The Great European Refugee Crisis: Turkish Actions Evoke Ottoman Nightmares

The great European refugee crisis of 2015 seems a distant memory to some, as for that matter does its primary cause, the Syrian Civil War. Yet the number of desperate migrants heading west into Europe is on the rise again, and once more it is due to actions in Syria, this time precipitated by the Turks.

Home for many Syrian refugees in Turkey: they fear a freezing winter

Having secured the nod of approval from President Donald Trump – who inexplicably promised to withdraw American troops without seemingly consulting  his military staff – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erodgan ordered his army to invade northern Syria. The target? Kurdish fighters, those who had played such an important role in crushing the Islamic State (IS), American allies no less.

Part of Erdogan’s rationale for the invasion was to remove a well-trained Kurdish force from Turkey’s border, not trusting their separatist (or in the President’s eyes ‘terrorist’) intentions. Another reason was to attempt to solve Turkey’s own refugee crisis. Since President Bashar-al-Assad turned the sword on his own people some eight years ago, Turkey has hosted about 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

Turkish military convoy at the Syrian border

Such an influx has understandably put a massive strain on infrastructure and resource, with vast makeshift camps constructed in the hope of containing the refugees away from a wary native population. Invading northern Syria offers a potential solution for Erdogan; it opens up a new swath of territory into which the refugees can be banished, ‘sent home’.

Besides the undoubted moral implications of returning refugees into a war zone under the control of a brutal dictator happy to murder his own people, Erdogan’s plan had major flaws. Not only would trying to relocate millions of unwilling and exhausted civilians prove a logistical nightmare but the military campaign in northern Syria has simply led to more refugees (many of them Kurds) fleeing their homes. Where can they go? Well, Turkey of course.

That these developments have potentially massive implications for Europe were brought to light recently on the Greek island of Lesbos. There, a devastating fire broke out in a makeshift camp housing some 12,000 refugees that had fled war zones in the Middle East. One person died, sparking off large protests by the camp inhabitants who believed the local fire brigade was deliberately slow to react. The Greek police in turn cracked down on the protests with little mercy.

A fire engulfs a shipping container – a makeshift home for refugees on the island of Lesbos

Lesbos has been one of the first places in the European Union that refugees have been able to get to when escaping Turkey. Erdogan has threatened to further “open the gates” for refugees into Europe if he does not get support for his plans. 

Some of Erdogan’s actions smack of fear, knowing as he does that his rule is under domestic scrutiny in a manner previously inconceivable. He would do well, though, not to use millions of people as a political tool and remember the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, when a decaying and corrupt regime allowed similar events to spiral out of control, hastening imperial decline.

The Great Eastern Crisis (1875-1878) saw the political awakening of the Balkans and ignited a series of localised uprisings that eventually embroiled the major powers of Europe, led to de jure independence for many Balkan states and signalled the end of the Ottoman era.

Insurrections in Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia overwhelmed the creaking Ottoman administration and military, whose failure to modernise had undermined the foundations of the centuries-old caliphate. This was aided by international interference, whether it be the Russians supporting their Slavic neighbours in Bulgaria, or the British propping up Turkish rule in the hope of limiting Russian influence in the Near East, hungry states ready to prey on the carcass of the helpless Sultan.

A dying Montenegrin during their uprising against the Ottomans

The Congress of Berlin held in 1878 was an attempt by the European powers (Russia, Britain, France, Italy, Austria-Hungary and a newly-unified Germany) to solve the ‘Balkan problem’ so that it would not result in a wider European war. Long-winded negotiations eventually led to a treaty that decided the new territorial boundaries of the Balkan states. The upshot was that Ottoman lands and authority in Europe were almost eviscerated.

Whilst the treaty amounted to progress for some of the Balkan peoples, not all were satisfied and, though it led to a temporary moratorium in the bloodshed, regional grievances would prove a major catalyst for World War One. No congress could save Europe this time.

One of the major issues overlooked by the Congress of Berlin was the refugee crisis caused by the wars of the 1870s. Russo-Bulgarian attacks against Muslims had led to more than 150,000 refugees fleeing Bulgaria alone. They headed for Istanbul, seeking solace in the aloof Porte, putting the city’s infrastructure on the brink of collapse (Glenny, 2012, p. 140).

Turkish refugees flee Tarnovo in Bulgaria, 1877

Typhus and starvation soon ravaged the Ottoman capital as further refugees poured in from elsewhere. In a bid to save their city, the authorities sanctioned the ousting of many of these refugees to Adrianople, which at the time was under the occupation of a virulently anti-Muslim Russian commander. Horrific atrocities followed and one can’t help feel that a similar scenario may occur today in Syria.

Population displacement not only hurried the Ottoman death but it also strained the resources of other European states, whilst creating a heterogeneous demographic tapestry that would inflame ethnic tensions in the years to come. Again, we can see similarities with today’s refugee crisis, where nationalist and far-right parties across Europe have won significant support due to people’s perceived threat to their ethnic identify and culture.

