Refugees Are Erdogan's New Diplomatic Leverage, but Numbers He Shows Don't Add Up

Turkey has received 6 billion euros that are meant to help fund the humanitarian aid it provides refugees. So why is it claiming the EU didn't pay up?

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A migrant child watches a family member (unseen) putting together a wooden frame to make a temporary shelter  in the city of Edirne, Turkey on March 5, 2020.
A migrant child watches a family member (unseen) putting together a wooden frame to make a temporary shelter in the city of Edirne, Turkey on March 5, 2020. Credit: Ozan KOSE / AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Over 80,000 Syrian refugees have crossed the border into Greece, according to an official statement by the Turkish government released this week.

Media outlets all over the globe released reports with images and video clips showing masses of refugees gathering along the crossing checkpoints set up by Turkey on its border with Greece. The refugees waited there for their turn to enter the gates of the promised land.

Hundreds of Greek police officers and soldiers faced them, trying to block the new flood that threatens to overflow into their country and across of Europe. Greece is even considering setting up a “floating wall” to stop smugglers' boats from Turkey before they reach Greek ports.

Meanwhile, European countries are biting their fingernails in the face of the threat placed on their doorstep by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a panic to try to find a solution to calm Erdogan’s anger and thus guarantee the continuation of the European refugee agreement with Turkey.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised, during her visit to Turkey in January, that she would help build refugee camps inside Syria, where Turkey wants to transfer some 1 million refugees, out of the about 4 million who are currently living in Turkey.

This promise is not good enough for Erdogan, especially after the European Union’s then budget commissioner, Gunther Oettinger, announced in October 2019, that the EU must cut back on the funding it provides to Turkey and increase its aid to Jordan and Lebanon.

As part of the refugee agreement signed in 2016, Turkey received a 6 billion euro allocation to pay for 72 projects, such as the construction of schools and health clinics, as well as for humanitarian aid Turkey gives to refugees. In its favor, Turkey says the EU has not yet transferred all the money it promised in the refugee agreement. Moreover, because circumstances have changed, with the number of refugees growing since 2016, it demands that the EU increase its aid by an additional 3 billion euros.

Greek Police guard Kastanies border gate, Evros region, as migrants gather between Greece and Pazarkule border gate, Edirne, Turkey, February 29, 2020Credit: Emrah Gurel,AP

Erdogan's demand had been accompanied by the a hint of a threat for a few weeks – a threat that is now out in the open – that without this additional aid Turkey will not be able to continue to fund the refugees’ stay, and certainly will not accept any new refugees.

This threat became reality this week, but it is not just a matter of money. Erdogan is asking the EU to put pressure on Russia to not intervene in the military campaign Turkey is conducting in in the north of Syria against the Syrian army, and for it to help in establishing a security zone in the Idlib province where he wants to settle the refugees. It seems that as far as increasing aid is concerned, the EU is willing to dig its hands deep into its pockets and pay for the services of guarding its borders that Erdogan is providing them with.

But as for EU diplomatic support against Russia, here the EU does not have a lot to contribute. Imposing additional sanctions on Russia is a double edged sword that could very well harm the European economy too, and the EU has not itself formulated an agreed upon policy concerning Turkish involvement in Syria.

The reports of Turkish troops abusing the residents of the Kurdish region they took over this year, as well as of violations of human rights inside of Turkey, are also deterring Europeans from taking an unambiguous pro-Turkish stance. Another complex obstacle is the lack of transparency over the way Turkey has used European aid funding. Erdogan has said in speeches that since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, Turkey has spent 40 billion euros on supporting and absorbing Syrian refugees. An investigation conducted by Turkish economist Mustafa Sonmez that was published on the Al-Monitor website in November 2019 shows that these numbers are highly exaggerated, and at the very least they have no convincing explanation behind them.

For example, Sonmez quotes a report issued by the Turkish President’s Office in 2017, which says Turkey spent about $7.2 billon on the refugees. According to Sonmez‘s calculations, he estimates that the country spent about $24 billion on aiding the refugees between 2013 and 2019, about $16 billion less than the amount Erdogan claimed. The expose also raises doubts about how the aid was used. According to official data only about 145,000 refugees out of roughly 3.7 million live in organized camps with proper accounting and management of the aid funds.

The rest of the refugees are scattered all over the country and are trying to find a way to support themselves. Those who are registered with the Turkish authorities can receive direct financial aid, and only a very small portion of them, about 30,000, have work permits in Turkey. Many of the refugees rely less on aid and more on employment. Most of the refugees work without a permit, in return for starvation wages, and they live in miserable living conditions.

Migrants sit in an inflatable boat as they attempt to enter Greece from Turkey by crossing the Maritsa river, near Pazarkule border gate, Edirne, Turkey, February 29, 2020Credit: Emrah Gurel,AP

Studies conducted on the economic impact of the refugees in Turkey show how heavy a burden they are on the country in terms of the need to expand public services, growth in unemployment among Turkish citizens whose jobs have been taken by refugees, and social conflicts between citizens and refugees.

Meanwhile, these studies show an increase in GDP because of the purchasing power of the refugees, with the opening of thousands of businesses owned fully or partially by refugees, in addition to the billions of dollars that Turkey has received in aid for them. These studies raise questions about Erdogan’s claims as to the extent of the true economic burden refugees place on the country. It seems that Erdogan is using refugees as diplomatic leverage in his dealings with Europe and the United States is more important to him than his economic complaints. Many EU leaders think as much, but their problem is that this diplomatic leverage is casting a terrifying shadow over Europe’s citizens and their leaders.

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