Syrian refugees walk inside a camp in Turkey. Photo by: © European Union 2016 - European Parliament / CC BY-NC-ND

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Just before Ramadan in late spring 2017, the full might of the Turkish state descended on a foreign aid agency in the border town of Gaziantep. Six different government agencies, among them the migration directorate and the gendarmerie, had come to search the offices, demanding to see permits, licenses, and registrations.

“The entire gamut of government departments who had the right to investigate a foreign firm was there,” a senior employee of the organization said. It was the second inspection in a month. A Syrian staffer whose work permit was still pending jumped off a wall to evade detention, out of fear that he might get deported. The authorities left soon after, having found no evidence that the agency had broken the law.

Civil space in peril

Closed offices, seized records, bureaucratic delays, and new laws targeting their work —  these are just some of the ways that governments are cracking down against aid groups across the globe.

In this series, Devex will examine this shrinking civic space and go behind the scenes to understand why and how NGOs are being singled out — and how the impact resonates far beyond the borders of those countries involved.

The inspection came amid a wider crackdown on international organizations delivering aid to Syrians in southern Turkey and across the border in northern Syria. Over the past year, Turkish authorities have grown increasingly suspicious of foreign nongovernmental organizations operating on their soil and have begun enforcing long-ignored regulations.

A series of detentions and the expulsion of Mercy Corps earlier this year have rattled the aid community in Turkey. At the same time, mounting bureaucratic obstacles are threatening NGOs’ ability to operate: the Turkish government has allowed permits to lapse, leaving organizations in legal limbo and employees at risk of deportation.

“You feel that there is a general trend in Turkey — that they are closing the tap,” one Syrian WASH officer said.

With little official indication as to what’s behind the crackdown, aid organizations are unsure how to adapt. Many have taken to lobbying the Turkish government while drawing up contingency plans. Several NGOs with expired permits have taken a wait-and-see approach, hoping the issue is one of an overwhelmed bureaucracy. A handful have made the risky decision to continue their work without legal permission.

Aid workers said that, to date, the impact of these inspections on their projects had been minimal. Yet they cautioned that if organizations are kept in limbo for longer than a few months, many would have to consider downsizing or withdrawing operations from Turkey. Such an exodus would severely disrupt the aid flow into northern Syria, not least because international NGOs fund numerous local aid groups that provide vital humanitarian support.

The uncertainty has also generated a palpable sense of anxiety among aid workers in Turkey. Those willing to speak to the media only did so on condition of anonymity. Most organizations approached by Devex declined interview requests outright, with several citing a need to keep a low profile in Turkey. The Turkish government did not respond to requests for comment.

Work permits

Along the border with Syria, aid workers are on edge. Syrian INGO staff member in particular have grown fearful. In spring, following the closure of Mercy Corps, Turkish police detained nine employees of the Danish organization DanChurchAid and eventually deported four Syrian staff members to Sudan. The International Medical Corps also had 15 staff members detained; four international staff members were deported, while the 11 Syrians were let go after two weeks. Another Syrian aid worker, employed by World Vision, was detained in July. World Vision’s Syria communications director Chris Weeks said their employee was released after several weeks.

While the reasons for the IMC and World Vision detentions are unknown, the DanChurchAid employees had pending work permit applications. These permits are typically issued for one year; although delays are common. This year, INGOs found that a significant number of applications were simply not processed.

At the agency inspected before Ramadan, 25 employees had their permits refused — a manageable number, the senior employee said. But if this trend continues, his organization may have no choice but to relocate out of Turkey.

“Over the next six months another 50, 60 could come up for renewal. If they don’t get renewed — that’s it,” he said.

Other INGOs face an even greater problem. While many obtained long-term permits to operate in Turkey, several were only granted licenses of one year or less. Save the Children’s six-month permit expired in mid-September; several organizations’ one-year permits have already lapsed. While waiting for renewal or rejection, NGOs are left in limbo, technically unable to carry out operations. Staff members’ work and residence permits expire on the same date as the license.

“It’s a massive anxiety,” said the Turkey director of an NGO with such a short-term license. Once the permit runs out, “banking gets frozen, you can’t make a legal contract in Turkey with staff members or suppliers, we can’t rent an office.”

In the case of a brief waiting period, they would be able to continue operations, he added.

“That’s workable if you know if it’s a bureaucratic delay,” he said. “If you’re about to be asked to leave the country, you should be very careful.”

Yet, the precise cause of the detentions, refusals and delays remains elusive. Paranoia and suspicion have run rampant in Turkey since last summer’s failed coup, in which a fragment of the military attempted to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government, killing more than 240 people. Erdogan declared a state of emergency in July 2016, and some 140,000 civil servants have been suspended since. More than 50,000 people have been jailed.

A change of heart

The current climate has caught many off guard, in part because it has been a recent shift. When the Syrian conflict began, a flood of relief organizations poured into Turkey, and Ankara — which supported the rebels — largely let them operate as they pleased.

Authorities only started asking NGOs to register in 2014. As The Century Foundation noted in a recent report on the aid crackdown, Turkey had no previous experience in dealing with INGOs. As they scrambled to respond to the growing crisis, “nearly every INGO fell afoul of some regulation”.

