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Mystery surrounds Turkey’s $40 billion refugee bill

Turkey says it has spent $40 billion on Syrian refugees, but figures available in official records don't add up.

When Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring into northeastern Syria on Oct. 9, one of the objectives cited was the creation of a safe zone to accommodate a good part of the nearly 3.7 million Syrian refugees the country hosts. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly asserted that the refugees have cost Ankara $40 billion and slammed Western countries for allegedly contributing next to nothing. Did Turkey really spend $40 billion on Syrian refugees? Are the Syrians living off of assistance or working under harsh conditions to earn a living?

The alleged $40 billion is not clearly identifiable in official records. Certain expenditures have been officially cited over the years, but the total is nowhere close to $40 billion. Even the Court of Accounts, the country’s top public auditor, has flagged ambiguities in spending and documentation.

After the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, Turkey adopted an “open-door policy” toward Syrians fleeing the conflict, granting them “temporary protection” status. It offered them various forms of assistance and helped coordinate international aid. According to the Interior Ministry, 3,667,000 Syrians were registered as individuals under temporary protection as of September, while some 360,000 refugees had returned home.

At an international gathering in February, Erdogan said Turkey had spent more than $37 billion of its own national resources on the refugees. By October, the figure had grown to $40 billion. The day after launching Operation Peace Spring, Erdogan threatened to unleash millions of refugees on Europe if the European Union labeled the operation an “invasion.” He charged that the EU had failed to deliver the “money it had promised” for supporting the refugees in Turkey. He added, “We have spent $40 billion so far. We could continue to spend, but we could also open the gates.” 

How Erdogan arrived at $40 billion remains a mystery. Figures available in budgets and annual programs simply do not match that sum. The opposition parties claim that the amount of assistance extended to the refugees is exaggerated, with most Syrians providing for themselves, working as cheap labor. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party, was questioning the figures even two years ago, when officials put the refugee bill at $30 billion. “We still don’t know how the money was spent,” he said. “Even a grocer would keep books on revenues and expenses. But here no one knows.”

The problem of accounting has been highlighted in reports by the Court of Accounts. In 2016 after auditing the Disaster and Emergency Management Agency, which is heavily involved in the refugee effort, the court noted the lack of proper accounting of how “cash donations collected in campaigns as part of national and international humanitarian assistance” had been spent. The report called for “setting up an accounting system to provide the necessary information on national and international humanitarian aid spending to administrative and auditing authorities and the public.” 

What do official documents say about the money spent on Syrian refugees? According to the 2019 Annual Program issued by the president's office, “The amount of Turkey’s humanitarian aid qualifying as official development assistance rose to $7.3 billion in 2017 from $5.9 billion in 2016. The humanitarian assistance for Syrians in our country, meanwhile, totaled $7.2 billion in 2017.”

A 2017 report by the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, meanwhile, indicates that Turkey’s official development assistance reached about $21 million for the period 2013-17, with Syrians being the primary beneficiary. Assuming that as much as 80% of that money was spent on Syrians, the average spending per year would be some $3.4 billion, totaling about $17 billion for the five years. Assuming that similar amounts were spent in 2018 and 2019, the sum for the seven years from 2013 to 2019 would total slightly less than $24 billion, some $16 billion short of the $40 billion claim.

The EU, meanwhile, had pledged 3 billion euros ($3.35 billion) for 2016 and 2017 to support humanitarian aid, education, health care and labor programs for Syrian refugees in Turkey. The money was tied to contracts for 72 projects, and eventually 1.94 billion euros ($2.2 billion) were transferred to the accounts of implementing agencies. For 2018 and 2019, the EU committed 450 million euros ($501.9 million) to five contracted projects. 

According to official figures, only about 145,000 of the nearly 3.7 million Syrians in Turkey remain in refugee camps. The overwhelming majority have scattered across the country, struggling to earn a living. 

In other words, the Syrians are living less on assistance and relying more on their own labor, including as employers. According to Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan’s response to a written parliamentary question, as of late February, 15,159 companies had at least one Syrian partner. The companies were mostly in Istanbul, nearby Bursa, the Mediterranean port city of Mersin and the border provinces of Gaziantep and Hatay. They deal mostly in wholesale and retail trade.

Pekcan cited official figures indicating that companies set up by Syrians employ some 10,000 Syrian workers. She added that 31,185 Syrians had work permits as of March 31, representing nearly a third of all foreigners with work permits in the country. In comparison, the figure dwarfs the number of Syrians working illegally for meager wages, which is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.

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