A new refugee crisis has emerged in Europe with the start of a war in Ukraine. In a matter of four weeks, some 3.5 million Ukrainians have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.
As it contemplates how to handle this humanitarian crisis, Europe can turn to Turkey for some lessons. After all, Turkey has been handling refugee waves from the Middle East efficiently and humanely for many years, while most European nations were inflicting additional suffering on vulnerable victims of conflict with their “security-first” asylum policies.
Turkey has been the main destination for refugees escaping the Syrian conflict for more than 10 years now. We currently host about five million refugees from a number of countries, including four million Syrians. We have always treated refugees we are hosting with humanity and respect. Turkish people welcomed refugees with open arms and happily shared their bread with them for years. Unlike in Europe, where many politicians routinely resort to anti-immigration rhetoric for quick political gain, the Turkish leadership consistently resisted attempts by the domestic opposition to stoke anti-refugee sentiment in the country. The Turkish government refused to scapegoat refugees in the wake of terror attacks. Refugees, regardless of where they are from, found a true haven in Turkey.
How did Türkiye accomplish this feat? First, the Turkish government has always been transparent about why and how it welcomes refugees in the country. It has always clearly communicated to the public that war is never the fault of the civilians escaping it. The Turkish people, for example, have been aware of the dynamics of the conflict in neighbouring Syria from the very beginning. The government has always made an effort to make sure the public at large is aware of what is going on in Syria, and the threats civilians are facing there. In addition to an ongoing campaign to raise awareness, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has personally briefed the Turkish people on conditions in Syria.
Unlike many of their European counterparts, Turkey’s leaders did not allow far-right populism and anti-refugee activism to prosper in the country. The government has always known that the state and the public have to be on the same page for the creation of a successful refugee policy. So it made sure to engage non-governmental organisations when shaping its refugee policies. As a result, Turkish non-governmental organisations have confidently provided much-needed help to Syrian civilians both inside Turkey and across the border in Syria, significantly reducing the burden on the state.
Second, Turkey has never discriminated against refugees based on ethnicity, religion, or gender. People, for example, opened their arms to all Syrians trying to escape the war: Arabs escaping the brutal Assad regime, Kurds running away from ISIL (ISIS), and Turkomans persecuted and pushed out by the YPG, all found refuge in the country.
Turkey treated all victims of conflict the same, regardless of their ethnicities, their religious beliefs, or their backgrounds. It understood that picking and choosing refugees according to their religion or the colour of their skin would be morally reprehensible. It also realised that such a discriminatory asylum policy could trigger destructive waves of xenophobia and racism in any country. Today, sadly, some European nations are falling into this trap and welcoming refugees from the war in Ukraine based on their appearances. Cultural affinity with the victims of a major military conflict should never be the basis upon which to forge a refugee policy.
Third, the success of Turkey’s refugee policy – which allowed it to welcome millions of refugees, empower women, educate children and give all asylum seekers in the country a genuine opportunity to rebuild their lives – was a significant achievement considering the lack of proper international solidarity. Indeed, major refugee crises cannot be managed without international burden-sharing. Turkey has never found the strong support it needed from the international community during the refugee crisis triggered by Syria’s conflict, except when our European allies felt threatened by irregular migration waves. Even then, they saw it as a security, not a humanitarian issue, and they simply tried to make the problem go away by providing some limited resources to Turkey. This was no way to treat an ally – and it was no way to respond to a humanitarian tragedy that deeply destabilised an entire region.
What Turkey has accomplished on its own in the face of such a lack of support is extraordinary and it cannot be expected from all countries. The international community should not repeat its past mistake and abandon the countries neighbouring Ukraine, which are currently hosting most of the refugees from the conflict, the way Europe abandoned Turkey during the Syrian refugee crisis.
Fourth, Turkey always knew the ultimate resolution to any refugee crisis comes from ending its root cause: wars, military operations, conflicts. Without seriously confronting the main driver of the refugee inflows, we cannot expect to manage the humanitarian crises effectively. This is why in the face of a refugee crisis we should all seek conflict resolution opportunities, recognising that such issues can only be addressed through creative political solutions, not military ones.
The West is now trying to increase the costs of its actions in Ukraine for Russia, but it should not lose sight of the need to find a diplomatic solution for the sake of millions of innocent civilians. The West should not make the mistake of treating Ukraine only as a geopolitical chessboard to counter Russia. The entire international community should push hard for diplomacy to end the conflict as soon as possible, not only for the sake of Ukrainians but also to maintain regional and global economic dynamics.
Turkey has stated its position clearly about Ukraine’s territorial integrity and political independence. At the same time, we must not lose sight of the emerging humanitarian crisis. The West must multitask by simultaneously contributing to the resolution of the conflict and addressing the plight of the Ukrainian refugees.
Turkey’s experience with the humanitarian consequences of the Syrian conflict is deeply relevant to anyone concerned with the consequences of what is happening in Ukraine. The West should not make the same mistakes it did during the Syrian crisis. It should now opt for a humanitarian refugee policy instead of choosing the easy option of a securitised approach. It is high time for Europe to create an atmosphere where all refugees are welcome regardless of their background. This should be coupled with a serious and ongoing commitment to diplomacy to end the conflict as soon as possible. The alternative would be the deepening of racism, xenophobia and discrimination without a roadmap to peace. Turkey is ready to share its experience and work towards the goals of both meeting the humanitarian challenge and ending the war.