

The amount of 120 Turkish Lira ($15) a month per person in the household is rarely enough to pay rent, though it is limited to be similar to what Turks receive from the government if they are below the poverty line.  

"It's barely enough for any family to survive on if they are going to be solely dependent on that," Kadkoy said. 

After the Covid-19 pandemic hit Turkey, at least 69% of refugee households lost their jobs within the first six months. Kavlak from ASAM, an organisation that has worked with UNHCR in Turkey since the 1990s, said it is imperative for the EU-Turkey deal to be renewed based on the changing conditions of today and the global impacts of Covid-19.

"Labour market contraction taking place during this period has caused the labour force to lose its function and increased the need for cash assistance," Kavlak said.

"Refugees, who lost their jobs with the impact of the pandemic and who are therefore having trouble in accessing sufficient food and hygiene conditions, are also encountering challenges in accessing effective health services."

While this financial support agreed to in 2016 was successfully transferred and undoubtedly needs to be reinstated or increased, a larger aspect of the migration pact was not met.

As part of the agreement, for each refugee sent back to Turkey from Greece, there would be one resettled from Turkey to an EU member state.

An EU Commission report published in October 2019 stated only 25,000 Syrian refugees had been resettled from Turkey to Europe; 0.7% of the refugee population in Turkey.

Kati Piri, Dutch Parliament Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, Asylum and Migration, and a former EU Parliament member from 2014 to this year, explained that the majority of resettlements occurred in the first 18 months of the deal being made.

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"The resettlement from Turkey to other EU countries came to a stop [in the last year]," Piri told The New Arab. The resettlement of refugees from Turkey is not on the agenda of the EU and few member states are willing to share the "burden." 

"It's easier to transfer money than it is to take in refugees, politically, for many member states," Piri said. 

Once the irregular crossing of migrants from Turkey to EU states like Greece was reduced, the EU was to launch a voluntary admission or settlement program, though this didn't come to fruition.

"You will not find a voluntary solidarity European solution as long as you have government leaders like Viktor Orban in Hungary who is not willing to do anything about taking in refugees."

The political will of European states to take in refugees has decreased along with the pressure of migrants arriving. Piri questions whether another migration crisis needs to happen on Europe's borders before states seriously support and implement a resettlement process.

"Or do we have EU leaders who know that this is a problem that will not go away for the coming decade, and that we need to come up with a more structured solution?" Piri asked.

Other non-migration aspects of the 2016 deal were not enacted but can be seen as necessary to solidify another deal.

The EU had promised visa free travel for Turks, an upgrade of the EU-Turkey customs union, and a restart of Turkey's EU accession process, none of which happened.

  An EU Commission report published in October 2019 stated that only 25,000 Syrian refugees had been resettled from Turkey to Europe: 0.7% of the refugee population in Turkey  

Kadkoy points out that many officials want a new agreement developed along the same framework and that Turkey won't give up on these three promises the EU made in return for continually hosting migrants.

Introducing these non-migration aspects into the agreement was what solidified the deal, incentivising Turkey to agree to it in 2016.

Reinstating funding from the EU to Turkey doesn't seem to be a hurdle, considering the EU extended financial support last year for the two biggest programs underway in Turkey, pledging a further €485 million ($575 million).

The additional funding is now running until early 2022 and saved the education programs and cash assistance project which were set to end.

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What Piri believes will be problematic though is what Turkey is continuing to ask for in return for looking after refugees.

Turkey is still, on paper, a candidate country waiting to join the EU, though even if accession is revisited in order to secure a new migration deal, the EU may decide to set aside any discussion on the human rights situation inside Turkey and focus solely on migration and foreign policy. 

EU leaders met in Ankara on 6 April, with talks largely focused on migration and the Eastern Mediterranean. However, while voicing hopes for stronger ties, the EU's two top officials also expressed "deep worries" about human rights in Turkey.

A new agreement between Turkey and the EU should further take into account the 320,000 displaced migrants from countries other than Syria, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Somalia. They too should be able to benefit from EU assistance through programs within Turkey. 

Forced displacement is no longer a short-term or temporary situation, and as more time passes – for Syrians now it's ten years since the revolution started – the more difficult it becomes for the refugee population to return.

It is important for Turkey and international stakeholders to develop a long-term strategy, as Kavlak suggests, so that vital services and needs are not threatened to be stopped every few years. 

Tessa Fox is a freelance journalist and photographer covering war and conflict, human rights and humanitarian affairs across the Middle East. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Tessa_Fox