Facing the Syrian Refugee Crisis, Turkey Must Not Stand Alone

OSCE PA human rights/humanitarian committee Chair Isabel Santos speaks with a refugee from Syria at her loom, Harran, 21 January 2015.

By Isabel Santos

Last month I was part of a delegation from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly to Harran, Turkey, where we came across a “city of containers” – thousands of them – surrounded by fences and housing some 14,500 refugees. Life goes on day after day in search of a normalcy that such a place can never provide. In one of the container-city’s schools, we met with children who expressed their distress in crayons, drawing planes dropping bombs and scenes of war, bleeding and destruction. The images were populated by mothers and children on trails, leaving their homeland behind.

The drawings of the children are a result of the narratives and images they pervasively absorb from the media, the family talks and peer gatherings, as much as from direct experiences of theirs. This is equally concerning for their future wellbeing. It will take a lot more than an end to Syria’s awful war and the eventual reconstruction of their homes and towns for these children to recover.

As difficult as it was, I tried to make myself remember that this was just the tip of the iceberg. It is estimated that the Syrian conflict has displaced more than 10 million people, 3.5 million of which left the country. Ninety-five percent of these refugees went to five neighboring countries, and most of them --- nearly 2 million -- have fled to Turkey. The number is growing every day.

It is true that Turkey has responded to this challenge with both resources and courage, creating an emergency plan that has maintained open borders and investing more than $5 billion to accommodate the refugees. This, along with the solidarity of civil society, are beyond reproach. In our meetings with civil society leaders, they even called the refugees “guests.” By they also asked the question that proud officials were less willing to offer during our visit: “How can a town, or a province, or even the whole of Turkey do more than the entire European Union?”

Hearing that question felt like a punch in the stomach.

The simple answer is that they cannot and should not, and that was the main reason why I wanted to visit the camps: That is, to raise awareness and issue a call to action. Turkey needs help in taking in Syria’s refugees, and the fact that the European Union has only accepted about 62,000 of these women, men and children to date is shameful.

The EU, right on Turkey’s border, says that it may harbor more than 100,000 refugees from Syria by 2016. But that’s the kind of number that arrives in Turkey in just one week. When I hear of support provided through donations, it almost comes across as cynical to me compared to what the EU could – and should – do. Have we forgotten that all the refugees from from World Wars I and II were the parents and grandparents of today’s Europe?

In Syria, the world is facing a conflict with no end in sight and a humanitarian tragedy whose size we are far from being able to evaluate. To deny these refugees the possibility of a stable and secure life in the absence of conditions needed to for them to return home is to condemn an entire generation. It also flies in the face of article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” This is also clearly not the path envisioned in the OSCE’s founding documents, which foresaw a region of comprehensive and interlinked security.

Can a Turkish province do more than the European Union? In Sanliurfa, officials proudly told us that yes, they can accommodate the thousands of Syrian refugees that have crossed the border. But reality may outstrip even the best of intentions, and from what I saw, the reality is stark. Moreover, should Turkey go it alone, even if they can? No, they should not.

What I learned from my trip is that I must keep raising my voice to try to help correct this injustice. I hope my fellow European and OSCE parliamentarians will follow suit. All countries agree that what’s happening in Syria is a tragedy, but we have a real ability to limit the tragedy’s toll on human lives by taking in more refugees. There are truly no excuses.

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Isabel Santos is a member of the Portuguese parliament and the Chairperson of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions. She and OSCE PA President Ilkka Kanerva of Finland led a delegation to visit refugee camps on the Turkey-Syria border on 21 January 2015.