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Turkey is selling a story about refugees, and the EU is buying it

Before the European Union and Turkey signed an agreement in 2016 to limit the number of Syrian refugees heading to Europe in return for aid to help those who had fled the war to Turkey, I was among a group of academics and activists who work on refugee issues in Turkey invited to Berlin to discuss the matter.

We sat with German and EU politicians in closed meetings to discuss the condition of refugee camps in Turkey. Issues on our agenda included Turkey’s potential to be a safe third country, as well as the management of camps run by Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority, including their lack of transparency and oversight.

Another topic was the status of Yezidi refugees, whose numbers had reached 20,000 at that time. The meeting was mainly focused on determining whether Turkey would be a trustworthy partner for the refugees. The information that experts from Turkey provided plainly showed that it would not.

Despite all of the concerns over the status of refugees in Turkey, that day I saw that German and EU authorities were determined to push this agreement through.

During the meeting, I clearly saw that the EU knew how badly off refugees were in Turkey, but preferred to look the other way in order to avoid having to deal with the problems itself. Turkey was selling a story about the refugees, and the EU was looking to buy this story.

A few years have passed since this meeting. There have not been many improvements in the status of refugees in Turkey. Today, out of 3 million Syrian refugees, only 235,000 live in camps. The rest are spread out across Turkish cities, fending for themselves. Their “temporary protection” status does not provide them with much protection at all. They are subject to every form of discrimination and violence. They are subject to terrible working conditions. There are even claims that some textile workshops contain designated rooms for raping Syrian women.

The refugees staying in camps are much better off. Allegations of prostitution in camps are widespread. But besides non-profit organisations that are close to the government, no one is allowed to enter these camps. Just last week, allegations surfaced that Syrian women living in the Telhamut Tent City in the Ceylanpınar district of Şanlıurfa province were being forced into prostitution.

There are allegations that camp officials force women into prostitution in exchange for daily necessities such as milk and food. This is the milk and food that women need in order to provide for their children. On August 16, in order to investigate the matter, some women’s activists formed a delegation that included the Diyarbakır Bureau of the Commission for Refugee Rights and Women’s Centre, the Platform for the Struggle for Women Held in Captivity, the Şanlıurfa Human Rights Association, the Şanlıurfa Union of Healthcare Workers, and the Women’s Living and Solidarity Association in order to visit the camp.

But security forces did not allow the delegation to enter the camp. To publicly announce this denial of access, the delegation held a press conference. While public reaction and videos circulating on social media about prostitution in the camps prompted the Ceylanpınar chief prosecutor to open an investigation, it was made confidential.

Not only Syrians, but all refugee groups are faring poorly in Turkey. One of the groups worst off is the Yezidis. The Diyarbakır Fidanlık Yezidi Camp that we worked very hard to establish was shut down by a government decree. The Yezidis who lived in the camp were forced to leave. Many returned to Iraq, a few were able to flee to Europe. Some lost their lives in the Aegean Sea.

Between 1,000 and 1,300 Yezidis who had nowhere to go were placed in a camp in the town of Midyat. Ever since, obtaining news from Yezidi families has become difficult. Last week, it was announced that the Midyat Camp would be shut down after Eid this week, and the Yezidis in the camp would be transferred to camps in Gaziantep and Kilis.

The Yezidi families we contacted said they did not want to go to these camps, because they feared relocating to cities and camps that they saw as centres dominated by Islamic State and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). They are miserable.

They have nowhere to go. Although many of them have applied for asylum in Europe, the process is still ongoing. It will take months, even years for their applications to be processed. In the meantime, what are they supposed to do? Where are these Yezidis supposed to go?

Since the day they fled to Turkey, Yezidis have faced every form of discrimination.  They have frequently been the targets of hateful rhetoric coming from government officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself. They were never provided a temporary status that would allow them access to medical resources, nor any other kind of support.

Camps in southeast Turkey established by Kurdish municipalities have been shut down. Even when they were open, they did not receive any central government support.

At the time, I questioned EU officials why they were turning a blind eye to the fact that the money they were sending was being used to discriminate among refugee groups. Not only EU countries, but also international organisations looked the other way. The camps established by municipalities were only able to stay open due to support from civil society and the public.

Non-profit organisations, activists and politicians have been trying for years to gain access to the Midyat camp. But for some reason, the government refuses to let anyone into these camps. Yezidis are completely isolated. Members of parliament from the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) were set to visit the Midyat refugee camps last week, but their visit was cancelled.

We are talking about a camp that even members of parliament cannot access. I have to wonder how EU organisations that provide money for these camps could let this continue unchallenged.

Why do they not question why these camps are not open to inspection? I imagine it must be hard to justify why a government would prevent civil society organisations, politicians and activists entering refugee camps.

The reality is this: EU organisations and governments are aware of everything. Turkey is selling a story about refugees, and the EU is buying it.