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Why Turkey is closing down Syrian refugee camps

The Turkish government has been systematically closing down Syrian refugee camps, citing high costs and integration problems, but are those the real reasons?
The Elbeyli refugee camp is seen near the Turkish-Syrian border in Kilis province, Turkey, December 1, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas - RC15C4A7DDA0

Since late 2018, Turkey has been closing down its refugee camps built for Syrians escaping the war-torn country. The Turkish government cites the high costs of the camps and the integration problems of Syrians to justify its decision. However, according to experts and human right activists, the real reason is different.

Turkey has closed six refugee camps in Gaziantep, Adiyaman and Kilis. Syrian refugees compelled to leave the camps have two choices: go to bigger cities in Turkey, or return to Syria.

Opened in 2015, Turkey's largest camp, located in Suruc, with some 35,000 inhabitants, will be closed June 23. Some 28,000 refugees have left the camp since the beginning of April. 

Ankara says it can no longer afford the high costs of the camps and that refugees, living isolated in the camps, face difficulties integrating into Turkish social life. 

According to the Ministry of Interior, over 3.6 million Syrians are registered as being under temporary protection in Turkey as of May 2019. Over 1.6 million are in the 18 and under age group, and over 1 million of those are under the age of 10, meaning that 27% of Syrians in Turkey are under the age of 10. Syrians aged 15-24 years total just over 800,000. In short, children and young Syrians constitute 52% of the Syrians in Turkey. 

In 2018, the average age of Syrians in Turkey was 22.5 while Turkey’s average age was 31.7, meaning that Syrian refugees as a whole are much younger than Turks. According to official figures, as of May 2019 only 4% of Syrians live in the camps and 96% live in cities.

Syrian refugees are currently only registered in the provinces of Hatay, Adana, Canakkale, Diyarbakir, Elazig, Gaziantep, Kayseri, Kocaeli, Mardin, Tekirdag, Sanliurfa and Kilis. New refugee registrations are not allowed in other areas, with the exception of serious health conditions and births. Syrians live in all of Turkey's 81 provinces.

According to Omar Kadkoy, a policy analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), the decision to close down the camps has less to do with the government’s integration policy and more with contextualizing Syrians’ repatriation.

“The decision also stems from the associated costs of running camps," Kadkoy, who is Syrian himself, told Al-Monitor. "Refugee encampment in Turkey means full governmental accommodation, which is a difficult situation to sustain, especially with the ongoing economic limbo.”

He continued, “Thus, Syrians are left with three options: become urban dwellers and receive financial aid for rent, which is ambiguous in terms of sustainability; relocate temporarily to another camp and wait for its turn to be closed; or return to Syria. The fact remains that refugees living in camps are among the most vulnerable.”

He added that “Ankara’s decision could subject them to either ill-supported self-reliance should they decide to settle in cities, or premature repatriation and risk the unknown.”

The process will continue in the coming months until the very last camp is shut down. Of the 21 camps hosting some 292,000 Syrians, there are only 13 camps left accommodating some 117,000 Syrians. There is, however, uncertainty concerning the destination preferences of those who leave the camps.

“The government already cites ‘better allocation of funds’ as the reason behind shutting down the camps," Kadkoy said. "Therefore, there is an opportunity to allot funds to support local integration by building the capacity of municipalities. This should also be accompanied with supporting harmonization measures in cooperation with NGOs to provide language and vocational skills courses to facilitate the integration into the labor market, and support school-aged children with the right to continue their education. In doing so, the government would contribute to elevating social cohesion as local perceptions of Syrians have been badly deteriorating.”

The reason behind the government's decision to close the camps seems to be repatriation. Yet this means abiding by the principle of non-refoulement, which, according to the United Nations, means that no state shall expel a refugee to a country where "his life or freedom would be threatened."

The decision also requires ensuring the voluntary aspect of return. “This is usually done through the involvement of a third party, namely UN agencies," Kadkoy said. "The relative agencies’ involvement should first and foremost include informing Syrians about the situation in the area back home to which they want to return. If the decision would be to repatriate, then the agencies should offer those who so decide with the necessary support to make a decent restart.”

The stipends given to refugees upon leaving the Turkish camps are totally inadequate to survive in the towns — $50 per month as rental assistance and $17 per month as allowance. Bearing in mind that 52% of Syrian refugees are younger than 25, Ankara’s refugee saga has a long way to go.

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