The German chancellor, Angel Merkel, has arrived in southern Turkey to inaugurate the EU aid programme for Syrians in the country, amid concerns that her visit validates Turkey’s creeping authoritarianism and overstates the EU’s humanitarian contribution to the Syrian crisis.
Merkel, along with the European council president, Donald Tusk, and Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president of the European commission, were met on Saturday by the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu. The delegation will visit a new refugee camp near the border with Syria before visiting a child protection centre.
The visit aims to highlight the initial beneficiaries of the €6bn (£4.7bn) that the EU has pledged to give Turkey over the next few years, in exchange for Ankara readmitting all asylum seekers deported from Greece.
Ahead of the trip, Tusk’s office said: “Disbursements from the EU’s newly established facility for refugees in Turkey are ongoing and the identification and planning for further projects has intensified.”
Merkel’s visit is the latest in a series of moves aimed at getting Turkey to help end the continent’s greatest wave of human movement since the second world war. More than 850,000 refugees entered Europe after leaving Turkey last year, the majority of them ending up in Germany, and Merkel wants Ankara’s support to bring the numbers down.
In exchange for Turkish acquiescence, Europe has promised looser visa restrictions for Turks travelling to Europe and agreed to accelerate negotiations over Turkey’s proposed accession to the EU.
But Merkel and her European colleagues have been accused of pandering too much to Turkey, amid calls for stronger international criticism of the government’s crackdown on political opponents.
Can Dündar, one of two prominent Turkish journalists on trial for reporting that Turkey was supplying arms to Syrian rebels, said Merkel was betraying the principles of democracy and free speech. Writing in the German weekly Der Spiegel on Saturday, Dündar accused the chancellor of selling out Turkish civil society by giving President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a free pass over his curbs on political freedom.
“When you arrive, we’ll be on trial – alongside several academics who signed a petition calling for peace,” Dündar wrote. “Will you again leave, behaving as if none of this pressure exists? Or will you lend an ear to us, and those who stand with us, in support of free expression?”
There are also concerns that Merkel is undermining free speech in Germany after she agreed to a request from Ankara to prosecute a German comedian who made fun of Erdoğan.
By going ahead with the EU-Turkey deal, Merkel was said to be turning a blind eye to the dire predicament of many Syrians in Turkey. Under the terms of the agreement, Syrians are deported back to Turkey on the basis that Ankara guarantees their rights.
However, despite recent legislative changes, only a tiny minority of Syrians have the right to work in Turkey. The majority work on the black market and live in urban poverty far from refugee camps, such as the one Merkel will visit, which only house 10% of the 2.7 million Syrians in Turkey.
In Gaziantep, Syrians praised Merkel for her wider support for refugees last year, but reminded her of the desperate situation faced by the majority of Syrians in Turkey who do not have homes provided for them by the state.
“It’s true – the camp in Nizip is very nice,” said Abu Shihab, the Syrian manager of a sweatshop that employs Syrian children. “But what about the many more people who live outside the camps?”
While Merkel’s visit to a child protection centre highlights her intention to help Syrian children, Syrians suggested that solving the humanitarian crisis would take a far more concerted effort. Surveys of Syrian refugees in Gaziantep by the Syrian Relief Network, a coalition of NGOs, suggest that only a third of the city’s Syrian children go to school, partly because of a lack of capacity and partly because they are put to work by parents who cannot earn enough on the black market to support their families.
“Nobody supports them,” said Shihab, sitting near a line of children making shoes. “Their families may earn only $100 a month, so [the parents] have to look for other sources of money. And they can’t send their kids to school, so instead they send them to work.”
This was, he argued, too big a problem for Turkey to deal with on its own. “Turkey has nearly 3 million refugees and only a small percentage of them went to Europe – and yet Europe has already had enough,” he said. “So how do you expect Turkey to do more?”
Human rights activists argue that Merkel’s support for the EU-Turkey deal has forced the latter to take increasingly brutal measures against Syrians crossing its border, in order to ensure that its refugee burden does not increase.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented an increase in shootings of Syrians attempting to cross the Turkish border and in Syrians being deported back the other way.
Judith Sunderland, the associate director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and central Asia division, said: “Instead of touring a sanitised refugee camp, EU leaders should look over the top of Turkey’s new border wall to see the tents of thousands of war-weary Syrian refugees blocked on the other side.
“Then, they should go to the detention centre for people who were abusively deported from Greece. That should make them rethink the flawed EU-Turkey deal.”