Erdogan cannot use refugees to further his own agenda

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, holds up a photograph of deceased Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi while speaking during the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. Bloomberg
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, holds up a photograph of deceased Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi while speaking during the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. Bloomberg

When three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body was washed ashore on Turkey’s coastline exactly four years ago this month, a poignant symbol of the cost of the Syrian war, the world reeled in collective shock and revulsion at the scale of human tragedy inflicted in the course of the conflict.

There were plenty of murmurs at the time of how this should never happen again and how the distressing image of a toddler’s lifeless body would jolt the international community into action. It didn’t, and it has happened again, countless times over.

In that, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was right when he declared to an audience of world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York: "This did not happen a long time ago but it has been forgotten already”. Yet the fact he used a photo of little Alan to suit his own manipulative purposes is unacceptable.

Mr Erdogan did not necessarily have Syrians’ best interests at heart when he reminded those convened at the General Assembly of the victims of war. Instead, he was trying to bolster support for his own grand scheme in relocating up to three million Syrian refugees to a safe zone on the border with Turkey. The proposed zone would be 18 kilometres deep and nearly 500km long. His speech at UNGA was part of a pitch to corral millions in donations to fund the enterprise, including from Jordan and Lebanon, countries with stricken economies that are struggling to cope with the cost of supporting refugees within their own borders.

The Turkish president’s proposed safe zone is mostly inhabited by Kurds, with significant parts of the region under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of militant factions dominated by the People's Protection Units, or YPG.

However, Ankara considers the YPG to be an offshoot of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which has led an insurgency against the Turkish government for decades and is considered a terrorist organisation. In this, Ankara plans to kill two birds with one stone.

By creating a safe zone that it will oversee, it will not only deal with its Kurdish problem but offload the refugees it no longer wants within its own borders. Further, significantly changing the demographic make-up of the region could seriously alter the character and culture of the region, something the Kurds fear.

Since the onset of the civil war, the nation has become the world’s foremost place of refuge for displaced Syrians, with an estimated 3.6 million escaping to Turkey.

At first, the decision to take in refugees played to Mr Erdogan’s conservative base as it was done in the name of solidarity and compassion for fellow Muslims.

But Mr Erdogan has had no qualms about trading off his responsibility and using refugees as a bargaining chip for his own gain. In March 2016 the president struck a lucrative agreement with the EU and agreed to take in refugees who landed in Greece and impose tighter controls on its borders with Europe in exchange for aid worth Dh24 billion.

Among the concessions he won in return were smoother visa procedures for Turkish people going to Europe.

As the Turkish lira has plunged in value, the tide has now clearly turned and the compassion has dried up. And as his party’s popularity dips and anti-refugee sentiment rises, Mr Erdogan is once again playing to the crowd, using the suffering of Syrians to suit his own agenda.

The future and protection of Syrian refugees is a collective responsibility carried by the international community – not a problem to be disposed of when it no longer serves a purpose.

Updated: September 26, 2019 01:30 PM


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