This essay series explores the human costs and policy challenges associated with the displacement crises in the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas. The essays explore the myths or misconceptions that have pervaded discussions about these two crises, as well as the constraints or capacity deficiencies have hampered the responses to them. See more ...
With 2.7 million registered Syrian refugees, and likely hundreds of thousands of other unregistered individuals, families, and unaccompanied children fleeing civil war and ISIS violence, Turkey hosts more displaced Syrians than any other country. Beginning with relatively small numbers of asylum seekers in the early days of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal Arab Spring crackdown, in the span of five years Syrians now make up 3.5 percent of Turkey’s population. Syrians moving out of the government-established refugee camps in search of better living conditions and work opportunities have changed the face(s) of Turkey’s major urban centers. Journalistic accounts refer to Istanbul as Syria’s “new capital;” the city’s Aksaray neighborhood — previously a refuge for Afghans, Iraqis, and Iranians — is now commonly known as “Little Damascus.”
Despite the demographic pressures generated by such a large Syrian presence at the societal level, including some Turks’ concerns that refugees pose economic and/or security threats to their own livelihoods, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) approaches the question of refugees much differently than its European counterparts. This essay explores the thinking and the tactics behind Turkey's approach to dealing with the Syrian refugees challenge.
Understanding the AKP's Tactics: The External Dimension
European Union members’ pushing back against burden-sharing measures has led to what can be described as burden-shifting, i.e. placing the task of hosting and providing for the care of refugees onto Middle East countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and, of course, Turkey. While the AKP has taken steps such as pushing for safe zones to prevent greater numbers of refugees flowing into the country — and the consolidation of a Kurdish autonomous zone within Syria — its view of Syrian refugees in Turkey seems to be that they are more of a boon than a burden. Indeed, AKP leaders welcomed Syrian asylum seekers as their “brothers,” spending billions of dollars to set up “perfect … five-star” camps to house them and even insisting that they should be offered citizenship. Work permits were issued to those who fulfilled the requirement qualifications; ID cards facilitating access to free health care services were distributed.
Behind these seemingly benevolent outreaches, however, lie at least some less than altruistic motives. Indeed, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s threats this past November to open Turkey’s borders and allow masses of refugees to flow into Europe if the European Union (E.U.) freezes talks on Turkey’s membership accession — threats he has made repeatedly — suggest refugees represent more of a tactical boon than a brotherly one. Further, an in-depth report released by the International Crisis Group on November 30, 2016 indicates that despite its welcoming rhetoric the Turkish government has a very long way to go in developing plans to accommodate and integrate Syrians into Turkey’s society. Only 0.1 percent of Syrian refugees have received work permits, and while health care services are free, medicines are not, leaving refugees paying an exorbitant share of their often meager earnings for medication. Some positive outreaches notwithstanding, the AKP’s handling of Syrian refugees when examined more closely reveals that the party is utilizing the massive numbers Turkey hosts to its own political advantage.
While openly bargaining with the E.U. for money and concessions in return for agreeing to host Syrians who attempt to enter Europe’s borders, Turkish leaders stake their claim as being ethical leaders on refugee issues. Seeking regional and domestic public approval of its actions, Turkey showcased its “open door policy” in direct contrast to E.U. leaders, who have been passing the buck, and United States governors, who declared (incorrectly) that their states would refuse to accept refugees. Ankara’s willingness to take in the refugees has given them a sense of “occupying the moral high ground” in the face of E.U. reluctance. In the same speech in which he demanded that the E.U. be more forthcoming with the funds it promised Turkey in exchange for taking back E.U.-bound Syrians, for example, Erdoğan used this moral superiority to chastise the United Nations. He called the organization’s 455 million euros in aid to Turkey “shameful” when the country had purportedly spent 10 billion on hosting refugees. Erdoğan’s criticism of international, and particularly Western institutions scores him significant political points at home, while underscoring his party’s often conspiracy theory-laced narrative that the West seeks to undermine Turkey’s aspirations as a rising regional power. His wife Emine’s speech to the Washington-based SETA Foundation while he spoke at a summit on nuclear security also staked Turkey’s strong claim to moral high ground in the face of international reticence. She stated “those who died on the Mediterranean’s shores did not grab the attention of the modern world, of human and women’s rights organizations, sadly because they were Syrian. Please permit me to express my pride that, in such an environment, my country opened its doors to three million migrants without hesitating at all.”
