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The Turkish city of Gaziantep has been under pressure having to accommodate as many as 500,000 refugees coming from Syria. Despite the challenging circumstances, mayor Fatma Şahin tells Jacopo Dettoni that the city remains well positioned for investment and opportunities from a future reconstruction of Syria.

Q: Gaziantep, thanks to its position on the border with Syria, has dealt with a massive influx of refugees in the past years. Today, as many as 500,000 Syrians are estimated to be living in the city. How have you been handling the arrival of migrants?

A: First of all, we came up with an emergency action plan in order to meet the fundamental needs of these people. We provided them with food and shelter which were their urgent needs. Once that was done, and when we realised this process was going to take longer than we imagined initially, we came up with a mid-term plan: a social support model to meet their needs in education, healthcare and economy.

If Europe at large is at ease today that is because Turkey has fulfilled its commitments according to the EU Admission Agreement. It has created a model, particularly in Gaziantep, to support these refugees and acted as a dam and insurance for Europe. If we had failed in what we did, today you would have 2.5 million people pushing the gates of Europe, and hundreds of people, particularly women and children, would have died in the sea.

Q: Is your approach for these people to remain and become part of local society? Or do you think eventually they will return to their original homes?

A: First of all we expect European leaders to bring peace to the Middle East. We would like the migration to come to a halt and for these people to be able to go back to their homes. But until then, in order to minimise the damage that could occur, we need to protect our community and refugees so we have to provide for them.

Q: The city has co-operated with international organisations like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and others to strengthen public services to observe this crisis. Can you give a few examples of these projects?

A: We’ve collaborated with almost with all of the international organisations and we have created some strong projects, but we mostly have worked with the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA). It provided financial support to us mostly in the form of grants. In terms of collaborations with the United Nations, we’ve mostly collaborated with the (United Nations Development Programme) UNDP and we have produced strong projects with them as well. As for the EU, we haven’t received the support we expected, even with the first package. They haven’t sent it in full yet and we are expecting their financial support.

Q: Yet the EBRD was vocal in announcing their €900m package to help Gaziantep and Jordan’s capital Amman cope with the refugee crisis.

A: We tried to work with the EBRD but the terms and conditions and interest rates that the Japanese offered us was much lower than what the EBRD offered us. But we have implemented just one project with the EBRD which was for 50 buses to be purchased and they promised to provide a grant for 50% of the total cost for these buses. That was the one occasion we worked with them. [At the same time] we continue to talk to them. We have a vast project on urban transformation. We would love to work with the EBRD very much indeed because this urban transformation project offers 40% profitability and it covers an area of 50 hectares. It is currently an industrial zone and we will move the industrial area to outside the city and create a hub of tourism, commerce and gastronomy and we would love to implement it with the support of the EBRD. But we would need them to provide us with suitable terms and conditions. The overall cost of the project is 4bn Tl [$970m].

Q: Gaziantep is home of a number of major construction companies like the Kalyon Group. With regard to a future reconstruction of Syria, would you be willing to be a hub for construction companies working in Syria?

A: That is why we are here [at Mipim]. We are talking about regional development. When talking about regional development we cannot exclude Syria or the Middle East. We have to cover them as well. So when talking about restructuring the region at large, Gaziantep comes to mind as a hub.

We really need to be a hub for that because we are a city that is exporting to 170 countries across the world. Our exportation capacity is $6.5bn and we have five industrial zones with 150,000 people working in our economy. We have proper economic and industrial infrastructure in our city and we are willing to become a hub for manufacturing production for industry, tourism and commerce.

The cost of investment is very low and profit margins are very high. We also offer market diversity to potential and prospective investors. Investors are always looking for new markets to expand into and we are a very good candidate for that.

Q: Turkey has been under pressure since the failed coup of 2016 and of course the Syrian refugee crisis. The government has lifted the state of emergency since then. Do you think that these circumstances are making foreign investors hesitant?

A: The worst part is over. Our president and our people standing tall in the face of these challenges have helped us to get through this these hard times. Some 150 new factories have been completed employing 10,000 people [in Gaziantep]. These factories are in the textile, food and chemical industries. So we have made a big investment and the investments are ongoing.

We have foreign investment in there as well. We continue to work in the face of the coup and turmoil. We keep our competitiveness at a level even though there is a war going on under our noses. This is a success story if you think about the conditions we find ourselves in. Despite everything we manage to compete against the rest of the world with our production and manufacturing. It is high time we focused on investment and development in the region. 

This article is sourced from fDi Magazine
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