Turkey gradually exchanged its initial laissez-faire attitude to aid for a stricter approach. Although no official explanation was issued, Ankara had plenty of reasons to want more oversight. As the rebels’ northern territory shrank and the Kurds’ territory grew, Turkey became preoccupied with containing the Syrian-Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which it deemed a threat to its national security. The YPG’s sister group in Turkey, the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has fought the Turkish state for decades.

Turkey’s domestic security situation also deteriorated amid a spate of terror attacks carried out by the Islamic State group and the PKK, and a 2016 investigation by the United States Agency for International Development inspector general discovered substantial corruption among some organizations delivering aid to Syria from Turkey. After the coup attempt, the government became obsessed with rooting out enemies, real or perceived.

Until recently, the government had paid little attention to whether aid agencies were complying with Turkish labor laws, for example. Now, authorities are insisting that foreign NGOs hire five Turks for every expat, as the law dictates — a ratio few INGOs fulfill, given that Syrians are counted as expats.

Some aid workers said that INGOs were not used to working in a country with a strong centralized bureaucracy, causing tensions between them and the Turkish state from the start.

“Turkish officials do have a right to be suspicious of INGOs who have largely been very difficult, unwilling to allow for audits, always trying to find a way around a request rather than just simply comply,” a senior INGO employee said.

Politics of fear

Some delays and complications may well be unintentional byproducts of Turkey’s bureaucracy, which was gutted after the coup. Simultaneously, however, anti-Western sentiment has surged.

Turkey has accused Europe and the United States of aiding terrorists, citing Western support for the YPG and its political arm, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, inside Syria. For the past year, pro-government media have run stories claiming foreign NGOs are sponsoring terror groups.

Mercy Corps, many believe, was targeted for its work in Syria’s Kurdish areas, which are under the control of the PYD. Selim Koru, an analyst at the Turkish think-tank Economic Policy Research Foundation, or TEPAV, argued that from Ankara’s perspective, Mercy Corps was working against Turkey’s national interest from within its own borders: “It was helping the PYD out of Turkish territory and got shut down.”

Others theorize that the inflammatory media coverage has a trickle-down effect. Since the coup attempt, civil servants are well aware that a single wrong decision — particularly when terror allegations are involved — may cost them their job. Anxious civil servants may therefore be reluctant to approve INGO permits, several aid workers told Devex.

Making their case

With the causes of the crackdown uncertain, some aid agencies are doubling their lobbying efforts in Ankara as a preventative measure.

“Any NGO that decides they want to work in Turkey should be focusing on trying to explain their approach, trying to reassure the government of their professionalism,” said the country director whose NGO operates on a short-term permit.

Several NGO employees said their organizations were asking staff members without work permits to work from home, lest they be detained during an office inspection. As one Syrian employee in Gaziantep discovered, even working from a cafe carries risks.

“One time the police went to Starbucks and asked for the work permits of people working on laptops,” he said.

World Vision, whose one-year permit expired in August, has a contingency plan in place to ensure its projects in northern Syria continue. Communications director Weeks said its staff members are currently “working elsewhere,” with some operations coordinated from Amman in Jordan.

But many NGOs acknowledge that as the situation drags on, it is becoming increasingly untenable. The lack of work permits and long-term operating licenses not only reduces NGOs’ capacity and ability to plan for the long term, but also makes hiring new employees difficult.

The Syrian WASH officer said that refugees were increasingly choosing positions at local NGOs, which have not been targeted, over foreign organizations.

“INGO salaries are better, but they’re choosing the Syrian NGOs for stability,” he said.

One European NGO whose registration has expired is among a handful of organizations that have decided to shut their Turkey offices, but continue operations regardless.

“From the end of last year, we stopped receiving any work permits for expatriates. We keep operating but not officially,” said the organization’s Middle East director. It was not a sustainable solution, he admitted. “I don’t think we will keep it operational for ages, maximum three to six months.”

Syria aid in question

An exodus of INGOs would have devastating effects, particularly on northwestern Syria, which depends heavily on aid delivered via the Turkish border. The area is home to more than 2 million people, including 900,000 internally displaced people.

Even if only the European NGO left, its Middle East director estimated their departure would leave a significant gap, slashing food assistance for 200,000 Syrians and depriving 2,500 people of their income. Another INGO whose permit has expired said they had supported more than 200,000 people with health and hygiene projects last year; Mercy Corps delivered aid to as many as half a million Syrians.

INGO support to local charities could have a particularly devastating impact, the Century Foundation report finds.

“Inside rebel-held Syria, INGOs and partnered local NGOs fuel much of the local economy, including serving as one of the most important sources of legitimate, non-militant employment,” the report said.

If just one INGO leaves, other organizations, including Turkish NGOs, may be able to plug the gap. A series of closures, however, could sent the already-precarious living standards in northern Syria into a downward spiral.

“Without being in Turkey, access to northeastern Syria is extremely challenging,” the Middle East director said. The Turkish authorities’ heavy-handed approach, he added, might end up putting lives at risk.

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About the author

  • Zia Weise

    Zia Weise is an independent journalist based in Istanbul. When not covering Turkey, she often reports on migration and refugees from across the region.

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