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Turkey just kicked a major refugee aid organization out of the country

The US-based Mercy Corps was given little explanation as to why it’s been shut down.

A Syrian refugee boy is seen resting on a couch outside his home at a tent camp on the outskirts of Izmir, Turkey, on April 28, 2016.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The already-grim situation for the more than 2.9 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey and many thousands more on the border between Turkey and Syria just took a turn for the worse: Mercy Corps, one of the largest humanitarian aid organizations providing resources to thousands of refugees each month inside Syria, has just been kicked out of Turkey, effective immediately.

“The Turkish government has revoked Mercy Corps’ registration that allows us to operate in Turkey, forcing us to shut down our operations in Turkey,” Christine Bragale, a spokesperson for the organization said in a statement emailed to the press Wednesday morning. “Our hearts are broken by this turn of events, which comes after five years of cooperation with the government of Turkey and other local partners.”

A Turkish official told Reuters the reason was “technical” — based on a failure to provide correct documentation for the organization’s license to work. The official did not specify exactly what information was missing, or how it might be corrected.

But as the British publication the Telegraph reports, the “Turkish press has carried allegations against Mercy Corps and other international groups in recent months, claiming that the NGOs were supporting armed groups against Turkey’s government.”

Bragale firmly rejected that charge: “We have every confidence in the impartiality and the integrity of our operations. We’re not a political organisation and our reason for being is to deliver assistance to civilians who need it the most,” she told the Telegraph.

Mercy Corps has run one of the largest humanitarian operations in Syria since 2012, and those operations inside Syria will continue, though the organization is now scrambling to rebase its operations. It’s the organization’s efforts based in Turkey that have now been shut down. According to Bragale, since 2012, “Mercy Corps has conducted from Turkey one of the largest humanitarian operations in Syria, delivering urgently needed, lifesaving assistance to 350,000 to 500,000 innocent civilians in Syria each month.” The group, her statement added, had recently “provided a range of social services and other emergency assistance in Turkey, reaching about 100,000 Syrian and Turkish men, women and children in 2016 alone.”

Expelling one of the main organizations providing critical aid for Syrians trapped both in Turkey and on the border will not only harm tens of thousands of desperate and vulnerable people — it will also increase the burden on Turkey to care for the refugees. In other words, this sudden move could actually end up hurting Turkey itself.

This is just as bad as it looks

More than 90 percent of Syrian refugees in Turkey are actually living outside of refugee camps, struggling to make ends meet, sometimes in the streets. And a News Deeply report last summer found that those in camps are uniquely vulnerable to exploitation, with many refugees being used as low-paid migrant farm workers. While Turkey was initially welcoming to Syrian refugees, as the crisis has worn on and the reality sets in that refugees will likely be permanent members of Turkish society, that welcome has begun to wear thin.

In March 2016, Turkey signed a deal with the European Union agreeing to take in refugees from Europe. Which means that, combined with Donald Trump’s executive order (temporarily) banning refugees and Syrians from the United States, the numbers of refugees in Turkey won’t be shrinking anytime soon. And those refugees — 73 percent of whom are women and children — are living in increasingly dire conditions.

"After five years of conflict, many are slipping deeper and deeper into poverty," United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Ariane Rummery told the BBC in July. "Many children are still not in school ... in Turkey for example only about 40% of the refugees are in school.”

Last summer, images of Syrian refugees returned from Greece to Turkey showed conditions of severe overcrowding for refugees. Last week, a Washington Post photo essay detailed how refugees are struggling to integrate into society, find work, and make their way in the face of a growing distrust of their presence in Turkey.

A 2015 Migration Policy Institute study found that caring for the refugees had cost the Turkish government US$5 billion by early 2015 — only 3 percent of which had been covered by the international community.

This financial burden caused a turn in Turkish public perceptions of the refugees, the report explains, with 70 percent of Turks saying they felt the refugees were “damaging” the Turkish economy and 60 percent saying they opposed caring for Syrians in poverty when there were Turks in need who could receive that aid instead.

Mercy Corps isn’t the first NGO to run afoul of the Turkish government

If this is indeed a minor paperwork snafu, it's possible it could be fixed and Mercy Corps could continue its work. But if there is a political motive behind the move, this could prove a potentially indefinite suspension.

Mercy Corps wouldn’t be the first organization to find itself in the Turkish government’s crosshairs: In November, some 375 nongovernmental organizations — including human rights organizations, women’s rights organizations, student and business associations, and even sports clubs — were shuttered in Turkey under an executive decree.

This shuttering of human rights organizations and watchdog groups is part of a larger crackdown on political speech and dissent in Turkey that began in July 2016 after a failed coup attempt to remove President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan.

That crackdown has included the incarceration of some 155 journalists, including a German-Turkish dual national citizen, Deniz Yücel, whose arrest and detention on February 14 has sparked an international crisis between Germany and Turkey.

Mark Toner, a US State Department spokesperson, told the Washington Post, “We have informed the government of Turkey of our concerns regarding Mercy Corps’ closure and the impact it will have on their ability to provide critical humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations.”

What Toner didn’t mention was that it may also impact the Turkish government’s ability to provide already-stretched resources to the refugee population. It seems rather strange to take on that kind of additional burden just because of some paperwork issues.

On NPR’s All Things Considered, Christine Bragale noted the organization is committed to finding another way to reach the refugees in Syria it has been helping up to this point. But finding another base of operation will not be easy.

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