EU’s debit card scheme some relief for the Syrian refugees stuck in Turkey

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan criticized the European Union on Monday, saying the bloc had failed to fulfill its pledge to provide 3 billion euros of aid for migrants as part of a landmark deal to stem refugee flows to Europe.

“The year is coming to a close,” Erdogan said at a science and technology conference in Ankara. “They promise but do not deliver,” he said.

This is not the first time of Erdoğan’s bashing of the EU, nor will it be the last. While keeping Brussels on edge, Turkish president is well aware how statements like this makes his image stronger at home by every that that passes.

But, below the surface, some developments keep up the hope – for those struck by the war.

If there is any passage left between crisis-stricken Turkey and a seemingly rudderless European Union these days, it goes through the fragile refugees-in-exchange-for-visa-freedom deal that both sides are keen on keeping alive.

Against the backdrop of a grow­ing exchange of harsh words over the mutually failed promises that taint the accession process, com­mon ground remains over finding solutions, however palliative they may look, for Syrian refugees on Turkish soil.

One significant recent initiative in favour of millions of people who fled the war in Syria marks a threshold. EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides, during a late September visit to Ankara, said that a $390.5 million aid project would be used to pro­vide refugees living outside camps debit cards to buy food.

The project, called the Emergen­cy Social Safety Net (ESSN), means that each of a million refugees will be able to spend about $34 per month for food, housing, clothing and education, using those cards also for withdrawal of money from automated-teller machines.

Described as the biggest and largest humanitarian project the European Union has ever support­ed, ESSN is part of a $3.36 billion fund approved by the union to help Turkey improve living condi­tions of the refugees.

Another $3.36 billion is to be sent to Turkey if the first tranche is used efficiently and benchmarks are met. (The European Union also signed a grant worth a total of $6.73 billion to be divided in half and used for education and health issues concerning the refugees.)


Of the 5 million people forced to flee Syria, about 3 million are in Turkey, which makes it the coun­try hosting the largest number of refugees in the world. The burden has been high and increasing as social structures in border prov­inces become severely strained, although the influx has so far not caused significant resentment or violence from the local popula­tion.

There is concern that there may be a new exodus of civilians from the Aleppo area, where battles and air strikes have left 2 million people, according to the United Nations, without water.

Most of them will probably seek a way into Turkish territory.

For the European Union, the ap­proach remains the same. Instead of acting more resolutely to deal with the main source of the prob­lem — the war in Syria — its scope is as narrow as before. While seeking to stem the flow of refugees onto European soil, it seems unable to persuade some of its member countries in the union’s centre and eastern flank.

While Greece and Italy are expected to take in 160,000 refu­gees, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic flatly refuse to get involved, exposing Islamophobia and defying foundational values of the very European Union they joined.

And, to the contempt of many humanitarian agencies, they get away with it.

One silver lining in the deal, however limited, is that the flow of refugees across the Aegean has slowed significantly. On average, 85 people arrived in Greece every day since June in comparison to more than 1,700 a day in March, a month before the deal was signed.

Yet, the larger issue remains a challenge between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the European Union. Erdogan, unsatisfied with the $6.73 billion grant, gave the European Union an ultimatum that it should agree to waive visa requirements for Turk­ish citizens by the end of October.

The European Union, citing par­ticularly Turkey’s anti-terror law, says some criteria for doing so have not been met by Ankara and it will have to wait. In return, Erdogan’s salvo is to threaten to suspend the readmission agreement. Tensions remain high and the European Union keeps blinking.

Feelings are mixed, nevertheless. While the European Union fears a massive exodus into Europe, not by Syrian refugees, but Turkish cit­izens who are disgruntled with the growing oppression in the country, Erdogan knows how to play his cards. His half-sealing the borders to Turkish citizens by cancellation of passports has not caused any protests from the European Union, which otherwise should have been sensitive regarding travelling as a constitutional right.

Erdogan knows also that Berlin, Paris and London would show some selfish sympathy for his idea to establish a safe zone for refu­gees in Syrian territory. All this, of course, is part and parcel of today’s realpolitik.

And, given the circumstances, one should nod humbly if a Syrian refugee feels thankful for about $34 per month.

About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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