A far-right march in Austria, 2017

Erdogan may be hastening his own demise with his reckless response to the refugee crisis, simultaneously undermining the stability of his Middle Eastern and European neighbours. Yet it’s fair to say that the international community has not done nearly enough to address the humanitarian, economic and infrastructural issues arising from one of the biggest forced population movements of the last century.

Syria has become a stale topic, a hopeless, never-ending situation comparable to the unsolvable Israel-Palestine conflict or the anarchic grasp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It is all very well for European states to shut their borders, turn inwards and pretend that the world outside doesn’t exist. However, this will only cause a bloating of the problem as more refugees pour in from the Middle East, exacerbated by the thousands more entering Europe from North Africa.

As ruthless and paranoid as the Ottoman sultans? Erdogan on the warpath

The crisis of 2015 may only have been a taste of what was to come. Europe stands on the brink, vulnerable to the paranoid actions of a threatened despot in Turkey and internal divisions relating to race and culture. The political and geographic map of the world’s most stable continent might be less secure than one might imagine. An uncontrollable bloating invariably leads to explosion.

Further reading

Glenny, M. The Balkans 1804-2012: Nationalism, War and The Great Powers (2012)

Echoes of Tiananmen Square: Hong Kong Protests Test CCP Resolve

Thirty years after the Tiananmen Square protests, the Chinese government faces another serious democratic challenge. Rather than affecting the capital Beijing, or even the mainland for that matter, this latest threat has arisen in Hong Kong. Police officials in the former British territory are warning that the rule of law is now on the ‘brink of total collapse’ after five months of demonstrations.

Protesters have marched along main streets in masks and set-up roadblocks

There are similarities in the origins and development of the Tiananmen Square and Hong Kong protests. In 1989, rapid economic development was creating a rapidly changing society in China, without any accompanying political representation for the people. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was paramount, corruption was rife and any dissent stifled. In Hong Kong, a province returned to China by Britain in 1997, a sense of political regression has overtaken the minds of many citizens accustomed to a greater degree of autonomy than on the mainland.

The concept of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ that the CCP has espoused since the return of Hong Kong has been steadily eroded, with freedom of expression and of the press increasingly undermined in the Xi Jinping era. There is little doubt amongst many of the protesters; China wants to subsume Hong Kong entirely and the 2019 outburst builds upon the pro-democracy Umbrella Revolution of 2014.

Many leaders of Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Revolution were imprisoned

Whilst murmurings of discontent were audible for months, or even years, before the two protests, a single event helped trigger a spillover into the streets. In 1989 it was the death of Hu Yaobang, widely seen as a pro-reform former General Secretary of the CCP. His ousting from his role in 1987 had angered followers and his funeral drew 100,000 supporters to the streets who demanded that his legacy be upheld.

In Hong Kong, a proposal to allow the extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland was perceived as a direct attack on democracy and precipitated the first large-scale protests since 2014. It has since been scrapped by the government, a decision made too late to reverse the zeitgeist.

In both cases, students have been at the forefront of the calls for change. In both cases, resentment of political reform (too slow for the Tiananmen Square protesters and in the wrong direction for those in Hong Kong) mutated into demands for a democratic revolution. The international media has dedicated hours of coverage and thousands of column inches to the Hong Kong protests, as with Tiananmen. In both instances, many members of the international community have refrained from outright condemnation of the Chinese response, whilst remaining expectant and desirous of political upheaval in Beijing.

Student protesters on Tiananmen Square in 1989

Perhaps most significant, and a question that as yet remains unanswered, is whether the Hong Kong protests will end the same way as Tiananmen. After a month of huge gatherings in the capital, and numerous other demonstrations across the country, June 1989 saw an open massacre in front of the world’s cameras.

Tensions are being raised in Hong Kong and protesters have died, some in cold blood. But they have died at the hands of the police and counter-protesters, not the military which, despite some veiled threats, has remained conspicuously absent from the island. At what point, if any, will Beijing deem such a drastic scenario as mobilising the People’s Liberation Army necessary?

A protester is shot with a live round by a member of the Hong Kong police

One thing about the aftermath of 1989 is likely to be repeated in Hong Kong, whenever the situation finally cools. The CCP will not change course, particularly under Xi. Economic stagnation may be on the horizon but despite the Hong Kong inferno there are no reports of mass protests anywhere on the mainland. As long as the illusion of prosperity continues to beckon for the masses, Xi and his quasi-Maoist personality cult will charge forth. What China’s neighbours and global competitors think of the whole thing is irrelevant to the President.

The CCP’s resolve is undoubtedly being tested in Hong Kong. Yet unlike with Tiananmen Square, Beijing will still see this as a localised threat, albeit one that cannot be allowed to spread like wildfire. The ability to restrict access to information in a manner even George Orwell could never have predicted aids Xi’s case and it may just be that the CCP eases back on its aim of drawing Hong Kong fully into the compliant Chinese fold.

More trying days lie ahead both for the protesters and the Party. However, don’t expect any tanks rumbling down the streets of Hong Kong just yet. Beijing learnt at least one invaluable lesson from 1989.

The iconic image of 1989