The refugee problem: Turkey and beyond


Wars, civil wars, droughts and poverty often cause great mass migrations. At the end of the World War I, Turkey received great waves of refugees from the lost lands of the disintegrated Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, Caucasus and Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Hundreds of Turkish and Muslim communities, thousands of soldiers and civil servants, who survived their hazardous journey, succeeded in reaching Istanbul or other provinces at the heart of Anatolia.

As Romanian-origin Turkish historian Kemal Karpat aptly describes, the national identity of the newly emerged Turkish nation-state was formed under the influence of not only the Islamic ideology of Sultan Abdülhamid II but also these mass waves of migration.

The massacres and atrocities committed in the former lands of the Ottoman Empire are too numerous to describe in this column. It is estimated that only in the Balkans, nearly 1 million Muslims lost their lives during their migration to Istanbul. While Bulgarian gangs murdered thousands of Muslims in the Balkans, captive Ottoman soldiers in Egypt were tortured by the British army. There are numerous heartbreaking memories in this story of retreat and returning to the motherland.

After the persecution and exile of the Jews and the eventual Holocaust during World War II, the newly-established United Nations began to handle the refugee crisis by enunciating the international rights of refugees. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created in 1951 to address the refugee crisis. Due to the horrible memories of the Holocaust, the countries of the European Union respect and protect the rights of refugees. As western European countries began to accept refugees from their former colonies, these people have become the new “other” of Europe. Regarding the recent waves of refugees coming from Syria and Africa, however, most of these countries did not adopt a dignified and tolerant attitude toward refugees.

With the eruption of Arab rebellions, Syria was first dragged into a civil war and then turned into a battlefield of regional and global competition for power. As the civil war proved to be an enduring conflict, tens of thousands of Arabs, Kurds and Turks migrated to Turkey. Today it is estimated that 3.5 million Syrian refugees live in Turkey.

During Turgut Özal’s presidency in 1989, 360,000 Turks migrated from Bulgaria to Turkey due to the persecution of Turks under the rule of Todor Zhivkov in Bulgaria. During the Gulf War in 1990, tens of thousands of Kurds migrated to Turkey to escape from the massacres of Iraq’s toppled late leader Saddam Hussein.

Until recently, Turkey had not been the main target of immigration waves. Refugees mainly used Turkey as a transit route to Europe. As the regional conjecture turned upside down with the eruption of the Arab rebellions, Turkey has become one of the main sanctuaries for Syrian refugees.

What not to do?

Even though the Turkish government succeeded in managing this massive refugee wave, Syrian refugees constitute one of the main problems in Turkey. However, it is crucial to handle this problem by respecting the rights of refugees. As some of the opposition parties lean toward adopting racist, xenophobic and provocative discourses toward refugees, the government has to enunciate its solutions to the public by conducting strong public diplomacy. I believe that Turkey will succeed in resolving this delicate refugee problem by cooperating with the U.N. and United States.

Provoking the Turkish people via racist and xenophobic discourses will only harm the unity and integrity of the country. We have to resolve the refugee problem by adopting a prudent political attitude and respecting the rights of refugees.

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