After years of stalled negotiations, eight international aid organizations have finally been granted legal status in Turkey. The decision, announced in the days leading up to Turkey’s parliamentary elections last month, will allow the NGOs to more efficiently conduct humanitarian work in neighboring Syria.
The international NGOs, including the Norwegian Refugee Council and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), provide assistance to Syrians affected by the ongoing civil war. The groups distribute much-needed food, water, medical aid and housing materials. With Turkish legal status, aid workers can more easily cross the border into Syria.
Most NGOs working in Syria have their offices “for legal and security reasons” inside the southern Turkish border. For many of these organizations, bureaucratic technicalities have slowed the registration process. MSF says that the Turkish government took eight years to review its application.
Tensions between the government and rival parties could also be to blame for the delays. MSF representative Aitor Zabalgogeazkoa explains, “We’ve been perceived as supporting the Kurdish agenda, for working in the southeast, but we simply worked there because more difficult displacements were happening in the east of the country.”
A Turkish government official reported that 42 international NGOs working in Syria are now legally registered in Turkey. Organization leaders hope that the recent changes will lead to improved relations with Turkish authorities.
Legal recognition ensures that the NGOs receive tax bonuses and waived export fees for goods bought in Turkey. It also allows the groups to more easily rent office space and handle bank transactions.
The newly registered NGOs will also be cleared to work, for the first time, with Turkey’s rapidly growing refugee population. As the civil war in Syria drags on, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey is expected to reach two million by the end of the year.
The international humanitarian community has praised the recognition of the eight NGOs as a “step in the right direction” for Turkey. Many believe that the announcement signals a change in Turkey’s management of the humanitarian crisis.
The NGO decision comes at a transitional time for Turkish politics. In the recent general elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in 13 years. The loss has effectively destroyed the president’s attempts to amend the constitution and expand his executive powers. In the coming weeks, his party will attempt to form a coalition government.
Despite President Erdoğan’s seemingly autocratic tendencies, the AKP has been the most pro-refugee of the four parties in parliament. While in power, the AKP has spent close to $6 billion accommodating the Syrian refugees. However, the president’s “open door policy” for Syrians has become increasingly unpopular as Turkey’s economy has declined. Some anti-Syrian demonstrations have even turned violent, with Turks attacking refugees with knives and sticks.
While the Syrian refugees could not vote in last month’s elections, they have a lot riding on the impending government changes. Experts say that the turning tide of public opinion will likely force the new government to tighten restrictions on the Syrians.
– Caitlin Harrison