Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Syrian refugees in Turkey are pawns in a geopolitical game

By Cihan Tugal


In September 2015, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, alarmingly prophesied: “We are talking about millions of potential refugees trying to reach Europe, not thousands.” In a short space of time his worries were confirmed. Today, Europe’s best bet against the mounting crisis seems to be to deploy the new regime in Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), with its mutating mixture of extreme nationalism, conservative religion, and militarization. A harsh crackdown on refugees within Turkey began in October and has continued unabated. As one lawyer put it, Europe has “outsourced its border security to Turkey”.


The EU is now offering €3bn, along with a “visa-free travel” promise to Turkish citizens, and even the resumption of membership talks in return for the “globalisation” of Turkey’s police-state techniques, which will be used not just against internal opposition, but whomever is perceived to be a threat to Europe’s stability. No critical analyst ever believed that the major reason why Turkey was not accepted into the EU was “lack of democracy”. This is now confirmed by the EU's actions. The underlying logic was the protection of Fortress Europe.

Until a few years ago, one prominent objection to Turkey’s accession to the EU concerned the borders of Europe. “I can’t imagine the EU being neighbours with Iran,” the argument went. Today, Turkey’s neighbors have forcefully penetrated Fortress Europe. They are no longer neighbors in the geopolitical sense, but everyday, tangible neighbors for those in Europe.

Putting all the burden on the shoulders of Turkey seems a desirable option, but it is not viable, let alone fair. Turkey is already home to around 2.5 million Syrian refugees. The government is holding them as bargaining chips in its many negotiations with Europe.

These people are not on any dignified path to citizenship. With Europe’s new deal, citizenship is rendered even more unlikely: since Europe does not want them within its borders, and as the “visa-free travel” promise (if kept) would allow all Turkish citizens to freely circulate within the Schengen area (by 2018 the latest), their naturalization could not be tolerated (unless European authorities devise cumbersome and disingenuous policies that would exclude Turkish citizens of refugee origin from the visa agreement).

Besides, the Turkish regime is developing ever more complex ways of exploiting the refugees. As the recently leaked talks of October 2015 show, President Erdoğan threatened European authorities with sending large numbers of refugees so that “the EU will be confronted with more than a dead boy on the shores of Turkey. There will be 10,000 or 15,000.”


Then he rhetorically asked: “How will you deal with that?” Last week, when pressured by the UN and the EU to open Turkey’s borders to those fleeing from Aleppo, he seized the opportunity to repeat his threat in public, unashamed of the leak, in fact empowered by it.

The increasing presence of Syrians has already had a corrosive impact on Turkish society. En route to Europe they have helped to bring out the best and the worst in the Turks (across the secular-religious divide), where abusive employment of informal labour and racist rhetoric coexists with social activism and expansive charitable organization seeking to mitigate the Syrians’ woes.

The unwelcome spread of the refugees has further polarized an already polarized society. The same is bound to happen with greater intensity in Europe, which will not be able to escape further ideological and economic polariZation for decades to come.

And yet there is no stopping it. Millions of Syrians and other Middle Easterners are going to be an enduring feature of the western landscape. The deal with Turkey will not stop immigrants from coming: it will only force them to come through even riskier, deadlier routes, further embittered and emboldened to face all kinds of mistreatment in their new homes. Syrians will endure further humiliation at the hands of liberal westerners. If there weren’t enough warnings already, a German man’s attack on two Afghans (with a Nazi salute) should be a wake-up call.

Given that this is what they will get in Europe, many people still don’t understand how Syrians could risk the lives of their young children to reach the Greek shores. Couldn’t they simply stay in Turkey to enjoy the relative wealth and security of that country?

The Turkish regime may have scored many PR points by opening its doors to millions of Syrians, but it can’t do much more than simply allow them in. The refugee camps have been in terrible shape and people have had to beg, or work low-wage, low-security jobs in the inner cities. Escape from this has become the only route for these people.

However, things are not going to be much better in Europe. A few “quotas” and face-saving moves by a couple of liberal regimes are not going to change the refugees’ plight. Massive and coordinated global action is necessary to correct these wrongs.

This piece appeared originally in the Guardian.