Should international NGOs fear Turkey's crackdown?

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Do international NGOs operating in and from Turkey have anything to worry about? Photo by: UNAOC / CC BY-NC-ND

International NGOs and relief agencies operating in and from Turkey are watching for signs as to how President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s state of emergency declaration could impact their operations, employees, and missions, following an attempted coup on his government last week.

Although no aid organizations have yet found themselves ensnared in a subsequent crackdown on civil society, experts urged vigilance and suggested monitoring any rhetorical attacks in the local press. Erdogan could use the mostly pro-government media to test the reaction to linking international NGOs to the coup, said Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

More than 10,000 people have been detained since some parts of the Turkish military attempted to take control of the government on July 15. Thousands of public and private sector employees have also been suspended or fired.

Seasoned from experiences in countries such as Russia, Egypt and China — which have recast international NGOs as foreign agents bent on undermining government rule — Turkey-based groups are keeping their heads down to avoid getting drawn into the widening web of suspicion.

The European Commission has criticized Erdogan’s “unacceptable decisions” to fire members of the education system, judiciary and the media in a statement by commission leaders Federica Mogherini and Johannes Hahn. They wrote: “President Erdogan stated that the measure will in no way affect democracy, the rule of law or fundamental freedoms. We indeed expect that they will be fully respected, and that the authorities will act with restraint.”

Turkey’s critical role taking in refugees and supporting relief efforts could tie the hands of potential whistleblowers who might otherwise speak out more loudly against the government’s actions. NGOs operating in the country and international partners both depend on Turkey for military and humanitarian access to Syria and, for the most part, seem to have adopted a “wait and see” approach.

Groups that responded to inquiries from Devex reported that their operations continue, but declined to provide further comment while information available to them about what to expect remains sparse.

A representative for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which coordinates cross-border Syrian relief programs from Turkey, did not report any impacts of the crackdown on aid operations, and instead praised Turkey’s “generosity” in serving as a refugee host and base of humanitarian relief.

“At this time, it is not clear what impact recent events will have on humanitarian programs based in Turkey,” the spokesperson said. “We appreciate the generosity shown by the government and people of Turkey in hosting nearly 3 million refugees and in providing an enabling environment for humanitarian actors to respond to the needs of those suffering inside Syria.”

Erdogan has laid much of the blame for the coup at the feet of exiled Turkish Islamic scholar and politician Fethullah Gülen and his followers. His government has requested the extradition of Gülen from the United States, where he lives in Pennsylvania.

But according to Cook, so far suspicion of international NGOs hasn’t been part of the media narrative — or the Erdogan administration’s rhetoric.

“Unlike Egypt, whose leaders are kind of maniacally focused on NGOs and international organizations operating there, I have yet to hear the Turkish government connect Gülen to any international NGO, other than ones that were avowedly and openly associated with the Gülen movement,” Cook said.

Cook pointed out that with nearly 3 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey, it is not necessarily in the country’s best interest to alienate or persecute the organizations and professionals tasked with managing and responding to the crisis.

“It’s taxing for the Turks. They’ve spent a lot of money. They need the help,” Cook said.

That does not mean NGOs should be complacent. Cook told Devex that Erdogan’s crackdown, political calculations can change quickly.

“Unless you start seeing [attacks on international NGOs] in the press or getting warnings from people who are closely identified with the government, I would keep your heads down and continue to do the good works that you and your colleagues are doing,” Cook said.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.