Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking in Albania on Wednesday, called for Europe to accept more refugees, particularly those fleeing from the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Erdogan called this a “duty” Europe should be held accountable for.
“We all witnessed how immigrants were dying in the Mediterranean or elsewhere, and we clearly saw Europe’s attitude towards them,” Erdogan said, referencing a separate migrant crisis in which refugees from Libya have taken to the seas towards Europe, also fleeing the Islamic State. European nations, he added, “also have their obligations and everyone should do their duty.” He noted that Turkey “has spent $5.6 billion (4.9 billion euros) on hosting and taking care of more than 1.7 million Syrians and some 300,000 Iraqi nationals accommodated in refugee camps or in different Turkish cities.”
Erdogan’s speech follows news reports claiming that Turkish officials have begun to reconsider continuing to take in a high number of refugees, both from the Syrian civil war and the devastating circumstances in Iraq following Islamic State takeovers of various regions. Turkey’s Zaman newspaper notes that Turkey “hosts the largest number of refugees in the world,” according to United Nations estimates.
Erdogan has previously criticized European governments for not doing enough to prevent deaths in the Mediterranean Sea as a result of unsound marine vessels sinking on the way to Italy. “If these people seek refuge in European countries after somehow fleeing their home countries then how can an approach of letting the boats sink and leaving them to their deaths be adopted,” Erdogan said in April, “I condemn the West’s approach.”
In 2011, speaking not of foreign refugees but of Turkish nationals in Germany, Erdogan sparked criticism by condemning “assimilation” and urging Turks in Germany to “learn Turkish first” and keep their Islamic faith. He also claimed, The Guardian reports, “that forced integration requiring immigrants to suppress their culture and language violated international law.”
Erdogan has not remarked on migrants in Turkey preserving their culture in the face of a new language and– for Christian and Yazidi refugees, a new religion– though reports indicate that the life of a refugee in Turkey requires for many a complete foregoing of their past identity. Refugee women, particularly widows, are targeted for sex work or forced into marriages with older men who pay for a “matchmaking” service. “If a Syrian woman asks for help – whether it is money, work, or a place to rent – there is immediately a request for something in return, something that is haram [sinful],” said one woman who was forced into sex with a restaurant owner in exchange for the man hiring her children.
The European Union has worked with Turkey to help curb the influx of migrants both into Turkey and from Turkey to Europe. In December 2014, the EU pledged $85 million to a program aimed at helping Turkish authorities keep Syrians from both sneaking into Turkey and from Turkey to Europe. Turkish officials, in turn, have captured hundreds of migrants attempting an illegal voyage west. As recently as late April, Turkish officials arrested 342 migrants attempting to board a vessel traveling illicitly to Italy– 71 people had made it on board, while 271 were arrested at the port. Turkish authorities have reported inhuman treatment on the part of smugglers towards these migrants, including forcing them off the ship, and likely towards their deaths in the water, when vessels would be uncooperative and flood with water.
Despite Erdogan’s implication that Europe has not taken in a reasonable number of refugees, estimates show that 170,000 migrants made their way illegally to Europe last year, and are believed to have remained there. While this dwarfs the 1.7 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey, the number of refugees seeking a new life in Europe has increased exponentially in the past year as the Islamic State continues to make inroads in Libya, forcing Libyans and immigrants in the African nation to leave.
The European Union announced this week a new plan to curb the migrant crisis which would triple the funding for programs intended to save migrants on the high seas and target the human trafficking market, rather than the migrants themselves. The program would also create “an EU-wide resettlement scheme to offer 20,000 places distributed in all Member States to displaced persons.” Europe currently faces opposition from both Libyan rival governments to proposals to target smuggler ships using military force.