The international community has failed Syrians

Turkish president is weaponising refugees amid global apathy

A truck loaded with furniture and other items drives carrying fleeing people away from Maaret al-Numan in Syria's northwestern Idlib province on December 24, 2019 as government forces advance. Syrian government forces on December 24 were less than four kilometres (two miles) from the strategic city of Maaret al-Numan, the head of the Britain-based monitor, Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP. Fearing further advances, thousands of Maaret al-Numan's residents have fled.  / AFP / Omar HAJ KADOUR
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Once again, thousands of Syrian refugees are being forced to flee their homeland in the direction of Turkey, as Idlib endures a renewed bombing campaign . Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that his country cannot shoulder the “migrant burden” alone and has threatened that the crisis will soon affect the European Union. He also accused Brussels of failing to deliver the six billion euros promised to Ankara in exchange for preventing Syrians from crossing into the continent.

This dehumanising rhetoric highlights not only Turkey’s rising xenophobia but also the international community’s failure to protect civilians seeking refuge.

In Syria's north-western province of Idlib, the regime has relentlessly bombarded a mostly civilian population since April amid international indifference, forcing close to half a million people to flee for their lives, with nearly 120,000 of them heading to Turkey.

While the EU has failed many of those seeking a better life on its soil, Ankara also has its fair share of responsibility in Syria’s current crisis. In fact, Mr Erdogan has increasingly involved his country in the war, triggering the killing and displacement of thousands.

In October, Turkey launched an offensive into north-eastern Syria to weed out the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of armed groups led by the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, which dominate the region and that Ankara considers to be a terrorist organisation. Turkey's stated goal has been to create a so-called safe zone in that area where it can send back some of its 3.7 million Syrian refugees.

Mr Erdogan has gone so far as to say that one million Syrians could be returned to their homeland in “a very short period of time”. But the humanitarian cost will be high. Syria is far from being a safe haven, especially in the so-called safe zone. The area is now held by Turkish forces and their proxy, the Syrian National Army - formerly known as the Free Syrian Army - which has certain elements that have not hesitated to torture and kill civilians in addition to looting their houses. More than 200,000 people had to flee from the violence, according to the UN.

Turkey had initially welcomed refugees in the name of Muslim solidarity but Mr Erdogan is now planning to send millions back to their war-torn country in a bid to boost his popularity at home at a time when xenophobia is on the rise.

Mr Erdogan is right about one thing: the international community's response to the Syrian crisis has been underwhelming

By pushing the EU for months to accept his plan to create the safe zone, the Turkish president has proved to the world that Syrian lives are nothing more to him than bargaining chips; an efficient scare-crow that he can wave at the EU to achieve his aims. Europe has become increasingly prone to xenophobia with the rise of right-wing politicians and, as a result, avoided welcoming foreigners to its territory at all costs - even when their lives are at stake.

However, Mr Erdogan is right about one thing: the international community’s response to the Syrian crisis has been underwhelming. Last week, for instance, the United Nations organised its first Global Refugee Forum in Geneva, a conference that could have empowered refugees and served as a platform to find solutions to their plight. Instead, world leaders chose to use refugees as political pawns. Mr Erdogan was among the attendees and took the opportunity to pressure the EU into supporting his safe zone plan. Other attendees included Lebanese caretaker foreign minister Gebran Bassil, a man who advocates for the forced return of Syrians from his country to their homeland en masse.

The international community can and must do better to help Syrian refugees. This includes sending more aid to host countries, especially Jordan and Lebanon, two nations with fragile economies. Meanwhile, the EU must adopt a more humane approach to the issue. Closing borders and cutting deals with irresponsible leaders such as Mr Erdogan has only made the EU prone to blackmail by Ankara and encouraged world leaders to use those fleeing war and economic misery as bargaining chips - rather than treating them as human beings with basic human rights.