Turkey Won't Turn Away Syrians After Terror Attacks

Turkey has taken in 220 times more Syrians than the U.S. has.
Turkey, already hosting 2.2 million Syrians, says more asylum-seekers are welcome.
Turkey, already hosting 2.2 million Syrians, says more asylum-seekers are welcome.

WASHINGTON -- Turkey will continue its open-door policy to Syrians arriving at its borders, even in the wake of devastating terror attacks suspected to have been carried out by the Islamic State group in Beirut, Paris and Ankara, Turkey.

Turkey currently hosts 2.2 million people who have fled the civil war in Syria. Since first allowing 252 asylum-seekers to cross its borders in April 2011, Turkey has spent $8 billion on humanitarian aid for Syrians.

Turkish embassy officials declined to set a "red line" on admissions.

"Of course we cannot close our doors. We always keep the doors open," Ali Osman Öztürk, head of Syrian refugee policy in Turkey, said on Thursday during a briefing at the embassy in Washington.

Without directly criticizing the refugee policies of specific countries, Öztürk suggested the international community step up its efforts.

"Do we have time discuss who is a real European? Who is a real American? Who is a real Turk? Who is real Middle Eastern?" he asked. "When we talk about refugee issues, it’s beyond ethnicity, beyond nationality, beyond any religion."

The Turkish official’s comments are in stark contrast to the rhetoric of several U.S. politicians who have called for a ban on refugee admissions from several countries in the Middle East, including Syria, in the wake of last week’s attacks on Paris.

In the first four days Congress was in session after these attacks, lawmakers introduced six pieces of legislation aimed at restricting refugee admissions, under the justification that members of the Islamic State group could slip into the U.S. disguised as refugees and launch a terror attack on U.S. soil.

One bill, authored by presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), is titled the Terrorist Refugee Infiltration Prevention Act, and includes a special provision that could be used to exempt Christian asylum-seekers from the ban.

"When my Cuban father came as a refugee, he was not a terror threat seeking to murder innocent citizens," Cruz said to explain the "qualitative difference" between the refugees from his parents’ generation and those fleeing Syria today.

Another bill, which would complicate the already lengthy refugee admissions process, passed with a veto-proof majority in the House on Thursday, despite the White House’s efforts to convince Democrats to vote against it. 

More than half of all U.S. governors have publicly pledged to ban Syrian refugees from entering their states, even though they don’t legally have the power to follow through on such promises.

The Democratic mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, has floated the idea of creating separate camps for Syrians, and mentioned Franklin Delano Roosevelt placing Japanese people in camps during World War II as his inspiration. 

For all the bipartisan panic over refugee admissions, the U.S. has admitted just over 2,000 Syrians since the civil war began almost five years ago. In September, Obama acknowledged the U.S. should do more and pledged to take in 10,000 Syrians within the next year -- which is still about 220 times less than the number of Syrians living in Turkey, a country with a gross domestic product that is one-fifth the size of that of U.S. 

Öztürk declined to comment specifically on the American backlash against Syrians but dismissed the broader logic that refugee admissions expose a host country to a significantly higher risk of  terror attacks, noting that all but one of the suspects in the Paris attacks were European. One of the suicide bombers involved in the attack carried a fake Syrian passport, and his country of origin is unclear.

Because it shares a border with Syria, Turkey is far more susceptible to an attack than the U.S. Ankara was hit last month with the deadliest terror attack in modern Turkish history, and the Islamic State has been identified as a suspect.

Turkey has fallen under criticism in the past for neglecting to secure its border with Syria. Thousands of foreign fighters have crossed into Syria by way of Turkey, including some from groups that Turkey backs in the fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Now, Turkish embassy officials said, border gates at Oncupinar and Cilvegozu are the only two that are open. The rest of the border is heavily patrolled.

"Of course we’re concerned," Öztürk said. "We have to find the balance between security and humanitarianism."

"Everyone can become one day a refugee one way or another," he added.

Despite Turkey’s generous admission policy, the country does not actually allow Syrians to register as refugees. When Turkey ratified the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees, it included a geographic limitation that only obligated officials to allow Europeans to enter the country as refugees. While Turkey says it has not placed time limits on the Syrians living within its borders, they are formally classified as temporary asylum-seekers.

Eleven percent of the Syrians in Turkey live in the 25 refugee camps scattered throughout the southeastern part of the country. Syrians are allowed to live elsewhere in the country and have access to free essential medical care, but they don’t have legal work status and are denied some housing and social services because of their nonrefugee status.

Sophia Jones contributed reporting.