In Syria’s final battle, a global test of hospitality

Turkey faces the prospect of a massive wave of refugees from the battle for Syria’s Idlib province. It needs the world’s help to continue its generosity as a host to displaced Syrians.

Syrians sit in a truck as they flee the advance of government forces in the province of Idlib, Syria, towards the Turkish border, Jan. 30.

Of the world’s 25 million refugees displaced by conflict, most live in neighboring nations with a welcoming heart, such as Colombia, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia. “Countries in crisis-affected regions, in spite of limited resources, have largely kept their doors open, preserving millions of lives,” said Filippo Grandi, the United Nations refugee chief, in December.

Such neighborly hospitality, however, is not always assured. This is especially true for Turkey right now.

During the nearly nine years of Syria’s civil war, Turkey has generously hosted Syrian refugees, 3.7 million in total, more refugees than any other country in the world. The welcoming spirit has served as a moral counterpoint to the mass killing in Syria.

Yet since Dec. 1, as the last major battle of that war has escalated in Idlib province, Turkey has been faced with a difficult choice. Should it keep its borders closed to Syrians trying to flee the battle for Idlib?

The military forces of the Syrian regime, backed by Russia and Iranian-allied militias, keep advancing into the northwest province, the final stronghold of anti-regime rebels and home to 3 million people. So far 586,000 people have been uprooted. Most are women and children who already fled the war from other provinces. The battle for Idlib could result in the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the Syrian conflict, according to experts.

That prediction, however, depends on whether Turkey decides to reopen its borders and once again be a generous host. Millions of Syrian refugees already in the country have found jobs or are attending school, and have integrated well. More than 100,000 were given citizenship. Yet most Turks, according to polls, have “compassion fatigue,” resulting in the recent closing of the border. The country also has struggled to come to terms with its violent treatment of the Kurdish minority.

Like many countries hosting refugees, Turkey needs help from wealthier countries to continue its traditional hospitality.

U.N. officials often make a point of expressing gratitude to such host countries. Many refugees do the same, grateful for a safe haven. And Western countries have provided billions of dollars for refugees camps. Yet more can be done. In fact, the long conflict in Syria has inspired a shift in how the world engages with refugees.

In 2018, the U.N. General Assembly approved the Global Compact on Refugees, a proposal to better integrate refugees into host countries as long as a conflict prevents them from returning home. The plan is based on studies that show refugees can become a net positive economic contributor with the right investments in education, housing, and industry. The compact is already being applied in a dozen countries, such as Jordan and Ethiopia, helping millions of refugees and their local hosts.

Turkey deserves the same, especially with a potential humanitarian crisis across its border. Hospitality, while abundant in the hearts of the Turks, is not free. It needs generosity from the rest of the world.

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