Istanbul, Turkey—After two months of detention in Turkey, the four Syrian staffers from a Danish relief agency were released and expelled from the country, part of an escalating battle between the Turkish government and Western aid organizations that is complicating relief efforts for Syrian victims of war.
The four were flown to Sudan, where Syrian nationals do not need visas. That was a bit of good news for DanChurchAid officials, who were relieved they were not forced to return to Syria, now in its sixth year of a brutal civil war.
But the staffers’ extradition in late May came in the midst of an unprecedented period of uncertainty for international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), which have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid from Turkey to Syria, delivering critical food and supplies through risky cross-border operations.
The Turkish hostility toward the international aid agencies is one byproduct of anti-Western sentiment that skyrocketed in the wake of last summer’s coup attempt and was perpetuated for months until the national referendum in April, which gave President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sweeping new powers.
The challenge for aid agencies has been exacerbated by Turkish sensitivities over INGOs working in ethnic Kurdish areas, and the boldness of Turkish security forces under an on-going state of emergency, amid a campaign by pro-government media that has denigrated foreign relief workers as spies who should be expelled.
In recent months, as Turkey has targeted INGOs and their foreign and Syrian staff with closures and arrests, two US-based organizations are among a handful that have been expelled. Mercy Corps was shut down in March, and the International Medical Corps (IMC) was closed in April, with four foreign staffers expelled and 11 Syrians detained.
The collision between Turkey and INGOs features a perfect storm of clashing motivations: in their desire to help, the big-budgeted INGOs have often bent the rules, arousing suspicions of corruption and running afoul of Turkey’s oft-changing legal requirements and its growing suspicion of foreigners on the border.
“Why now? That’s a question mark, and just the Turks have the answer,” says a Syrian who works closely with the INGO community in Gaziantep, a hub for Syrian relief aid agencies on Turkey’s southern border, who asked not to be further identified.
The Turkish crackdown makes little sense now, he says, with needs inside Syria as great as ever and several populations on the move, including from around the Islamic State-controlled city of Raqqa, where a US-led coalition offensive has begun to oust the so-called Islamic State from its self-declared capital.
“Syria needs those NGO workers. How can the help go inside Syria without their work?” asks the Syrian. “The Turks can’t handle everything. It’s a lot bigger than their NGOs. Everyone is working Syria, even OCHA [the UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] is not enough – we need everyone, because there are millions of people who are in need.”
A tense history
Turkey has never been happy with the presence of the foreign relief community and their Syrian staff, whose work blossomed along its southern border as Syria’s 2011 uprising turned into the region’s most significant proxy war. The conflict pits President Bashar al-Assad and his allies Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah, against a broad array of anti-regime rebel forces – some of them jihadists linked to Al Qaeda, as well as ISIS itself – supported variously by the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey.
While Turkey grappled with an influx of 2.9 million Syrian refugees, and for years turned a blind eye to Islamist militants crossing into Syria to fight, it also became the most sizeable base for aid agencies helping Syrians inside rebel-held areas across the border.
But Turkey’s calculations have been changing, aid workers say, with a surge of militant attacks last year by ISIS and Kurdish militants, the attempted coup in July, and the defeat of rebel forces in the northwest Syrian city of Aleppo in December. Then came the April vote on presidential powers.
“From now on, we will not allow any Europeans who are spying in our country under various titles, whether it be individuals or organizations,” Mr. Erdoğan said in late March, during a heated referendum campaign in which he vilified Germany and the Netherlands as “Nazis.”
Since the crackdown began, with police visiting offices to check registration documents and work permits, foreign and Syrian staff at some INGOs have been working from home or coffee shops, to lower their profile and avoid possible arrest.
Turkey plans to cancel all existing INGO registrations and, under new rules, require re-registration within three months, according to an internal document from the UN’s OCHA leaked to Voice of America in early March.
“There’s definitely an impact, where Syrians are getting less support than what they really, really need,” says a senior Western relief worker in Gaziantep.
Before it was closed down, for example, Mercy Corps was assisting up to half a million Syrians inside the country, and another 100,000 refugees in Turkey. IMC claimed to support 100 hospitals and health facilities with medical supplies and salaries. Cutting off support has made other INGOs scramble to fill the gap.
“It is a constant moving target of, ‘How do we see who really needs help?’” says the Western aid worker. Other INGOs “were picking up all these facilities that have suddenly lost all financial support.”
