Officials say the June deadline to allow Turks visa-free travel within the EU is unrealistic. Many Turks are more concerned about integrating Syrian refugees than packing for Europe, Seda Serdar reports from Gaziantep.
On Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans will pay a one-day visit to the city of Gaziantep, where they will meet with the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. The goal of this visit is to see the developments on the ground following the EU-Turkey deal signed March 18, which allows the European Union to send back rejected asylum applicants in exchange for preapproved Syrian refugees.
Visa liberalization is likely to be one of the most important issues during the meeting. Nail Alkan, a member of the international relations department at Gazi University in Ankara, is convinced that Turkey will not be able to meet the June deadline to fulfill the 72 requirements for Turks to be able to travel within the Schengen zone visa-free. "This is a fact," Alkan said. "It's impossible for Turkey to meet all the criteria by the end of June. Then what will happen? Well, Turkey has a bargaining chip: They are saying, 'If our 80 million citizens cannot travel to Europe visa-free, the deal is off.' Europe is very worried about this. That is why Merkel is coming to Turkey this Saturday." Alkan believes that someone needs to break the news to Turkish citizens that this will take time, especially because Turkey cannot produce biometric passports and Europe will not allow a visa-free entry with those currently issued.
This is one of the problems that need to be tackled on Saturday. However, on the ground in Gaziantep, there are more pressing issues. Activists, artists and aid workers say they have witnessed newly arrived Syrian refugees experiencing great difficulties.
'This is unethical'
Kemal Vural Tarlan, a documentary filmmaker and photographer from Gaziantep who has followed the mass displacement in Syria, thinks it was a mistake for the European Union and Turkey to strike a bargain on refugees. Tarlan said leaders needed to focus more on discussions about how to end the civil war in Syria. "It's simply wrong to talk about how do we keep these people away and how can we stop them from coming to our country," Tarlan said. "This is unethical. If these people have no prospects in Turkey, they will somehow manage to go to Europe."
Tarlan works with Syrian artists and said refugees had changed their outlook since the war began in March 2011. "First of all, they have come to terms with the land they live in," Tarlan said. "Second, they no longer believe in the Free Syrian Army and that they can build a new Syria. So the Syria dream is slowly disappearing. The images of their hometowns, where they used to live, are disappearing in their minds because five years is a long time."
Though some refugees have begun to feel more of a sense of belonging, they are far from being integrated into Turkish society. Women and children are especially at a disadvantage. Tugce Atak, the office manager for the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM) in Gaziantep, is one of the people who witness this on a daily basis. ASAM provides education and support to refugees on a case-by-case basis. Last month, 10,000 people sought help from ASAM's 50-member team.
Atak said most people came looking for financial aid, but ASAM could only offer money in very limited amounts. Some refugees come for language or arts education and others for psychological support. "One woman applied to us months ago because of domestic violence," Atak said. "We supported her via a psychologist because she didn't want to leave her husband. But over the months the situation got worse and she decided to leave him with her children and we were able to put her in a shelter. However, this is only a temporary solution. After six months, these women are on their own again."
There are 3.1 million registered refugees in Turkey, and only 280,000 of them live in camps. The deal with the European Union has so far worked to reduce the number of unauthorized migrants transiting Turkey en route to the EU, but those familiar with the issue say that unless Syrian refugees are integrated, they will most likely find ways to go to Europe in the near future. In response to EU officials who have expressed fears about the deal with Turkey, the academic Alkan said that Turks were the ones who should be worried. "When the deal was signed, Europeans said, 'We have solved the illegal migration problem - this is a win-win situation,'" Alkan said. "I hope this is also true for Turkey. Because so far we have accepted more returns than the ones we have sent. So it looks like things aren't working in our favor. Hopefully this will change if the visa agreement comes into force, maybe sometime next year. People just want to travel for vacations, and only 5 million people have passports. So someone needs to tell the Europeans not to worry: 80 million Turks will not go to Europe."