Yigit Aksakoglu

Yigit Aksakoglu

How much is your solidarity?

Though we have long since lost faith in European institutions for an equal welcome and sympathy towards all people regardless of race, we still believe in the solidarity of its people.

Turkish-Dutch singer Karsu sang the song “Where are you?” from Neset Ertas, during the Giro 555 Turkey & Syria fundraising broadcast on February 15 in the Netherlands. This was a national campaign broadcasted on national TV with the participation of many celebrities. The entire crew was in a “helping spree,” while Karsu came to the stage with 11 relatives lost in the earthquake. The Giro 555 campaign was not prepared to handle the emotional weight of Karsu's pained performance.

Karsu is a Netherlands-born famous singer whose parents migrated to the country from Turkey. She has a beautiful voice and an even more beautiful heart. She is the symbol for Turkse-Nederlands, or the Turkish-Dutch, as they call themselves in the Netherlands. In a majority white society, Karsu is a role model who gives hope to her peers to achieve their goals and to be heard in a society where they feel at home.

The Giro 555 broadcast was an effort by ten international NGOs with the intention of collecting funds from ordinary Dutch people. As in most charitable efforts, it served the purpose of easing the moral burden of the donors rather than contributing to any tangible solution. It was also not the first time that Giro 555 collected money for such an emergency crisis. In 2022, they collected more than 160 million Euros for the Ukrainian crisis, and back in 2004, they collected more than 208 million Euros for the relief efforts after a tsunami struck Indonesia.

The February 6 earthquakes killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey and more than 5,000 people in Syria. According to estimates, over 20 million people have been internally displaced in both countries. There are many governmental and civilian efforts in the field to help the survivors. Syrians, either internally displaced in or as refugees in Turkey, have been especially affected by the earthquakes. After hearing the heart wrenching stories of Syrian survivors in Turkey, one inevitably thinks about how they are also left to deal with the everyday racism of Turkish society.

Such a campaign, although it raised a remarkable amount, raises many questions. The first is about what good 100 million Euros can do for Syrians, Turks, and Kurds, even in the short term? Where should the funds be directed; shelter, food, education, psycho-social support, water, hygiene, or other services? To which organization in the field should the funds be sent? Are public institutions affiliated with the corrupt Erdogan government reliable? Then, are the civil society organizations, which Erdogan paid careful attention to destroy one by one in the last decade, able to reach the people in need? How long can we sustain such financial help for the victims? These are questions that need to be tackled by the Giro 555 members, not only for this campaign but also to establish trust among its donors and to sustain support for victims of the earthquake in the long term.

If charitable donations do more for the donors than the recipients, what can be said of political instead?

There should be no doubt about the compassion of the donors who supported the relief efforts with their hard-earned money and the good intentions of the ten organizations who facilitated the event. But as international development specialists, these organizations are also well aware that the effects of the earthquake will last for years, if not decades, and will cost billions, not millions. As such, collecting cents from the pockets of compassionate citizens is not a meaningful solution. Political action is required. What are the options for political action in such a devastating case?

Fortunately, we are not short of good examples. We recently observed the potential for European solidarity when Putin ignited a humanitarian crisis. Europe developed a new residence scheme and allowed all war-escaping Ukrainians to immediately obtain a residence and work permit in any European country. Many Europeans offered free accommodation while solidarity campaigns raised money for those coming to the West.

However, such a scheme for earthquake victims is out of the question in Europe. Some visa facilitation statements were the closest we could get from countries like Germany, the UK, Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. This hesitant and still bureaucratic approach aims to facilitate visa applications for those who have the means to travel and with relatives who would like to host and sponsor them. For governments, such a policy change did not and will not cost a dime unless they decide to send more staff to Turkey to handle applications as Switzerland did. However, after more than a month since the earthquake, we are unable to trace how many people used such visa applications, especially from the Netherlands.

Refugees lack the agency to organize and raise their demands in solidarity with their peers in Turkey and elsewhere. In a few countries, refugee-led organizations are strong and are an essential part of civil society. Yet in countries like the Netherlands, they are still a novelty. However, a recent campaign coming from the Refugee-Led Network in the Netherlands has created some reflection on the state of Dutch civil society.

Refugee-Led Network is a newly established network of individuals and organizations trying to raise the voice of refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless people in the Netherlands and in Europe. Their petition asks the Dutch government to speed up the visa and family reunification processes for earthquake victims from Syria and Turkey. The campaign quickly reached more than 3,000 signatures from various Turkish, Kurdish, and Dutch people. The government agreed to quicken visa processes but did not address the issue of family reunification. On the other hand, two weeks after the petition was released online, the position of some refugee related, but not refugee-led, Dutch NGOs was, to say the least, disappointing. The petition did not receive organizational support from NGOs, besides a few exceptions.

How can the number of visas provided and the silence of NGOs in the Netherlands in the context of such a humanitarian issue be explained? The simple answer is racism. But the people in the Netherlands and in Europe are not ready to face and reflect on their racism. As such, we are left with other questions such as, why do we have to struggle so hard to ease visa processes for people who are affected by the earthquake? Why do we have to struggle so hard for quicker family reunification for people with refugee status in Europe? Why do we have to struggle when Ukrainians did not?

Seeking asylum is a fundamental human right as defined by the Geneva Convention of 1951. The convention clearly states that those who are fleeing war, political prosecution, economic hardship, and disasters have the right to ask for asylum. Why is no one talking about the right to seek asylum for the victims of the earthquakes? What more should happen to Syrians who have already been displaced for the last ten years? How much more racism should they face in addition to the daily vitriol they experience in Turkey, whose president Europe shamelessly bribed to ensure that Syrians would be kept in Turkey?

Considering the fact that 100 million Euros will not solve much and the needs of the people of the region will continue for at least a decade to come, what other solidarity measures can be taken? Some are easy to achieve. Dutch and European governments can:

- provide real visa facilitation processes and be transparent in their actions, including providing more staff and decreasing the number of documents required.

- prioritize asylum applications of Syrians and Turkish citizens and provide residence permits allowing them to visit earthquake affected families in Turkey.

- fasten the family reunification processes for those with a refugee status. It is only a matter of prioritizing their cases.

- include earthquake (and therefore disasters) as a natural reason for granting asylum.

This is not an exhaustive list. European local authorities can forge ties of solidarity with the people of Turkey and Syria by establishing sisterhood relations. These can be short-term solidarity relations, in which the local authorities match funds with donating citizens and contribute to the local infrastructure, mobilize volunteers from their communities. and foster the establishment of interpersonal solidarity.

The song Karsu sang which belongs to Neset Ertas, a beloved folk musician, ends with the following lines:

I am a destitute poor fellow, I do not smile,

My heart is always in search of you, where are you?

These days, we are all looking to Europe despite the fact that we have long since lost faith in its institutions. But we still have hope in its people. We still look to them. We still hope to see rays of solidarity, especially since we have witnessed their open-hearted warm welcome of Ukrainians.

Where are you, Europeans? Our hearts are in search of you…

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