ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Europe does not fully grasp the magnitude of Syria’s refugee crisis and should open its borders to shoulder a responsibility Turkey has been bearing alone, the head of the Turkish relief effort said.
The NATO member state, situated between Europe and the Middle East, has won international praise for taking in 2 million refugees. But it has warned it is reaching capacity, and thousands are now making the perilous journey by boat from Turkey to Greece in a bid to enter Europe.
“Turkey has been left alone as if this is its own problem. This is not a problem Turkey created nor one it can end,” Fuat Oktay, director of Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (AFAD), told Reuters in an interview.
“It is a humanitarian tragedy, and if the EU were to stand with Turkey it would directly serve its own interests.”
Ankara has spent $6 billion caring for refugees since the Syrian civil war began in March 2011, compared with $418 million in aid received from all other countries including the European Union, Oktay said.
Cash-strapped Greece, already crippled by economic crisis, has been struggling to cope with the influx of migrants, many of whom cross the narrow stretch of water from the Turkish mainland to Greek islands in inflatable boats to seek refuge in the EU.
With conditions becoming increasingly chaotic, the Greek government chartered a car ferry which picked up more than 2,400 Syrian refugees from the islands of Kos, Leros, Kalymnos and Lesbos and carried them to the Greek mainland on Thursday.
Greece has also warned it cannot cope with the burden alone, appealing to its EU partners to come up with a comprehensive strategy as 21,000 refugees landed on Greek shores last week alone.
“An open-door policy will help Europe to grasp the magnitude of the problem and encourage it move towards resolving the root causes of the conflict (in Syria),” Oktay said, pointing to Turkey’s policy of allowing migrants in on humanitarian grounds.
“To keep your door open doesn’t require a physical border, though the Mediterranean means Europe does in fact share one.”
For its part, Turkey is considering new legal frameworks to allow for employment to help long-term refugees adapt better to life here, Oktay said, a step which could help reduce the numbers of those seeking to travel on to Europe.
Turkey’s leaders have long pushed for a no-fly zone in northern Syria to keep Islamic State and Kurdish militants away from its border and to create a safe haven for displaced civilians who would otherwise cross to Turkey. But they have found little support from allies including the United States.
Ankara and Washington are working on proposals to give air cover to Syrian rebels in a strip of land along the border, but that falls well short of what Turkey wants and the United Nations has warned against calling it a “safe zone” unless the protection of civilians can be guaranteed.
AFAD runs two dozen camps at the border that U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and foreign governments have lauded as exemplars for managing humanitarian crises. Oktay said a safe zone backed by coalition forces would help relieve the pressure.
“A safe zone would be an important form of insurance for Europe too. Turkey has been left on its own to meet the needs of more than 2 million people,” he said.
As much as a third of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million is internally displaced, according to the United Nations, and aid groups have warned such a zone, surrounded by warring factions, would prove difficult to protect.
Even the discussion of such a proposal has frightened some refugees, who fear they may come under pressure to return, and may have contributed to the recent exodus, aid workers say.
“People I’ve spoken with say rumours are making the rounds, like ‘Refugees will be sent back,’ and this can be seen as a factor in the escape to the West,” said Metin Corabatir, director of the Research Center on Asylum and Migration.
Editing by Nick Tattersall and Giles Elgood