The European Union on Tuesday unveiled a 400-bed hospital on Turkey’s restive border with Syria, the scene of a new military escalation between Ankara and Kurdish forces.
The 27-nation bloc’s Turkey ambassador Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut took advantage of a lull in exchanges of artillery fire to formally open the region’s largest and most modern hospital.
Its location in Kilis, five kilometres (three miles) from the Syrian border, puts it in the heart of a region that has become the temporary home of some of the millions who have fled a decade of strife in Syria.
“Turkey has been hosting the biggest refugee population in the world for more than 10 years… and Kilis is one of the most affected provinces,” Meyer-Landrut said at the unveiling ceremony.
The 50-million-euro ($52 million) Kilis hospital project is one of the largest funded by the EU, which has allocated more than 10 billion euros to Turkey since 2014.
In exchange, Turkey has agreed to find temporary housing for millions of people fleeing conflicts in Syria and the Middle East.
Turkey now hosts more than four million migrants and refugees, including 3.6 million from Syria.
But their continued stay has become a sensitive political issue, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now trying to send some Syrians back home.
The EU struck a formal deal with Turkey in 2016, where Ankara agreed to accept refugees and migrants in exchange for financial help.
The arrangement has been criticised by some human rights defenders, who question Europe’s reluctance to accept people fleeing conflicts in the Middle East.
Meyer-Landrut defended the agreement, noting that it has helped cut the number of migrants and refugees reaching the EU’s frontiers “dramatically”.
“This is, of course, in our common Turkish and European interests,” Meyer-Landrut told AFP.
The EU ambassador refrained from mentioning a new ground incursion into northern Syria, which Erdogan has been threatening to launch for weeks.
Turkish forces have been pummelling Kurdish fighters on the other side of the border with artillery fire and drone strikes for much of the past month.
Two weeks ago, a Turkish soldier and seven policemen were injured by return fire on a border post some 10 kilometres south of Kilis.
The latest escalation started in response to a November 13 bomb blast in Istanbul which claimed six lives.
Erdogan blamed it on the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian allies in the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Both groups have denied involvement.
The PKK, proscribed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and its Western allies, has been waging a deadly insurgency against Ankara for decades.
But the YPG, which Ankara views as the PKK’s Syria offshoot, comprises the core of the forces that Washington used to battle the Islamic State group.
Western support for the YPG rankles Ankara’s relations with both Washington and Brussels.
Meyer-Landrut said simply that a “political solution” was needed for the entire Syria conflict that could allow migrants and refugees to return.
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