By Ruby Mellen and Colum Lynch
In mid-July, Turkish police stormed the premises of a Starbucks in the border town of Gaziantep, checking the IDs and laptops of foreign aid workers responsible for delivering vital supplies to needy Syrians across the border.
The raid was part of a wider crackdown on a community of international aid workers that sprung up in southern Turkey following the start of the Syrian civil war. Drawn from around the world, they have provided a crucial lifeline to hundreds of thousands of Syrians in opposition-controlled towns sprinkled throughout northern Syria that have been cut off from food, medicine, and other humanitarian supplies by fighting and a Syrian government policy of starving its perceived enemies into submission.
Turkey now hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees, according to the U.N., more than any country in the world, and the border town of Gaziantep has become a central hub for humanitarian organizations.
The Turkish crackdown has primarily targeted large American aid agencies, including Mercy Corps and the International Medical Corps, which were expelled from the country in March and April, respectively. But Turkish authorities have more recently ratcheted up pressure on Syrian aid workers, who have faced lengthy detentions and the threat of deportation to foreign countries, including Sudan, which accepts Syrians without visas. The situation for many relief agencies has become so grave that they are being forced to relocate their operations to Amman, Jordan, or northern Iraq.
"It's hugely debilitating to the humanitarian effort in northern Syria," said Jeremy Konyndyk, the head of foreign disaster assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Barack Obama administration. The Turkish approach, he added, is ultimately "self-defeating" because "the more they make life difficult for the NGOs, the less aid gets into Syria, and the more pressure they are going to have on their borders."
The crackdown has its roots in the July 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has responded by firing government officials, shutting down independent newspapers, and imposing ever steeper restrictions on local and international nonprofits.
Whether fueled by Erdogan's desire to consolidate power or a fundamental belief that the organizations are assisting groups that oppose the Turkish government, stories from aid workers and diplomats across the region reveal a structured crackdown on NGOs, especially American ones.
But strident measures came to a head in March when Ankara forced Mercy Corps, a major U.S.-based international relief organization that has assisted hundreds of thousands of Syrians on both sides of the border, to shut down its Turkish operations.
The move sent tremors through the international aid community. "They all immediately started panicking," said one American relief worker, who declined to speak on the record.
Several relief agencies, including Mercy Corps, CARE, and Save the Children, began drawing up contingency plans for moving their operations to the northern Iraqi cities of Erbil and Dohuk. Others began moving their operations to Amman.
Since the crackdown, Turkey has shut down hundreds of NGOs in the country, claiming they support groups that oppose the government, or has instituted bureaucratic hoops that make it almost impossible for international NGOs to function.
Aid groups now face layers of bureaucratic obstacles from myriad federal agencies, including the Finance Ministry and Turkey's intelligence branches. The organizations are now required to hire more Turkish nationals and provide detailed accounting of their sources of funding and the recipients of aid in Syria - a practical challenge for groups that work in opposition-controlled territory without banks or financial institutions. Aid workers are also being forced to obtain or renew work permits that are rarely issued and, if they are caught without them, could face detention and deportation.
"The Turks have set up systems of registration that are impossible to comply with," said one diplomat based in Gaziantep. That red tape then provides a legal justification for closing those NGOs, because the government can say, "These [organizations] have violated the law."
The tighter restrictions ultimately made their way to Gaziantep, ending the government's laissez-faire attitude toward aid groups assisting Syrians. Historically, Gaziantep has been the home base for aid organizations directly funneling relief to Syria since the start of the civil war there in 2011; it is one of the closest major cities across the border capable of feeding supplies to Aleppo. Turkey, somewhat new to the presence of many NGOs, let them act without instituting major government oversight for years, something that has changed as Erdogan continues his purge of dissidents and dissent.
While international workers can relocate as their organizations find it harder to operate in the region, the crackdown has had a significant effect on their local staff, particularly Syrian nationals, who have gone into semi-hiding, managing whatever relief efforts they could from their homes and steering clear of Turkish authorities in shopping malls and restaurants frequented by foreigners. They fear that one careless move could upend their lives, leading to a swift detention and, perhaps more troubling, deportation to Sudan, where some of their colleagues have landed.
"If they catch us without work permits, they will take us to prison and then force us to leave Turkey," said one Syrian relief worker who has served with a foreign NGO for three years and who has been working at home for the past three months. "They give us the choice of going to Malaysia or Sudan," the aid worker said, referring to two countries Syrians can enter without visas.
"It is not a policy of Turkey to shut down NGOs," a spokesperson for the Turkish Embassy in Washington told Foreign Policy. "We have our own rules of registration, and we expect these NGOs, local or international, to abide by these rules."
Turkey has no particular "intent to target American NGOs whatsoever," the spokesperson added.
The crackdown has generated a few public protests in New York, where the United States and the U.N. have privately urged Turkey to relax its restrictions on foreign aid workers.
The U.N. has appeared hesitant to confront Turkey about its worsening human rights record. A senior U.N. relief official briefed the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria on July 27 and made no mention of the crackdown, and the issue hasn't come up in any public debates in the council either.
In private, however, some diplomats have made a starker plea. Last month, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., presented Turkey's representative to the international body, Feridun H. Sinirlioglu, with a list of American NGOs that have been targeted by authorities.
In April, she noted, 14 International Medical Corps staff were brought to police headquarters to check their documentation and subsequently detained. Four non-Syrian expats were deported the following day, and the remaining 19 Syrian staffers were sent to deportation centers. In July, Turkish national police detained a Syrian employee at World Vision's Gaziantep headquarters, even though the individual had a valid work permit.
"A World Vision staff member remains in police custody, and we continue to seek additional information," said a spokesperson from World Vision International.
At stake are not just the rights of humanitarian workers and their ability to function but also the hundreds of thousands of needy Syrians to whom they are delivering aid.
One source said the crackdown is having a "huge impact" on the international aid community's ability to care for Syrian refugees. Mercy Corps, the organization expelled in March, the source said, cares for some 100,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey and 770,000 displaced Syrians inside their country.
There is no one else with the capacity to fill the vacuum. "They are shuttered completely," the source said. "The Turkish NGOs are competent, but they don't have the capacity to replace [foreign NGOs]."
Other NGOs that ran operations out of or through Gaziantep, including Catholic Relief Services, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and Handicap International, have also come to a halt, though it's unclear if that was because of harassment or other reasons. All three of those organizations declined to comment on record about the reasons for their departure.
"They all had registration permits to operate both cross-border and refugee response," the source said. "But when their registration expired, they did not renew them. Their activities have ground to a halt."
Konyndyk, the former USAID official, noted that while the crackdown was concerning, the Turkish government's pressure on NGOs has been "gradually growing" over the past few years. He recalled a case where Turkish inspectors showed up at an NGO's office and levied a huge fine because it "didn't have a fire extinguisher in the right place."
Those sorts of seemingly arbitrary actions were done with a purpose, he believes. "I came away with the sense that it was an intentional harassment campaign to put NGOs in their place," Konyndyk said. "They were turning the screw for the sake of turning the screw."