NGOs in Istanbul Face Increased Pressure from the Government

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Written by Daniel Metz

ISTANBUL, TURKEY – Deep in the European side of Istanbul, hidden in the historic Fatih district, a volunteer coordinator stood outside his organization’s main center and donned a pair of sunglasses as he lit a cigarette. It was June, and at the end of the month, the Turkish Ministry of National Education was to begin limiting the educational services that NGOs could provide, and it meant NGOs in Turkey had to restructure or proceed with caution. The volunteer coordinator, who asked for him and his organization to be unnamed, leaned against a wall, took a drag from his cigarette and said, “It’s not a great time to be an NGO in Istanbul.”

Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, the Turkish government has taken in more Syrian refugees than any other country—it shares a border with Syria and had an open-door policy. About 3.2 million Syrians live in Turkey, 92 percent of whom live outside of the refugee camps. Istanbul has accommodated more refugees than any other city, with estimates ranging from 400,000 to 700,000—about 5 percent of its population of 14.5 million. In comparison, more Syrians have registered in Istanbul than have collectively registered in every country in Europe except Germany, according to United Nations High Council on Refugees’ 2016 statistics.

Along with the refugees came organizations that have set up shop or moved in from outside of the country to help the Syrians with humanitarian needs and integrating into Turkish society. But as the war progressed and Turkish officials became obliged to produce comprehensive policy, what some perceive as a crackdown ensued. High-profile arrests and the closure of organizations exemplify this perception.

In January 2017, the Ministry of National Education issued the executive decree restricting the organizations’ providing of educational services. It ordered NGOs to terminate any educational activities by the end of June, revoked all organizations permission to carry out such activities and required organizations to apply for permission to continue such services.

“The municipalities and NGOs have actually done some very good work,” said Merve, a Turkish woman who worked at an international organization resettling Syrians as they arrived in Istanbul. “Because of Turkey’s general situation, the color of this work started to change. Organizations used to do 40 or 45 workshops a week, from Turkish language to creative arts workshops.” Merve now works at a university and researches refugees’ integration and the relationship between NGOs and the government. She asked both for her and her research center not to be unnamed because of the political situation. “Now, there came a control by the government,” she said. “There came a need to control.”

Yasser Dallal migrated to Turkey from Lebanon about 15 years ago. When the Syrian conflict broke out, he quit his job and started Hayat Sür Derneği (Support to Life Association). One of its foci is to provide educational opportunities to children via creative workshops, but he acknowledged that government restraints have made some NGOs unable work effectively. “If there isn’t cooperation with the Ministry of National Education, you can’t do anything,” he said. “And not everyone can sign an agreement with the ministry, because it’s very difficult. There are a lot of requirements. Half a million children still aren’t going to school, but the process is going very slowly.”

The most publicized examples of this control have been through the detention and trial of international organizations’ members. Ten workers from Amnesty International were arrested in July 2017, and the chair of the organization in Turkey, Taner Kılıç, was arrested in June. The aid workers were released at the end of October and await trial on charges of terrorism.

Other prominent organizations like Mercy Corps and International Medical Corps, who provided humanitarian assistance inside and outside of the camps, were forced to leave Turkey. Many of these moves intensified after the July 2016 coup, which the Turkish government blamed on an exiled Muslim cleric Fetullah Gülen. Huge numbers of public servants were dismissed from their positions and others were detained for alleged membership in Gülen’s organization. Al Monitor reported in November 2016 that the government had closed almost 1,500 non-governmental organizations, alleging links to terrorist groups.

Didem Danış, a professor in the sociology department at Galatasaray University in Istanbul, wasn’t surprised by this action. “At the end of the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, some Western powers like France, Italy, and the United Kingdom met in the French city of Sevres and divided up the land of the former empire,” she said. After this Treaty of Sevres, Mustafa Kemal, a Turkish general, gathered troops and fought for Turkey’s independence. “Academics in Turkey have dubbed this the Sevres Syndrome, this ongoing fear of the invasion, dissection, and destruction of Turkey by powerful Western actors. There is constantly a look of suspicion towards Western organizations, towards Western individuals.”

In 2015, the Migration Integration Policy Index analyzed EU member states, some Western states and Turkey. The scoring system examined 167 different aspects of migration policy and ranked Turkey last of all 38 countries in the report with a score of 25 out of 100. The next closest country was Latvia with 31 points.

Prior to the Syrian conflict, Turkey had always been known as a transit country, where migrants would pass through on their way to Europe. A signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention, Turkey only allowed Europeans to apply for refugee status, and until 2013, Turkey had no policy to dictate the processing asylum-seekers and integrating refugees.

No one had predicted the conflict in Syria would last as long or it would produce the exodus that it has. In the first couple years, the number of Syrians seeking asylum in Turkey was measured in the hundreds of thousands; the UNHCR estimating 146,440 in Turkey in 2013 and 562,658 in 2014. But as the war raged on, Syrians realized that any hope for a peaceful settlement was waning and began to flee in greater numbers. In 2014, the UNHCR estimated that more than 1.5 million Syrians were in Turkey, and by 2016, there were almost 2.7 million.

