Thousands of Syrian refugees are pouring into Turkey. Ankara says it needs help, which the EU has promised. But political differences and legal hurdles are hindering closer cooperation between the two.
Turkey has asked Europe for help, as the number of Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war in their country exceeded 100,000 on Monday (15.10.2012) putting a severe strain on Turkey's capacity to cope. And with winter approaching, the situation could grow even worse.
"Europe should start thinking about the people who have fled Syria into Turkey," Egemen Bagis, Turkey's EU minister told German daily Die Welt. "Europe has to help people who need a safe haven. It's time for Europe to finally help out."
EU foreign ministers responded to Turkey's call on Monday with a promise to provide more humanitarian assistance, but they made no offer to resettle some of the Syrian refugees in Europe.
Despite the EU's willingness to provide more aid to Turkey in the growing refugee crisis, a closer and more practical cooperation has been blocked, one EU official told DW on condition that his name not be used because precise policy procedures had not yet been worked out. In order to address the humanitarian challenges of the Syrian crisis, the EU and member states have already allocated 214 million euros, but so far Turkey has only received 1 million euros.
"Political differences and legal hurdles hinder closer EU-Turkey cooperation," he said, but added that "those who criticize the EU for not contributing to humanitarian efforts in the Syrian refugee crisis ignore the facts."
According to the EU official, a larger amount of funds have already been channeled to other neighboring countries, like Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, where more than 200,000 Syrians are seeking shelter. Compared to Turkey, the capacities of these countries are highly limited and they need immediate and greater assistance.
Political and legal hurdles
"Regarding assistance to Turkey, we are facing complex political and legal hurdles, and so far it has not been possible to channel any significant amount of humanitarian assistance to Turkey," the EU official said. "The Turkish side is willing to receive cash assistance, but EU regulations do not permit direct aid to Turkish governmental organizations," he stressed.
According to EU humanitarian aid regulations, the list of organizations that the EU can work with includes UN agencies, EU Red Cross societies and specialized technical assistance agencies, like the GTZ or THW. This list does not involve institutions of a third country.
"Another major problem is that the Turkish government is not approving the registration of European agencies, or NGO's, which could use the EU funds. Ankara is not letting them work on the ground," the European official said. Turkish officials, on the other hand, argue that allowing the NGO's to work in the border region could create security problems.
So far, the EU could only allocated 1 million euros via the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) for Syrian refugees in Turkey. Western diplomats have criticizes the Turkish side for not showing enthusiasm for international cooperation, taking steps to meet the legal requirements, or for facilitating bureaucratic procedures. In order to break the deadlock, the EU's European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) is now planning to send an official to Ankara, who will work there for at least six months to ensure better coordination.
Turkey's open door policy
When the first Syrians began to arrive in Turkey in May 2011, Turkey adopted an "open-door" policy. Ankara has stressed that, despite the current influx, it could continue with this policy, as long as it can handle the situation. Turkey has long been arguing for creating safe haven zones inside Syrian territories to protect people, but this has failed to gain international support so far.
Turkey is providing shelter to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees in 14 camps along its 565-mile (904 km) border with Syria. Ankara has so far spent more than 200 million euros for the shelter and humanitarian assistance for the Syrian refugees, according to official figures. Seeing itself as a confident and growing regional power, the Turkish government has been reluctant to ask for international assistance. Now, facing a larger influx of Syrian refugees, Ankara is trying to convince the Europeans to do more to ease its growing burden.
Besides political and legal problems hindering closer cooperation between the EU and Turkey, another European diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous, said a major concern has been the leading role played by the Islamic non-governmental organization, IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, on Turkey's humanitarian efforts.
Radical groups raise concerns
IHH has been providing humanitarian assistance in the border areas, as well as in war-torn Syrian cities. Islamist-rooted IHH's ties with armed opposition groups has created suspicion among Western diplomats.
IHH, which also enjoys close relations with the Turkish government, drew world attention in 2010, when it sponsored a flotilla to breach the Israeli blockade of Gaza. When Israeli soldiers stormed a ship, the Mavi Marmara, they killed nine activists, causing acute tensions with Turkey.
European officials are also expressing concern over the security situation in the refugee camps along the Turkey-Syria border. Although the Turkish government and UNHCR are cooperating, these camps are managed by the government. Turkish opposition leaders have claimed, however, that some of these camps were being used for providing military training to the Syrian opposition.
Unprepared for winter
Despite the various concerns, Western officials have expressed appreciation for Turkey's success so far in providing shelter to more than 100,000 refugees in 14 camps. But as winter approaches, it is expected to be extremely difficult for Turkey to be able to provide suitable sanctuary facilities in time for wintry conditions. The future of 70,000 unregistered Syrian refugees living in Turkey, in apartments and hotels is also unclear.
Human rights organizations estimate that around 150,000 Syrians have left Aleppo, near the Turkish border, and thousands of them could be seeking shelter in Turkey in the coming weeks, if conditions get worse.
"Turkey has not yet officially asked other countries to help in the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the country," the anonymous official said. "Much will depend on developments in the coming weeks."
It would seem that European officials fear that if the situation gets worse, more Syrian immigrants would try to illegally enter the EU. Turkey's neighbors, Bulgaria and Greece, as well as Cyprus, have already experienced an influx of Syrian immigrants. So far, 15,000 refugees have turned up in Europe, according to the UNHCR.