Erdogan at UN Meeting: Refugee Crisis from Climate Change Coming

September 22, 2021

NEW YORK — Presaging "hundreds of millions" of climate change refugees, Turkey's president said Tuesday at the U.N. General Assembly that the world needs to find a way to contend with its existing refugees who are fleeing conflict.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that Turkey, which he says "embraces close to four million Syrians," cannot take in any more migrants. He reiterated that sentiment in the context of Afghanistan, telling delegates it was time for all stakeholders to share responsibility.

"As a country that saved human dignity in the Syrian crisis, we no longer have the potential nor the tolerance to absorb new immigration waves," Erdogan said.

Without elaborating, he promised Turkey would fulfill its "fraternal duty" to Afghanistan and called upon the international community to present help and solidarity.

Erdogan returned to the concept of displacement throughout his nearly half-hour speech. Turkey, which is scheduled to hold presidential elections in 2023, is currently experiencing a tide of anti-migrant sentiment as its economy struggles.

"In many places, people are collectively preparing to go to other places, to migrate," Erdogan said. "The world has still not found a solution to the refugee problem caused by conflict-prone crisis regions such as Syria and Afghanistan."

He cited moves from the first lady's recycling project to increased forest assets and announced Turkey would finally submit the 2015 Paris climate agreement to its parliament for ratification next month, just before the Glasgow conference. Turkey, which wants to be reclassified as a developing instead of developed country to avoid harsher climate targets, had been among a handful of holdouts.

Erdogan aimed to contrast Turkey's steps with those of larger countries — exhorting "whoever has done the most damage" to contribute the most to the fight against climate change — but has come under criticism in Turkey for his own approaches to the problem. The leader of Turkey's main opposition party accused Erdogan of ignoring warnings about global warming after deadly wildfires ravaged the south this summer.

He gave brief mention to two issues of territorial sovereignty Turkey has played a role in: Nagorno-Karabakh and Cyprus. 

Erdogan celebrated Azerbaijan's reclamation of control over most of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia following a weekslong war last year, saying it "enabled the opening of new windows of opportunity in the region for lasting peace." Turkey and Azerbaijan have long enjoyed mutual affinity, just as Turkey and Armenia have long held mutual enmity. The Turkish government supported Azerbaijan in the flareup.

Cyprus, meanwhile, is ethnically divided between the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south and the Turkish Cypriot north, which only Turkey recognizes as an independent state. Erdogan called each half "co-owners of the island," but decried how the Turkish Cypriot leader was denied a platform at the General Assembly. 

Erdogan reiterated his push for multilateralism, invoking the name of his recently published book "A Fairer World is Possible" toward the idea of strengthening the General Assembly and tempering the power of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members. 

He touted the Turkevi Center, a newly built New York skyscraper across from the U.N. that houses Turkey's diplomatic mission and consulate, as a sign of Turkey's commitment to the international body.


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