Mercy Corps a surprise target
OCHA suggests the aim of the Turkish government is “to choose which organizations they want to keep in the country,” and notes that Turkey’s interior minister convened a meeting of all regional governors to discuss new rules, VOA reported.
One of the largest non-profit INGOs in the world, Mercy Corps spent $34 million last year on Syria-related relief, much of it funded by the US and European governments. Mercy Corps was told abruptly that its registration had been withdrawn, leading to an immediate firing of 300 relief workers.
Mercy Corps was a surprise initial target, senior aid workers say, because they were registered and had close ties to government in Ankara. Still, not all their staff work permits were approved for the districts in which they work – a rule rarely enforced previously – and they were heavily involved in Kurdish areas of Syria, despite Turkish disapproval.
“We have been playing this constant game, especially after NGOs got registered, of the ever-evolving interpretation and enforcement of the various laws,” says the senior Western aid worker.
“So we’ve all got dirty laundry, to be brought up if they want to shut you down,” says the aid worker. “The fact is, it doesn’t matter how compliant we were, whether or not the law was clear or not, every single NGO working here has broken laws at some point. Some inadvertantly. Some because there was no law in place to tell us how to do it, [like] the transfer of money.”
After-effects of the coup
The restrictions on INGOs come as Turkey still reels from the aftermath of the coup attempt last July, which has seen a purge 140,000 Turks from government jobs, the arrest of nearly 50,000, and a state of emergency which enables closing any NGO without reason.
The public vilification of INGOs intensified after the coup attempt. For example, the pro-government Sabah newspaper last August ran a story with the headline, “Foreign NGOs are fanning the flames of chaos.” It claimed that aid agencies crossed into Syria with “bags” of money to fund and divide Syrian opposition groups.
This March, Sabah claimed INGOs were funneling cash to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria from Hatay province, with the assistance of cadres of Fethullah Gülen – the US-based cleric whom Turkey accuses of ordering last year’s coup attempt.
“The aid agencies in Hatay are full of spies,” ran Sabah’s headline. The story claimed that INGOs were not trying to help people, but lay the groundwork for civil war in Turkey.
“It’s not that they hate foreigners, but they worry about foreigners. They think that everyone is not doing good for Turkey,” says the Syrian who works with the aid community. The rules for work permits for Syrian staff have become clearer, he says, but weeks ago one local Syrian NGO delivering food applied for 30 work permits, and got only two.
“Of course, no NGO can run with two people,” he says. NGOs “aren’t doing something bad; they are still helping people. Why are [Turks] making their work as difficult as it as difficult as it is now? There is no excuse for that.”
Shutting down the INGOs and raising pressure on others has shaken the relief community, which senior Western relief workers say grew too fast the first years of the conflict, with uncommonly large US and EU-funded budgets applied in chaotic situations.
Turkish officials and media have been given grist for complaint by the US Agency for International Development’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Since 2015 it has been investigating alleged fraud schemes that involve “bid rigging, collusion, bribery, and kickbacks,” which have led to the suspension of $239 million in program funds among four NGOs in southeast Turkey, according to OIG data released March 31.
Three of those were identified as big players global organizations – IMC, the International Rescue Committee, and the Irish group Goal – in a May 2016 investigation by IRIN, a media venture once run by the UN that focuses on the relief world.
IRIN noted that all three INGOs grew quickly as the Syria crisis took off. IMC funding more than doubled, for example, to $232 million, from 2011/2012 to 2014/2015. Goal’s funding for Syria leapt 94 percent from 2013 to 2014.
Those increases mirror similar expansion by the UN, which saw the value of goods and services procured in Turkey alone jump from $90 million in 2012 to $339 million in 2014, reports IRIN.
The impact is sizeable: Though the Inspector General’s office says that just one IMC staff member lost their job, IRIN reports that 800 people “involved in IMC contracts in Turkey” were let go because of the USAID aid suspension.
“NGOs tend to think that we have this irrefutable positive impact,” says the senior Western aid worker in Gaziantep.
Turks are “looking at what they see as a security threat in all these foreigners around, who maybe were or maybe were not spies, maybe were having an impact, maybe weren’t following the rules, maybe were helping the enemy,” says the aid worker.
“Is it worth it to take all that risk to have 30 NGOs registered, of all shapes and sizes? Or is it better for them to narrow the field to … 10 or 12 NGOs that have not really over-stepped in the ways that matter?” asks the aid worker.
“I just think the Turks have said, ‘Enough.’ ”