EU must step up funding for Syrian refugees settling in Turkey - mayor

The mayor of a Turkish city that took the brunt of refugees from Syria's war urged the European Union on Wednesday to make good on pledges of aid as the municipality seeks to provide the people with more permanent livelihoods.

Fatma Sahin

Turkey has accepted some 3.5 million refugees from Syria with the southern city of Gaziantep - near front lines along Syria's northern border - hosting 500,000 alone, or a quarter of its population.

After over a million refugees flowed through Turkey to the EU in 2015, the bloc agreed to pay Ankara in exchange it preventing further refugees from trying to cross the Mediterranean to Greece and travel onwards to wealthy western Europe. That deal reduced the human flow to a trickle.

The EU says it has allocated all of the 3 billion euros (£2.62 million) it had promised Turkey for 2016-17, though less than 2 billion of that had so far been disbursed due to procedural issues, which Ankara sees as petty.

"We expect the EU to keep its promises in the fastest way possible," Fatma Sahin, Gaziantep's mayor and a prominent member of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party, told Reuters on a visit to EU headquarters in Brussels.

"They have to walk the talk."

Sahin, who was to meet top EU migration and humanitarian officials in Brussels, wants the bloc to pitch in more as Gaziantep has been shifting from giving refugees basic food and shelter to offering them schooling, health services and jobs.

Since the migration deal in early 2016, EU-Turkish ties have soured over what the bloc sees as Erdogan's authoritarianism and harsh treatment of critics and dissenters, especially since a botched coup attempt in July 2016.

Despite Turkey being an important NATO ally, the EU has all but frozen Turkey's accession bid - long stalled in any case - in reaction to sweeping dismissals and arrests of the military, judges, scientists and journalists following the failed coup.

While Erdogan wants all Syrian refugees to return home eventually, Sahin - as mayor of a city near Syria's front line - knows that will not happen anytime soon.

"We made an agreement with the EU. Turkey is fulfilling its conditions entirely," she said, adding that the first, 3-billion-euro tranche of aid should come through swiftly.

"There is no certainty about the second lot at the moment and we want everything to happen as promised and in the fastest way possible," she said of another 3 billion euros the bloc has tentatively promised but, as relations with Turkey have deteriorated, is now debating whether and how to follow through.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; editing by Mark Heinrich)