It felt intrusive, stepping through the plastic door into the cramped container she called home. The mother welcomed us with an anxious smile, standing beside a two-ring hob in the small square room which served as both kitchen and bedroom for her and her husband.
The living room, equally claustrophobic, was where her two sons slept. I can’t imagine living in those two rooms with my husband and children for weeks, let alone years, but she didn’t complain. I expect she was aware of the relative luxury of her container compared to the tents so many other refugees live in.
She told us hastily, in close to fluent English, how she wanted to leave the refugee camp to give her sons a chance in life, but was unwilling to do so illegally. Back home in Syria, she’d been a teacher, which explained her excellent English.
Most of the other Syrian women I met spoke good English too – a volunteer teacher who’d been an engineer in Aleppo; another woman we met in the camp hairdressing salon (a beige lino-floored room with four sinks along the wall), who told us she wanted to take her two young children to join her husband in Sweden.
I was at Nizip 2, last week, a refugee camp close to Turkey’s border with Syria consisting of 5,000 homes made from prefabricated containers. It’s an exemplary camp, and our Turkish guides were proud of its facilities. The UN rep described it as “best in class”. It has a junior school, a high school, a nursery, a clinic, a meeting hall, a computer room, and flood-lit rows of container houses.
But its inhabitants are desperate to leave. Though they have food, shelter and education for their children, they want to move on. They want to leave the limbo of camp and build a real life for their families.
The camps are only part of the picture. Of Turkey’s two to three million refugees, only 260,000 are in camps. Most are living in towns and cities, often in very basic conditions, choosing the opportunity to find work, albeit illegally, over the constraints of a camp.
The Turks are proud of what they have done – opening their borders, setting up camps, and footing a bill of over $8 billion so far. Officials insist that the Turkish people have welcomed refugees, a testament to their hospitable culture.
People I spoke to in the street told a different story. There is growing resentment that Syrians are taking Turkish jobs. Not legally entitled to work in Turkey, Syrians are willing to accept whatever pay they can get, adults and children. I was even told that Syrian women are enticing Turkish men into polygamous marriages. Who knows if this is true, but the very fact of the rumour is a sign of the underlying tensions.
Meanwhile, poverty, enforced idleness and no promise of a stable future mean that the refugee population is losing hope. One woman told us that men are returning to Syria to fight for ISIS so that they can send money back to their families.
And the situation is only going to get worse as more and more people flee. The UNHCR estimates that the average length of a major protracted refugee situation is 17 years; this conflict has lasted four and a half so far, and shows little sign of abating.
The truth is that these people may be displaced for a decade or more, and to have any chance of a decent future they need to work. Allowing refugees work permits within Turkey would be a good start, but the idea of millions of Syrians legally entitled to work is far from popular with Turkish workers. Officials were reluctant to discuss this option with an election imminent.
The realisation that this crisis is nearer its beginning than its end is pushing the concept of a ‘Safe Zone’ in Syria up the agenda. Every official I spoke to in Turkey impressed on us the importance of this. They believe it would enable some refugees to return to Syria and discourage others from leaving. But to be sustainable it must include substantial towns where people could continue to live and work – a narrow strip for refugee camps along the border would just be shifting the problem. A Safe Zone would surely need Russian support (or at least acquiescence). Would troops on the ground be needed to protect it, if so, who will they be? And how would ISIS, be kept out? A Safe Zone may be an appealing answer but it’s not an easy one.
The UK is playing a substantial role in the international response, taking 20,000 refugees and giving £1 billion in aid. But Immigration and Asylum civil servants in Ankara were frustrated at how slow Western Europe has been to act. The picture of a little boy’s lifeless body on a beach brought the horror of the crisis home to the British people, but it’s a reality that Turkey has been living with for years. ‘Why didn’t you care about all the other children who died before Aylan Kurdi?’ I was asked. She, like all the other officials we met, seemed unaware of the aid Britain is providing.
The situation in Turkey is delicate. There’s escalating violence between the Government and the PKK, their security priority. There’s resentment as Syrian refugees outstay their initial welcome. There’s ISIS on their border. Officials took care to include ISIS in their list of security concerns, though we had a niggling feeling this was just to please our Western European sensibilities. Maybe now ISIS will become a genuine priority, if it turns out they were responsible for the awful Ankara bombing this weekend. Every official we met welcomed us for showing an interest in the situation in Turkey – an interest which they felt was overdue from Britain and our neighbours. And they consistently called on us to do more: “this isn’t sustainable”.
Should we do more? Britain has always been a country that does its moral duty. Will we look back in the future and say we played our part? Could we do more for the sake of our national security, to avoid the radicalisation of another generation of young men, and women, in the Middle East? Is there a way to set up a Safe Haven? Is there a way to enable refugees to work, legally, in the countries around Syria and have a better quality of life – without further jeopardising the stability of those countries themselves?
The case for focusing our resources on improving conditions for refugees in countries bordering Syria is strong, but my conclusion from this visit was that we need to do this more conspicuously, so people are aware Britain is helping. Our brand, as a country which ‘does the right thing’, is in jeopardy. This matters: the fight against radical islamists is not just a military one, it is also a moral one. We have to be on the right side of the moral argument. Young men and women, across the Middle East and beyond, must recognise Britain as a country which treats them with humanity. This won’t be enough to keep us safe on its own, but we underestimate the importance of our reputation at our peril.
The author was visiting Turkey with the Conservative Middle East Council as part of a delegation, members of which are photographed above.