Merkel’s trip to Turkey highlights a major problem with Europe’s refugee policy

Merkel in Turkey
Umit Bektas

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — She may have had the best intentions, but Angela Merkel’s visit to Turkey couldn’t have come at a more awkward time. 

As the German chancellor arrived in Ankara to discuss how Turkey could do more to stem the tide of Syrian refugees crossing the Aegean Sea to reach Europe, tens of thousands of civilians fleeing a dramatic increase in violence were banging at Turkey’s door, demanding to be let in. 

Some 50,000 Syrians are thought to have amassed on the Turkey-Syria border over the last few days. They’re trying to escape a Syrian government offensive backed by a barrage of Russian airstrikes that seeks to regain control of Aleppo from opposition fighters.

Merkel’s visit, at a time when she is under increasing pressure at home over her handling of the refugee crisis, draws into focus a contradiction at the heart of Europe’s refugee policy: calling for Turkey to open its doors while at the same time doing everything it can to close its own. 

Turkey has so far resisted calls to open the border and let the stranded civilians in, instead allowing only urgent cases to enter. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday, however, that the border would be opened “if necessary.” In the meantime, Turkish aid organizations have set up camps and provided aid on the Syrian side. 

More from GlobalPost: Tens of thousands fleeing a Syrian government offensive have nowhere to hide

In a joint press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Monday, Merkel said she was “horrified” by the intensified Russian airstrikes, and spoke of the need for quicker action to help Turkey deal with the refugee crisis. 

"We need a visible first project. It doesn't help a child from Syria that is a refugee here, or a Turkish class that has to share its room with Syrian refugees to say we have pledged 3 billion. They want to see a school in the city and fast," Merkel said.

The 3 billion euros in question (about $3.3 billion) was promised by the European Union to Ankara to help alleviate the burden of looking after its massive refugee population, in return for greater action to stop people trying to reach Europe.

Turkey was pointedly reminded of that donation on Sunday, as the numbers at the border continued to swell, by the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who said the funding was to ensure that Turkey has the "means, the instruments, the resources to protect and to host people that are seeking asylum.”

But the reaction of the Turkish media provided an insight into how many here view EU policy. The pro-government outlet Yeni Safak accused EU leaders of “hypocrisy,” according to the BBC

Turkish politicians have been at pains to point out that the country is already hosting 2.5 million Syrians, and have stated repeatedly that it has reached its capacity to take in any more. 

Migrants have continued to make their way to Europe from Turkey, despite attempts by the Turkish government to crack down on people-smugglers on its western coast. 

The danger of the journey was again highlighted on Monday, as some 24 people drowned trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos, according to Turkish media. Eleven children were among the victims.