Turkey's unique (and expensive) refugee camp for Syrians: the perfect refugee camp?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Last week, the New York Times magazine ran a special in-depth story on Kilis, one of Turkey's camps for Syrian refugees fleeing their country's civil war. Kilis is absolutely nothing like what we know of other refugee and IDP camps: it's clean, (comparatively) safe, and efficient; there are no tents; groceries are cheap and haircuts are free. The residents express effusive praise and gratitude toward the Turkish government, while diplomats and aid workers praise it as the best refugee camp they've ever seen. Is this a sustainable model for future refugee camps?

Maybe and maybe not. In several ways, it's a huge improvement on the more "typical" refugee camp set-up. The schools are well-built and well-staffed. Instead of receiving handouts of rations, families buy food at on-site groceries stores with debit cards provided by the Turkish government, which (as acknowledged by a WFP worker, is much more efficient). Families live in trailers with locks, rooms, and satellite TVs with hundred of channels. The streets are well-lit at night, and violent crime is rare.

There are two main differences that set Kilis apart from other refugee camps. The main one is that it is run entirely by the Turkish government, rather than UNHCR (the UN branch that deals with refugees), and it has only a few NGOs in minor support roles.
Rather, Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency, or AFAD, asked the U.N.H.C.R. for its camp guidelines — minimum distance between tents, and so on — and then designed its own. ...This approach, while costly, has given the Turks a measure of control over every detail — including who is working in their country. Typically, camps are serviced by a number of NGOs, and there can be overlap — or gaps — in the services they provide. The agencies may fight among themselves or clash with local leaders; each has its own hierarchies and staff members, drawn from an unlimited number of nations. Running a camp that way, the Turkish government official speculated, would be complicated: “There’s too many people coming and going. It’s not secure. And it’s distracting.”
This cuts out a lot of the inefficiency and overlap that we see so often in humanitarian crises, where there is little coordination and NGOs rush in, often fighting with each other for resources and control. However, there is also a legal loophole here: the refugees in the camp are not technically considered refugees, due to a legal loophole.
Technically, the 14,000 residents at Kilis are not refugees but “guests” of Turkey. This is not just semantics. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees prohibits states from forcing them back over borders into danger and guarantees their right to work, shelter, travel and public assistance. Turkey signed the agreement but did so with a “geographical limitation”: Its mandate applies only to refugees from Europe.
This has the potential to create problems if the Turkish government has a change of heart toward the refugees in the future, due to political unrest or shifting of popular opinion.

The other major barrier to sustainability is the cost: operating a camp in this manner, while providing an enormous improvement to quality of life from typical tent camps, is extraordinarily costly.
But operating camps this way is expensive. “This has cost them,” Batchelor says. Expenditures at the Kilis camp run to at least $2 million a month. By the end of 2013, the Turkish government had spent $2.5 billion on its Syrian guests, primarily in camps — a figure that has created resentment among Turks.

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