400,000 Syrian Refugees in Turkey Cannot Be Ignored by the U.S.

The Turkish government is not very popular these days. Certainly not in the West. However, they are doing a great service by letting so many Syrian refugees into their country and the West needs to recognize that. Not only should they recognize the service that Turkey is doing, but they should help out with relief funding.

Around 400,000 refugees reside in Turkey alone. The camps that the Turkish government set up for them are some of the nicest, most amenable refugee camps the world has ever seen. Unfortunately, however, the Turkish government underestimated the length and intensity of the war in Syria and is now running out of resources to keep the flow of refugees moving. As a result, impromptu camps on the Syrian side of the border have cropped up. Turkey sends supplies and aid to these camps, but only drops them off at the border since they cannot enter the country.

A new face in the bloc of traditional international-aid donors (U.S., EU, UK, and Japan), Turkey's aid spending has increased 27-fold in recent years. Much of this has been dedicated to the Syrian refugee crisis. While Turkey has given $1 billion to the refugee problem, international aid has only amounted to $100 million.

Tragic as the situation might be, there is a golden opportunity for the international aid community here, specifically the U.S. Political progress can be made on Turkey's internal unrest, if the prospect of higher aid levels is shown to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The U.S. can propose that it will increase aid to Erdogan's government as long as the police refrain from cracking down on protesters, for example. Better yet, the U.S. can offer aid in return for liberalizing policies on the part of the Erdogan government. Naturally, Erdogan may not bite, but there's a negotiation to be had there.

For the U.S., it's hard to make the argument that funds are too limited, since we are about to send $1.3 billion in arms to an unstable Egypt. It's a matter of choices. While we don't know where these arms will ultimately end up — and they very well might end up in the hands of the enemy — we do know that aid to Syrian refugees will ease our relationship with Turkey and, as mentioned above, give us a bargaining chip with the Turkish government. It is better to do a clear moral good with aid money than to risk it all on weapons transfers.

For their part, the EU can also do more by accepting more Syrian refugees into their countries. At the moment, Germany and Sweden are taking two-thirds of the Syrian refugees in Europe. The UN high commissioner for refugees has urged more European countries to follow this example and open their borders to refugees from Syria.

As the war drags on beyond everyone's expectations, the refugee crisis will only become more severe and more embedded. If the West is unable to act directly in the war by coming out with support for the anti-Assad forces, it can certainly do more to help the people of Syria, in the refugee camps and in Europe.

Meanwhile, the number of refugees in Turkey only grows. Estimates now reach 1 million by the end of the year. In a seemingly never-ending crisis, it becomes all the more important to pitch in not only for the sake of Turkey but, more importantly, for the sake of the refugees themselves.

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Eric Tillberg

I graduated from Oberlin College in 2007 with degrees in Art History and Music Performance (double bass). Currently studying International Relations at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, I'm interested in Turkey and the Turkic world. I play Go at the KGS 6k level and am an avid fan of the board game Diplomacy.

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