Although it was drafted during ascension talks with the European Union in the mid 2000s, the Turkish Law on Foreigners and International Protection passed in 2013. It established the Directorate General of Migration Management within the Ministry of Interior and gave “temporary protection status” to Syrians. Syrians could enroll in public schools, receive health insurance from the state and, in proceeding years, gain the legal rights to enroll in universities and obtain work permits.

Numerous NGOs had already opened throughout the country to help Syrians with immediate humanitarian needs, but other needs became evident. Organizations popped up in a wave of international support, offering things like Turkish language courses, vocational training and psychological support.

The Turkish Department of Associations says 3,732 humanitarian aid groups, 20,170 vocational and advisory associations and 844 human rights organizations operated in Turkey in 2011. In 2016—the year of the coup—there were 5,427 humanitarian aid groups, 32,314 vocational and advisory associations, and 1,438 human rights and advocacy associations. Additionally, 65 international organizations were operating in Turkey in 2011. That number shot up to 132 in 2016.

Without knowing Turkish, it would be almost impossible for Syrians to find a stable job, and with records destroyed or left behind, many had to look for work beyond the field they had worked in Syria. NGOs and their services seemed like a good opportunity, but many in the government and in the NGO community saw this system of providing education without certification as an issue.

“There is no standard at these organizations,” said Recep Üker, the president of the International Blue Crescent Relief and Development Foundation. “A lot of vocational training is being done without certification. Those providing these vocational courses don’t have any accreditation to do this kind of work in Turkey.” The government is trying to bring this under control, he said, by making organizations comply with its standards.

Elif worked at a couple of international aid organizations, where she conducted home visits to assess the needs of Syrians in Istanbul. At one organization, she was appalled at the support offered to workers and the limited budgets set aside to help refugees. “A child with heart disease needed surgery. They came from Aleppo and what was said to me was that we can’t provide for this child’s surgery,” she said. “However, I later learn that the program coordinator was taking the money for the champagne he drank at a meeting in Prague from program funds.” Elif also mentioned her Iraqi co-worker. who worked as a translator. He was earning half of Elif’s salary, his wife was pregnant and he only got health insurance when he pressed for it. Elif requested to be unnamed in this story.

In the summer of 2015 when the body of a three-year-old Syrian refugee washed up on the beaches of the Bodrum in Turkey’s southwest, Zeynep Hurbaş was bothered by the passive responses she saw on Facebook. She made a list of organizations, compelling others to volunteer. It was shared thousands of times overnight, and CNN’s Turkish affiliate called her to appear live on television. Since then, she has been working with local organizations to assist Syrians living in Turkey.

Zeynep received a donation from an American couple and brought the money to an NGO to use to heat refugees’ homes during the winter. But she threatened to report the organization after it said it wouldn’t use the money for coal because it wasn’t a renewable resource and the money would go elsewhere. She threatened to report it again for taking 30 percent of the donation to use for administrative costs, what she perceived as illegal by using donations under different pretenses than agreed. “I could have gotten 100 kids back to school with that money,” she said, referring to a program she coordinated to enroll children in school. “I know they need to do their administrative jobs to get money and support for their work, but I can’t help but roll my eyes.”

Zeynep much prefers to support local groups. “The only thing that seems to work are the neighborhood associations,” she said. These centers were established before the Syrians arrived and already developed the infrastructure to aid the disadvantaged. Despite working full time as an administrator at a university, she finds time to organize food-delivery services, conduct home visits and make sure families have access to identification cards, healthcare and education.

Yasser’s Hayat Sür Derneği has worked closely with the government for without issue, and since it has an educational focus, it has to reapply for permission to provide educational services. At the beginning of November, Yasser said his organization prepared a set of guidelines for the ministry and expects to start programs again in 2018. Recep’s organization collaborates with a government employment agency, İşkur, to find work opportunities for Syrians. “Many of them are getting an education, but on the flip side, they can’t find work,” he said. “We’re going to make an agreement both with Learn Throughout Life and with İşkur so that whichever education we provide…they can find work with the certificate they get.”

While many NGOs face pressure from the government, others have continued working effectively. International organizations face the blunt of this pressure, affecting their ability to efficiently aid the Syrians. Some predict that after attaining a certain amount of control, the government will allow organizations to work more freely under its scrupulous gaze. But for now, it is difficult to predict when and if the pressure will relent.

“All of these things are barriers to the improvement of the Syrian refugees’ situations,” Merve said. “The state doesn’t have a chance to solve this by itself. If they were in the camps, then yes, it could have solved this in isolation. But anymore these people are living in 81 provinces, and this isn’t something that can be done just from the hand of the state.”