Turkey's Deal With the EU Could Destroy its Flourishing Refugee Community

17/02/2016_Syrian Band
Syrian and Iranian street musicians perform in central Istanbul, Turkey, February 17. The influx of refugees has added a new creative spirit to Turkish life. Murad Sezer/Reuters

Turkey hosts the world's largest Syrian refugee community, more than 2.7 million at last count. There are about three Syrian refugees in Turkey for every one hundred Turkish citizens.

This is unprecedented, and it is already changing Turkish society. In Istanbul's public squares, shopping streets and central neighborhoods, Syrian refugees are a common sight and they have been transforming the city's outlook in exciting ways. There are new bookstores devoted to selling Arabic books; new documentaries produced by Syria's creative community in Istanbul have become part of our own creative spirit. In Kilis, and cities near the Syrian border, Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), which is responsible for refugee camps, has been doing an admirable job, looking after the most vulnerable victims of the war in Syria. Support and admiration for such institutions are almost universal in the country.

This week’s prospective deal between Turkey and the EU risks undermining that atmosphere. To Syrians who have chosen to live in Turkey while the civil war in Syria destroys their neighborhoods, we have been playing the role of the benevolent host for the past two years.  If a final agreement is reached at this week's summit, refugees trafficked to a Greek island will be returned to Turkey and for every returnee to Turkey the EU will accept another Syrian into its borders—a so-called “one in, one out” principle. It is unlikely the refugees sent back to Turkey will enjoy the country’s new role as prison.

The change in Turkey's role from benevolent host to bringer back of those who had risked their lives to make it to Europe risks unsettling the Syrian refugee community here, which is likely to be a feature of Turkish life for some time to come.

In Turkey, the Middle East was once seen as a “swamp” that people should do their best to keep away from. But during the Syrian crisis, the arrival of Syrians from different walks of life—artists, journalists, activists—helped people in Turkey to realize their historic ties to the country.

Those ties go back half a millennium: In 1516, Syria fell to Ottoman Turks who ruled it through pashas. The administrative system in Ottoman Syria depended on local pashas to collect taxes and maintain order; in return they were left alone by the Sublime Porte, the Ottoman administrative center in Istanbul. Damascus became the entrepôt for Mecca and was considered a holy place, visited by pilgrims performing hajj.

On March 10, five immigrants died in a boat in the Ayvacik district of Çanakkale while trying to reach the Greek islands. One of the dead was a 3-month-old baby. If the new deal will be able to stop such deaths then that will probably be its one admirable outcome. But we must consider the dangers in the long term of unsettling the relationship between Turkey’s citizens and Syrian refugees.

Kaya Genc is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul.

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