It is difficult to create original stories or interesting copy from press junkets. There is an inherent difficulty in writing on occasions organised by people whose job it is to control the media.
But there was something altogether more bizarre and awful about Angela Merkel’s visit to the Nizip refugee camp in south Turkey, which I covered last weekend.
The German Chancellor arrived in an enormous coach with blacked-out windows, topped with two gun-toting guards. She sailed in through the rows of barbed wire with Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish Prime Minister, in a mêlée of 50 men in grey suits. Bunting bearing the Turkish flag and those of AFAD, the government agency managing refugee camps in Turkey, whispered in the wind.
Metres away, small boys and girls from Syria were kept penned in behind a wire fence, as the politicians and press looked on.
Mrs Merkel had claimed her trip to south Turkey was to better understand refugees’ needs, and listen to them on the ground. I wondered how politicians had the gall to continue to claim the trip had that purpose as Mrs Merkel was greeted with flowers by four Syrian girls from the camp. They were dolled up in Turkish robes and make-up for the occasion, but later said there had been no time on Mrs Merkel’s whirlwind visit for a dance they had spent time preparing for her. German Chancellery press officers didn’t answer when I asked them why it had been dropped from Mrs Merkel’s schedule. Still, the sight of the flower presentation was astonishing , as the German Chancellor shook hands with a small number of refugees (the rest were still penned in behind the wires) – was this really Europe’s idea of listening to refugee needs?
Funnily enough, it felt more like the refugees being used as a prop in the EU’s continuing kowtowing to Turkey. European politicians know that they need to praise Turkish efforts over housing Syrians because, for all their faults, they have been so much better than our own. It was almost shameful to watch.
Press were barred from speaking to any Syrian other than those selected to meet Mrs Merkel and entourage
I should add at this point that press were waved away by security guards when we tried to speak to refugees inside the camp. Officers were stationed inside its perimeter to prevent us talking to people through the bars, and any attempt to take photos of anything but the official presentation was curtailed.
The Sheikh from the camp was permitted to speak to reporters, and funnily enough said that he, “felt like the Syrians were among brothers in Turkey.”
Merkel appeared to have only the time and will for conversations with people who would repeat the rehearsed “truth” that they want to hear
Those interviewed through the wires inside the camp said they wished Mrs Merkel would grant asylum to every Syrian who requested it in Germany.
Mrs Merkel and entourage finally went inside the refugee camp, where they spent about 45 minutes. Press were not allowed to accompany them, so we never got to know if they really spoke to refugees as they claimed (and under what circumstances) . We never got to find out if they saw the reality of living conditions there (which, from my understanding and non-press-junket conversations with camp residents in several locations across south Turkey, are better than those in camps in Jordan and the make shift tents in Lebanon. But we are not talking about the palaces that Turkish authorities would have you believe from their AFAD brochures).
As the politicians left – queue more lovely photo ops with Davutgolu’s wife – Syrian children caged behind wire bars appeared to break into chants saying “the Syrian people are one”. But the revolutionary song had been twisted to fit the Turkish agenda. “The Syrian and Turkish people are are one,” they sung instead. I later heard they had been told to sing that – and no guards stopped us from videoing them this time.
The German Chancellor’s visit was rather embarrassing on several other fronts. It was, for starters, a replacement trip. She did not visit a new refugee camp on the Syrian border point of Bab al-Salama, set up for people being returned from Europe under a deal struck between the EU and Ankara in March.
She was supposed to attend an opening ceremony at the camp 1km from the border town of Kilis the previous weekend, but the trip was cancelled over security fears, a Turkish government source said. Rockets fired from IS-held territory in Syria have killed at least 18 people in Kilis recent weeks, including four children who were playing on a roof.
Mrs Merkel attended the opening of a mother and child centre in Gaziantep for Syrians not hosted in refugee camps, allowing Europe to claim it is aware most Syrians in Turkey do not have the relatively easy access to accommodation, healthcare and food that organised “container cities” allow. Around 90 per cent of the 2.7 million Syrian population in Turkey live in towns and cities, particularly Gaziantep (Syrian population of 325,000), Istanbul and Sanliurfa.
They often face resentment, higher prices than their Turkish neighbours for basic goods and services (rents are often doubled for Syrian tenants, for example), and difficulties finding work. I still struggle to see how Merkel saw the reality of life for most Syrians in Turkey on a brief photo tour of what Human Rights Watch quite accurately called a “sanitized” refugee camp, and a shiny new project.
Merkel appeared to have only the time and will for conversations with people who would speak the rehearsed truth that she and other EU politicians on the trip, including European Council President Donald Tusk, wanted to hear : that life is good for refugees in Turkey, and the EU-Ankara deal to return any Syrian who dare cross into Europe from now on while escaping war in their home country is working because people can be sent back there no trouble at all.
The whole thing showed an astonishing level of group think, blinkered vision, and politicians seeing and hearing only what they wanted to hear. It was embarrassing to watch and hear Merkel and Co’s claims that the visit had really allowed them an insight into Syrians’ lives here.
The press junket was awkward because people were being used as props for politicians confirming their already-made-up minds.
Merkel saw the four Syrian girls who greeted her with flowers. I wonder how she would have reacted to the woman I saw same week, her eyes wide and wild, rummaging through a municipal waste bin in Gazaintep. Or the boy from Aleppo selling tissues from the side of the road in the same city. He was alone and scared because his mother was in mourning for his dead father, and therefore could not be seen in public. I wonder if Merkel would have agreed to meet them – or if that would have risked disrupting the picture the EU is busy painting itself of life for Syrians in Turkey ?