Despite increasingly hostile politics, last year's 3 billion euro EU-Turkey agreement to assist refugees in Turkey and improve border controls is having an impact. Diego Cupolo reports from Ankara.
Diplomatic insults may be crossing borders at an alarming rate, but irregular migration has plummeted after the EU-Turkey agreement was signed one year ago on March 18, 2016.
Just 2,810 people arrived in Greece by sea since the beginning of the year through March 12, as opposed to 143,205 during roughly the same period in 2016, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Despite the increasingly hostile rhetoric between the EU and Turkey in recent weeks, the 3 billion euro ($3.2 billion) deal is functioning on a "technical and financial level." Half of the total funds have so far been contracted out, according to Jane Lewis, Ankara's head of office for ECHO, the EU's emergency aid department.
The agreement's had its shortcomings. In exchange for improved border security on Turkey's part, the EU promised financial assistance to aid refugees, as well as visa liberalization for Turkish residents and a revival of long-stalled EU accession talks - two issues that have yet to be achieved due to discord on both sides.
At the same time, humanitarian programs on an unprecedented scale have been rolled out to improve access to education, health care, and the daily lives of about 3 million refugees currently living in Turkey, Lewis told DW.
"The reality [is] this is year seven of a really catastrophic crisis, and the international community has been slow to provide support to Turkey. I think we all need to acknowledge that," Lewis said. "Could we have moved faster? Maybe. But I'm not sure we could have come up with systems faster."
Considering many Syrians and Iraqis may remain in Turkey for years to come, the goal of allocating EU funding is to foster long-term refugee integration in Turkish society, Lewis said. To date, 777 million euros of the 3 billion euro package have been disbursed, and the bulk of financing targets obstacles refugees face in assuming constructive roles in Turkish society: education and access to labor markets.
Cash transfers and education incentives
The largest program receiving EU funding is the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN), an initiative where one million refugees will receive unconditional cash transfers.
The World Food Programme (WFP) is working with Turkish ministries to register and identify vulnerable refugee families - mostly households with single mothers or with elderly or disabled people - and giving them debit cards they can use in stores to buy goods, or at ATMs to withdraw cash.
One debit card is distributed per family and is recharged monthly with an allowance depending on the size of the household. Each family member receives 100 Turkish lira, about 25 euros, meaning a family of four would get 400 lira, or roughly 100 euros per month.
Though ESSN has been criticized as an easy way to dole out EU funding, the reasoning behind direct cash transfers is that other forms of assistance, such as education or job training, are ineffective if basic needs are not met, Lewis said.
To date, the program has enrolled 260,000 refugees, and by 2018, Jonathan Campbell, deputy country director of WFP in Turkey, hopes to reach the projected goal of one million beneficiaries, saying the response to the refugee crisis is transitioning from emergency aid to sustainability projects.
"We are past that first humanitarian phase, but remember until last year, there was actually very little assistance to people outside the camps," Campbell said. "What that means is a lot of families have gone into a vicious circle … we are trying [to] stabilize if not improve their situation."
Starting in May, UNICEF will also unroll a 34 million euro Conditional Cash Transfer for Education (CCTE) program providing cash incentives to 230,000 refugee children who attend school in Turkey.
Investing in the future
Due to financial constraints, an estimated 370,000 school-aged refugees are not attending school in Turkey - with some working low-paid jobs instead - and CCTE will attempt to encourage school enrollment among Syrians, according to Sema Hosta, chief communications officer for UNICEF Turkey.
Meanwhile, aid is being delivered, though not always through the easiest of means. Mercy Corps, a charity receiving 5 million euros under the EU-Turkey deal, was recently denied permission to continue its operations by Turkish authorities. The reasons remain undefined and Turkish ministries did not respond to request for comment.
Aitor Zabalgogeazkoa, a representative for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Turkey, said humanitarian operations in Turkey have been increasingly strained, but aid delivery will continue for the time being.
"Turkish society has shown it is able to absorb the situation," Zabalgogeazkoa told DW. "The situation of refugees in Turkey is not so bad, if we are comparing it, for example, with Greece, where 60,000 refugees are stranded with no prospects for anything."