By Jonny Hogg
ANKARA (Reuters) - The strain of sheltering the world's largest refugee population is showing in Turkey, whose open door to those fleeing Syria and Iraq is shielding European nations from a migration crisis far worse than the one they are struggling with now.
As some European governments turn to baton-wielding police and barricades to stem the flow of migrants, Ankara has vowed to continue accommodating more than 2 million people from its war-torn southern neighbors and welcome any more who come.
But refugees are becoming a political liability in the run-up to a close-fought election due in November, especially near border towns where Syrians can outnumber Turkish nationals. Barred from work by a government that fears a voter backlash, many of the newcomers are restless.
When war first broke out in Syria in 2011, Turkey believed tens of thousands would cross its 900-km (560-mile) frontier. Since then, fighting has engulfed the country and Islamic State militants have exploited the chaos to impose brutal, medieval-style rule across large parts of both Syria and Iraq.
Turkey says it has spent $6.5 billion on its humanitarian response, which includes some of the best equipped refugee camps ever built, including schooling, healthcare and social services.
"It's one of the most humanitarian responses I've seen anywhere," Rae McGrath, from U.S. aid agency Mercy Corps said. "There is an acceptance that, however inconvenient, Turkey
must help its neighbor."
But its ability to help is reaching capacity, he said, and Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) expressed a similar view.
"Turkey's response has been very much more humane than
Europe, and far more in line with what Europe claims to have as
universal values," Ulgen said.
"Many people are trying to understand the limits of how much Turkey is prepared to do. I think we are reaching those limits."
A bomb blast in the frontier town of Suruc in July blamed on Islamic State has increased concern that the open-door policy makes it easier for militants to enter Turkey, and the collapse of a ceasefire with Kurdish insurgents in July has deepened security fears.
But the biggest challenge is long-term. Authorities are struggling to integrate a huge refugee population which does not speak Turkish and has little prospect of returning home soon.
The sensitive issue of work permits for refugees has been shelved ahead of the snap parliamentary poll in which the ruling AK Party will try to recover the majority it lost in June.
That decision, criticized by aid workers, has driven refugees to take to perilous boats headed illicitly to Europe.
In contrast with Greece which has let many migrants move on, Turkish coastguard and security forces patrol the routes to Europe, detaining boats and bringing passengers back to Turkey.
Often, as in the case of drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi, this involves picking up the bodies of those who died en route.
Turkey gives refugees "Temporary Protection" status to access schooling, healthcare and social services. But costs are spiraling as economic indicators tick into the red.
The lira this month hit record lows against the dollar whilst the economy grew just 2.9 pct last year, far below a 5 pct target. The gloomy outlook is only fuelling the illicit flow of refugees to Europe.
"There is no life here. We need to live a normal life. I
want to find a job," 32-year old Tariq said as he awaited to cross illegally from the Turkish resort of Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos on his flight from Syria's devastated Aleppo.
OPEN THE GATES?
On Tuesday security forces stopped hundreds of would-be migrants as they tried to reach Turkey's western land border with Greece.
Unless European countries take more refugees or boost financial aid to Turkey, officials could begin to turn a blind eye to those trying to leave, aid-workers and diplomats fear.
"European countries need to step up to the plate to increase
their support to Turkey," says Jean-Christophe Pegon, Turkey head of the European Commission Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO).
"Turkey could just open the gates, and for the moment they're not doing that."
A senior EU source told Reuters the bloc had been slow to engage with Turkey on tackling refugee flows, but that talks were underway to unlock funds to help refugees inside Turkey.
Although it houses roughly half of all Syrian refugees, Turkey receives less money than poorer refugee-hosting countries like Lebanon and Jordan.
The United Nations estimates that it has raised only 30 pct of the funds it says it needs for Turkey this year.
Some diplomats say direct offers of funding have been made but have foundered on Ankara's tight conditionality on how money is used and what role aid organizations are allowed to play.
Ankara has also made little concrete progress convincing western partners of the urgent need for a "safe zone" in northern Syria, where some refugees could be resettled. Western officials privately say any such plan is probably years away.
"I don't think it's even being discussed by the Turkish General Staff, it's just a political aspiration," one western diplomat with military knowledge said.
Despite the worsening prospects, a senior Turkish official insisted Ankara's policy would remain unchanged.
"Turkey remains committed to helping people in need, whether or not the international community will continue to turn a blind eye to the problem," the official told Reuters.
EDAM's Ulgen says Ankara would likely wait and see if the recent upsurge of debate in Europe over the migrant crisis would bolster resolve in the West for more decisive action on Syria.
"But if on all fronts expectations remain unfulfilled, then as a last resort, Ankara could raise pressure by being less co-operative in regard of the outflow of refugees towards
Europe," he added.
(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in BODRUM, Orhan Coskun in ANKARA and Paul Taylor in BRUSSELS; editing by David Dolan and Philippa Fletcher)