EU auditors praise refugee assistance to Turkey despite irregularities

Syrian refugees break their fast with iftar during Ramadan in Istanbul, Turkey 20 June 2017. [Erdem Sahin/EPA/EFE]

The Facility for Refugees in Turkey “swiftly” addressed people’s needs, stated a report by the European Court of Auditors published on Tuesday (13 October), but stressed there were some irregularities in tracking the EU funds.

The Court considered that the €3 billion purse that the EU provided the Turkish authorities with “appropriately addressed the main needs of the refugees” in the area in a timely manner.  

However, neither the European Commission nor the European Court of Auditors were able to identify the beneficiaries of two cash-assistance projects for refugees which account for almost half of the budget. 

Turkish authorities refused to disclose the information related to the refugees benefiting from the so-called Emergency Social Safety Net – valued around €1 billion – based on data protection law. 

This made it impossible for the auditors to track the final beneficiaries from registration to payment. 

“This is a serious situation,” Bettina Jakobsen, who is responsible for the report, told the press. 

The programme aims at providing humanitarian assistance for refugees in cash so that they can address their basic needs while living outside camps. The two cash-projects were implemented by the UN in collaboration with the Turkish authorities.

“You can see that the money goes to the refugees but you cannot completely say that all money goes there,” Jakobsen admitted and called on the Commission to negotiate with Turkey to ensure full access to the information in the future. 

The EU executive committed in a response to the report to engage with Turkish authorities “to ensure full data access.”

Auditors argued that while the Commission put in place the appropriate mechanisms to monitor the implementation of the projects, the lack of access to such valuable information was unprecedented. 

“I have been at the Court for over three years and I have never been in a situation where  I had to say that I did not get the documents we required,” the auditor stressed.

In spite of the irregularities, the Court considered that EU funding is useful.

“We are sure that we are helping refugees with European money,” Bettina Jakobsen insisted. 

Still, a lot to improve

The difficulties in accessing information were not the only the problem that the auditors identified in its report. 

Disagreements with Turkey on how to address needs in municipal infrastructure and socio-economic support resulted in these areas being insufficiently covered.

The auditors questioned as well that “migration management” was set as a priority as the objective of the fund is to assist refugees.

Moreover, the Court underlined that similar types of activities were funded with different instruments, resulting in an overlapping and making the process more complex.

Auditors advised the Commission to develop “a clear division of the tasks” to ensure coherence. 

In addition, the report pointed out that indirect costs paid to implementing partners (70% of the budget was channelled through the UN and international financial institutions) were high and often unjustified and therefore called on the Commission to negotiate with stakeholders to reduce them. 

The auditors highlighted the lack of a transition strategy from humanitarian to development assistance in seven out of the ten projects audited and the need for Turkish authorities to improve the operating environment for NGOs. 

Three more billion to go 

The so-called Facility for Refugees in Turkey was set up in 2016 and granted €3 billion to assess the need of both refugees in the country, in the context of the crisis. 

Around four million people sought for shelter in Turkey fleeing the conflicts in the region. The worsening of the situation in Syria, in particular, led to a dramatic increase in the arrivals between 2014 and 2016. 

In March 2016, in the context of the EU-Turkey statement that closed the Easter Mediterranean route to Europe, the member states agreed to grant further €3 billion for the refugee facility. The disbursement was approved last June. 

The European Court of Auditors hopes now that the Commission will take into account the recommendations included in its report while implementing this new tranche to mitigate the risks for EU funds to be misused.

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