The invisible victims of the Turkey-EU spat

As ties between the EU and Turkey faltered, so did the allocation of funds for Syrian refugees. In any case, the ESSN and other EU or international schemes to aid the Syrian refugees in Turkey should not be downplayed. They act as the life support these deprived and war-weary communities.

The European Union and Turkey have spent the entire year of 2020 engaging in arguments and conflicts. During that time, the threat of EU sanctions hung over Ankara. The EU Commission Summit that was held on 10-11 of December was largely seen as a determinant moment with regards to the prospect of sanctions.

Still, at the end of the year, Turkey and the EU brokered their single most important agreement in the most silent of ways. The final batch of the 6 billion-euro budget of the European Union Commission’s Facility for Refugees in Turkey (i.e. the Syrians) was signed off.

The final contracts are worth 780 million euros and will be spent on projects covering areas including health care, training, employment and business development as well as municipal infrastructures.

The Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, declared that “the signature of the last eight contracts confirms the EU’s deliveries on its pledges.”

In fact, Várhelyi’s statement as he announced the releasing of the funds was rather cheerful:

“This is an extraordinary achievement. I want to commend the Turkish authorities for their cooperation in this joint effort, especially in the areas of health and education. The European Union will continue to stand by refugees and host communities in Turkey.”

But will the EU really continue to stand by “refugees and host communities in Turkey”?

In July 2020, there was quite a bit of debate in the European Parliament over the allocation of 485 million euros to top the 6 billion euros dedicated to the Facility of Refugees in Turkey.

Let us carefully examine this funding programme.

- The Facility for Refugees in Turkey combines 3 billion euros from the European Union budget as well as €3 billion of EU Member States contributions, totalling 6 billion euros.

- The Facility for Refugees is in effect since 2016, and the first batch of 3 billion euros was allocated in 2016-2017. Subsequently, in 2018 and 2019, the second tranche of around 2 billion euros was used up until the end of 2020. The remainder is out now.

- A total of €98 million of extra support will be allocated to the most vulnerable refugees, as a response to the Coronavirus crisis in Turkey.

- However, as the EU’s 2021-2027 budget was debated, there was no allocation for Syrian refugees in Turkey. That’s why the July debate was held in the EU parliament and it was determined that half a billion euros would be dedicated to continue the support of Syrians in Turkey.

The aforementioned 780 million euro contracts were made within the framework of the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) - which was previously agreed on. As a reminder, this is the humanitarian program that has supported almost 2 million Syrian refugees residing in Turkey since 2015.

To be more accurate, the ESSN mostly provides financial assistance and educational support to the most vulnerable Syrian refugees living in Turkey for them to meet their basic needs. Currently, the vulnerable Syrian families in Turkey receive 120 Turkish lira (around 13 Euros) per month, per family member for covering their essential needs (food, medicine, bills, transport, housing). Families in further need, such as those in requiring specializing care can ask for further top ups. The ESSN provides the cash assistance through a debit card.

The ESSN card can be used in shops, just like a normal debit card. But it is not just a cash card. The gist behind the program (according to the EU), is to have Syrian refugees manage their own lives by participating in the local economy and intermingle with local community.

While it looks good in theory, those who deal with the grass-root perceptions of Turkey’s population on a daily basis like I do know that it does not work like this in practice. The level of hatred towards the Syrians in Turkey is shocking, and clearly just “mingling with the local community through shopping” won’t do much to address that.

In any case, the ESSN and other EU or international schemes to aid the Syrian refugees in Turkey should not be downplayed. They act as the life support these deprived and war-weary communities.

Alongside the ESSN, there is the Conditional Cash Transfers for Education program (CCTE): the largest EU-funded humanitarian education program, providing financial support to families whose children attend school regularly. Around 700,000 Syrian children will be supported in 2021 through this program. In 2020, there were around 620,000 Syrian children pursuing education through the CCTE. The ESSN scheme also targets building of 365 schools specifically for the Syrian refugee children.

Much more could have been done, in much better ways for the refugees, should Turkey and the EU cooperate. As their ties faltered, so did the allocation of funds. The year 2019-2020 saw the funds provided within the scheme of the Facility for Refugees go down. The 2021-2022 period will be covered with the remainder lump sum, plus whatever was agreed on at the EU Parliament in July 2020.

What about beyond 2022?

What is more, will the sums determined by the EU suffice to cover the needs of the refugees that live in Turkey?

As of now, no one can answer this question.

September 29, 2021 A post-Merkel Turkey