The violence in Syria, which has stretched now for nearly a decade, is reaching a crescendo with the Assad regime’s latest assault on the Idlib province in northern Syria. Millions of Syrians are once again forced to flee violence in the last major region outside the control of the brutal regime. Turkey is, again, shouldering an enormous responsibility in assisting the vast majority of those displaced seeking safety from the latest round of violence. Turkey is already home to over 3.6 million Syrian refugees who have fled the bullets and barrel bombs of an unjust war.
Europe is also a party to the Syrian refugee challenge and should do more to share that responsibility; beyond promising financial contributions that never seem to materialise. Indeed, talks are ongoing to renew the 2016 EU-Turkey Refugee Agreement through which Turkey agreed to stem the flow of migrants to Greece in exchange for funding.
Given this stalemate, a new approach is needed. European countries could pursue a track focused on mutual economic benefits, creating attractive trade incentive programs in exchange for Turkey continuing its difficult task. Direct aid is helpful, but perhaps the most sustainable and realistic approach is for Europe to set a new higher mutual trade volume. This policy could follow the example of the recent agreement between Ankara and Washington to increase their trade volume despite differences.
The Turkish government has permitted refugees to work and has treated refugees far better than many other European countries. It provides healthcare and education to migrant children and adults, including lessons in the Turkish language, integrating them into society and the economy rather than relegating them to camps or the streets, as is seen elsewhere. I have spent several long stints in Turkey since 2011 and have seen some of these integration efforts first-hand.
But providing welfare for millions of refugees creates economic strains and tensions, and now Turkey’s facing the prospect of adding hundreds of thousands – or possibly millions – more to existing numbers if the Syrian conflict continues to grind on well into this decade.
If the international community expects one country to absorb this responsibility and cost on its own, it needs to make meaningful contributions to ensure refugees are afforded adequate support and that the Turkish people and their economy continues to thrive.
Increasing trade with Turkey will organically support the economy by facilitating market access for Turkish businesses and farmers, while simultaneously providing cash stimulus to the system. This will build a robust economy for more people, including the refugee population, creating more significant opportunities to build livelihoods through jobs, housing and education.
While the recent US-Turkish Agreement was not connected to the refugee crisis, the strict pragmatism of the US-Turkey trade target may perhaps offer a new model for EU-Turkish relations in light of the most recent crisis. President Erdogan and President Trump committed to quadrupling trade between their two countries to $100 billion (€92.2 billion).
Turkish industries, from textiles and jewellery to white goods and construction materials, are increasingly globally competitive. Meanwhile, Turkey is keen to acquire high-tech products from the United States. Furthermore, there are growing calls in Turkey for the boycotting of China - and Turkish consumers may well listen. China’s treatment of its Muslim minority, many of whom are from Turkic ethnic groups (like the Uyghurs), has received much attention in Turkey. Around a million Uyghurs are currently being held in detention camps across China.
Turkey has shown geopolitical leadership in the issue of Syrian refugees since its 2016 decision to host the vast majority of Syrian refugees. Ankara has absorbed the economic and political cost for Europe. With a new wave of refugees now needing urgent help, it behoves Europe and the rest of the international community to recall that this is a global problem, not a Turkish problem.
Trade, not just aid, may offer the best long-term solution.
- Joseph Hammond is a journalist who has reported extensively from Africa, Eurasia and the Middle East, as well as former Fulbright public policy fellow.
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