5/19/16 Washington Post: Op-Ed: Turkey is making it impossible for millions of refugees to get the help they need

May 19

Ben Smilowitz is founder and executive director of Disaster Accountability Project. Emily Troutman is a journalist and founder of Aid.Works.

On Monday, thousands of humanitarians will gather in Istanbul for the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, hosted by the United Nations. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said that the primary goal of the event is to reaffirm our commitment to humanitarian ideals and take action to end “the erosion of humanity which we see in the world today.” Turkey is a good place to start, as the country hosts millions of refugees but has made it impossible for the world to learn how they are faring.

Turkey is host to 2.7 million refugees and seeks $6.7 billion in additional humanitarian assistance from the European Union. Helping the refugees is a moral imperative, but Turkey is unlikely to receive the funding needed until it makes transparency a priority. In their 2016-2017 Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan, the United Nations and other international organizations report that the Turkish government is withholding crucial data, including refugee registration information.

The needs of those in refu­gee camps are not difficult to determine. But there are an estimated 2.5 million non-camp refugees inside Turkey whose conditions are unknown, though there are anecdotal reports that many are having trouble meeting their basic needs. The Turkish government has not conducted large-scale surveys of non-camp refugees, and international organizations report that they cannot get permission to conduct surveys themselves.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made headlines recently for his historic crackdown on dissent. Turkey’s government may be blocking these surveys because the findings would increase scrutiny of its use of aid funds. Only one government survey of refugees — conducted in 2013 — has ever been made public. It found that 97 percent of Syrian women in Turkey could not find work and that 78 percent did not have enough money for food.

The lack of verifiable data is stalling interventions outside of the camps, likely causing unnecessary suffering among vulnerable populations, including the disabled, unaccompanied minors and the elderly.

The situation is dire for refugees in the region. In Lebanon and Jordan, child labor and child marriage rates are skyrocketing. To feed their families, parents are forced to send their children to work. Such conditions demand a wholehearted, vigorous response. Although it’s been five years since the Syrian crisis began, the Turkish government has yet to produce its response plan for meeting refugee needs.

The European Commission reports that the government of Turkey promised a national refugee needs assessment in return for the $6.7 billion, but it hasn’t delivered. Donors who want to contribute to this crisis are throwing their money into a black box — if they donate at all.

Last year, World Food Program aid reached only 150,000 of the 2.5 million non-camp refugees. The organization wanted to deliver more, but it ran out of funding. Clear, accurate data about who the refugees are and what their living conditions are like could help raise public awareness and inspire private donors to contribute these essential funds.

It is time to rise above politics, lay out the facts and work together to address refugees’ problems — before they get worse. The humanitarians gathering in Istanbul must reaffirm their commitment to humanity and speak out against systems of secrecy that hinder aid. Transparency, in all its forms, is essential to an effective humanitarian response.