The UCLG-MEWA 2016 CONGRESS, “Migration, Culture and Gastronomy Summit,” was held in Gaziantep on 19-21 April. The migration referred to is, of course, the migration of Syrian refugees to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
The previous week İstanbul Aydın University hosted the International Congress on Cities and City Councils. Though the focus was to be on sharing experiences and discussing the future of city councils, the Syrian refugee crisis dominated discussions on the first day.
According to statistics provided by the Ministry of the Interior, there are 2,255,299 refugees in Turkey: 279,574 in camps and 2 million in cities throughout Turkey. Of these, 800 thousand are school age children. An additional 160,000 Syrian babies have been born in Turkey. Syrian refugees are living in all 81 provinces, with 14% in İstanbul. Not surprisingly, 50% are living in the 4 provinces bordering Syria: Urfa, Hatay, Gaziantep and Kilis. 16%, the largest group, are living in Urfa. An official from Urfa said this was to be expected since Aleppo and Urfa are culturally very similar. Kilis, which is the smallest of these four provinces, has a local population of 95,000. But today it hosts 130,000 Syrian refugees.
This is where the problem begins. The budget for municipality services is based on the size of the local population. Today Kilis has a budget to provide services for 95,000 people; but the actual number it has to provide for is 230,000 people. Clearly the city cannot meet the needs of the refugees given its current budget.
The Mayor of Küçükçekmece, one of the 39 districts of Istanbul, noted that Turkish cities hosting Syrian refugees were unprepared to meet their needs. “We know what has to be done but the cities have not been given additional resources to meet the needs of the refugees. Nonetheless, we cannot ignore the desperate situation they are in. Therefore, we are having to cut back on services to our own residents and use those funds for the refugees. But the sad truth is that what little we can accomplish with these meager means is woefully inadequate.’’
When a city like Urfa suddenly finds an additional 350,000 people living within its borders, major investments are required to meet the additional demands on the water supply, transportation, sewer and waste removal systems. However, providing additional services requires additional personnel and equipment. Hosting school age children means providing education and this requires school buildings and hiring teachers. The increasing need for housing is driving up rents and real estate prices. Syrians are receiving free health care in public hospitals and this is straining health care services.
Foreign financial assistance is available but NOT to the cities. The rules pertaining to international funding preclude their use in housing construction or building schools. Social centers are desperately needed to house psychological support programs, skills training and language courses to ease social adaptation. But there is no international funding for social centers or health centers. No money for rent, power, water, heating….Yet this is where the assistance is needed.
Then there are the social problems, the Mayor of Büyükçekmece, another of the 39 districts of Istanbul, spoke of the social problems that are now plaguing the district. ‘’The EU looks at the refugee crisis as a numbers issue. How many people have arrived? How many more are on the way? Since the arrival of the refugees we are having to deal with robberies, prostitution, drugs, and homelessness. Desperate, refugees are willing to work for wages far below the rate paid to the locals. As a result, unemployment among locals is on the rise. Syrian women are being taken as mistresses, second or third wives. Divorce rates are on the rise. İ believe the social upheaval caused by the refugee crisis is as grave a problem as the Kurdish insurgency in southeast Turkey. İf we don’t put enough money in the pockets of the refugees so that they can meet their basic needs; if we do not educate the Syrian children, the social consequences for Turkey will be disastrous.’’
Cities located on the Aegean coast face a different challenge altogether. The Balikesir City Council representative spoke of the refugees trying to escape to Europe. ‘’We don’t have a large refugee population. Refugees come to our shores to make the crossing to the Greek islands. Those who’s crossing ended in tragedy; people whose loved ones drowned before their very eyes; they are the ones who return to our shores. And we are the ones who have to help them deal with the unbearable sorrow. Psychologists and teachers have volunteered to work with these people who have been traumatized beyond anything we can imagine. But there is no formal assistance being provided by any organization to meet this need.’’
The City Councils Congress officials used the meeting to share the problems they were facing Vis-a-Vis the Syrian refugees. At the UCLG Congress, officials chose to highlight the successes in addressing the needs of the refugees. The success of Gaziantep’s programs should be viewed as an example of the good that can be accomplished when sufficient resources are put to use where they are needed; and not arbitrarily assigned by agencies and bureaucrats.
The bottom line is that the refugees are here to stay for a long time, and many will never return. Cities need to develop short, medium and long term strategies for dealing with this crisis. And funding needs to be made available to cities so that they may deliver the services needed by the additional populations that they now host.