Ankara pressed to explain $30 billion refugee bill

By Zülfikar Doğan

Seemingly contradictory statements by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and government ministers on how much money Turkey has spent on Syrian refugees are raising further question marks on an already controversial issue in the country. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, has turned up the pressure on Erdogan to explain in detail the $30 billion that the president says the Syrian refugees have cost Ankara.

Addressing Erdogan in a speech in parliament Nov. 28, Kilicdaroglu said, “Wherever you went, you said you had spent $30 billion for the Syrians. Easier said than done. We look at the Syrians and most of them are beggars or poor fellows. Some have even died from hunger. Even at the United Nations General Assembly, you spoke of spending $30 billion. I am asking you to explain [the figure].… When, where and for whom did you spend that $30 billion?”

In February, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu had put the Syrian refugee bill since 2011 at $25 billion. Erdogan then put the figure at $30 billion — first July 8 at the G-20 summit in Hamburg and then Sept. 19 at the UN General Assembly. Similarly, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in August that Turkey had spent $30 billion for the Syrians, stressing that Turkey had the largest number of refugees in the world. In further remarks in London on Nov. 27, Yildirim said that 250,000 Syrian babies had been born in Turkey and that 600,000 Syrian children were receiving education in schools in the country. In September 2015, then-Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesman Numan Kurtulmus had put the sum spent on Syrians at $7.6 billion.

According to these figures provided at different times, the bill of the Syrians swelled by more than $22 billion in two years’ time and $5 billion in five months’ time, even though the number of Syrian refugees has not seen an extraordinary increase in the past few years. The regularly updated statistics on the website of the General Directorate of Migration Management show that the total number of Syrian refugees stood at 3,320,814 as of Nov. 16, with only 228,408 of them in refugee camps and the remaining living across Turkey via their own means.

The $30 billion bill suggests that Turkey has spent roughly $9,000 per Syrian. This means about $36,000 per family of four and even more for larger families with more than two children, which are typical for the refugee community. Of note, the minimum wage in Turkey is 1,400 Turkish lira ($368) per month, and millions of Turks survive on that much money.

Meanwhile, Syrians have set up more than 8,000 companies in Turkey, employing close to 100,000 people, according to Vural Cakir, the head of the Human Development Foundation. In the border province of Gaziantep, for instance, those companies have come to figure prominently in the local food and clothing sectors. In short, thousands of Syrians have become contributors to the Turkish economy, paying taxes and creating jobs.

According to data by the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), which is attached to the prime minister’s office, Turkey has spent $25 billion on the Syrian refugees and 510,000 Syrian children go to school in the country. AFAD is the agency that manages Turkey’s aid for refugees and coordinates the spending of other institutions from their own budgets. Even AFAD’s figures do not match Erdogan’s $30 billion.

Deputy Prime Minister Recep Akdag claims the bill is even higher than $30 billion. Referring to Ankara’s investments and spending on public services such as health care, education and transport, he uses the argument that “the Syrians, too, are using the roads built” in the country. According to Ankara’s calculations, Akdag says that European countries spend a daily sum of 40 euros ($47.4) per refugee, which, based on 3 million refugees, would mean 120 million euros ($142.2 million) per day.

In a Nov. 29 speech, Erdogan, who had previously spoken of more than 3 million refugees, mentioned a four-fold number this time, saying, “Turkey has spent $30 billion over seven years for refugees, whose total number exceeds 12 million.” He offered also a breakdown of the bill: $2.3 billion spent through AFAD, municipal services worth $6 billion and $1.2 billion spent through nongovernmental organizations.

The total of this breakdown amounts to $9.5 billion. So what about the remaining $20.5 billion? Erdogan said it reflected “the cost of training and health care services provided within and outside [Turkey’s] borders, the personnel assigned to those services and the work carried out for public order and security.” According to Erdogan, “the really big assistance” came from the Turkish people, which did not figure in the records. “Adding up all of these, we get a sum of about $30 billion [in aid] in line with international standards,” he said. Yet the amount of aid provided by the Turkish people remains unknown, even though it is included in the $30 billion total.

While Erdogan lauds the generosity of the Turkish people, millions of Turks receive poverty and neediness aid from the state. In a parliamentary debate on her ministry’s 2018 budget last month, Family and Social Policies Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya said the amount of government aid offered to millions of needy people would reach 38.3 billion Turkish liras (nearly $10 billion) this year, and that some 95% of the ministry’s 2018 budget was allocated to welfare assistance.

Kilicdaroglu appears determined to keep up the pressure on Erdogan. Arguing that $30 billion is a huge sum that “would have made all Syrian refugees prosperous,” he said, “Yet there are Syrians who have died from hunger. If you have not [defrauded the people], you must give an account to this nation — penny by penny — of how you spent 30 billion in taxpayers’ money.”

The refugees, who have spread across the entire country since the Syrian war erupted in 2011, have had serious political, security, economic and social implications for Turkey. More than half a million Syrians live in Istanbul alone, while in some border provinces such as Kilis, they have outnumbered the local population. Erdogan’s claim of spending $30 billion on the refugees has now become the source of domestic political tensions, which appear unlikely to die down soon. Zülfikar Doğan began his career in journalism in 1976 at the Yanki news magazine in Ankara. He has worked as a reporter, news editor, representative and columnist at Milliyet, Posta, Aksam, Finansal Forum, Star and Karsi newspapers, and as a TV programmer and commentator on the economy and politics for TRT-1, Star, NTV and CNBC-e. He is currently editor in chief and columnist at the Korhaber news site.