Frustrated with and suspicious of the West in general — sentiments stemming from the E.U.-stalled accession process and N.A.T.O.’s unwillingness to target the regime of Erdoğan’s friend-turned-ally Bashar al-Assad, to criticisms of the AKP’s increasingly authoritarian behavior to the Obama administration’s refusal immediately to extradite Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen whom Turkey blames for masterminding the July 15 coup attempt — the issue of refugees became a convenient platform from which to shame Western actors for their immoral inaction. Casting international critics of Turkey in an unfavorable light also helps to delegitimize their influence over public opinion and rally support for the government back home.
Understanding the AKP's Tactics: The Domestic Dimension
The AKP’s treatment of Syrian asylum seekers evinces several motivations to shape not just the opinions but also the demographic make-up of Turkey’s population as well. The government’s admittance and resettlement policies appear to reflect its efforts to spread Sunni Muslim-based understanding of national identity across Turkey. Critics of the AKP’s policies have cited the relatively worse treatment of (non-Sunni) Alawite and Yezidi Syrians, stating “we are in a country that only accepts Sunni Muslim refugees.” A resettlement plan to move 25,000 Sunni Syrians into a group of (non-Sunni) Alevi villages wıth the same population in the Turkish province of Kahramanmaraş reflected Ottoman-era policies of diluting areas populated by “problematic” peoples with “trustworthy” ones. Using Syrians to “Sunnify” the country’s landscape also reflects the AKP’s previous efforts to minimize ethnic cleavages through the promotion of common religious bonds shared with Turkey’s Sunni Kurdish population. Just as highlighting religion as a unifying factor among Sunni Turks and Kurds was calculated to boost electoral support for the AKP as well as diffuse inter-ethnic tensions, the settlement of Syrians in government housing projects seeks to cultivate a new population of Sunnis grateful to the AKP.
As Sunni-themed outreaches to Kurds proved unsuccessful in preventing the renewed outbreak of conflict between Kurds and Turkish security forces, some observers are concerned that Erdoğan will try to “balance the Kurdish population and curb the rise of Kurdish nationalism” by resettling Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast with AKP-friendly Sunni Syrians.Attitudes captured in a recent survey-based study subtitled “I Feel Safe Here,” which reveals the “cultural intimacy” Syrians perceive they share with their former Ottoman neighbors, indicate at least partial success of this project. Erdoğan’s announcement in early July 2016 that “our [Syrian] brothers” would be granted citizenship, and the voting rights that come along with this status, provides a mechanism for transforming refugees’ gratitude into political support.
Granting citizenship to refugees might thus prove a boon to the AKP in coming elections, particularly given that the party temporarily lost its parliamentary majority in the June 7, 2015 elections and only regained it the following November when the failure to form a government provoked a snap election. With a solution to the crisis in Syria seemingly farther away than ever, many Syrian refugees are beginning to face the reality that they may never be returning home. Furthermore, according to the Turkish government, since the crisis began over 150,000 babies have been born to Syrians in Turkey. Erdoğan has demonstrated that he will not let such a demographic opportunity slide, and Turkey’s opposition has expressed their criticism of his intentions. An MP with the Republican People’s Party (CHP) told the news outlet Hürriyet that if Erdoğan’s new citizenship plan goes through there will be over one million new voters that could “change the outcome of the  election.” Other critics warn that Erdoğan is most likely counting on the gratitude of those who will gain citizenship to help him “strengthen his grip on power.”
Notably, the refugees that the AKP hopes will stay and work in Turkey are those that could provide the government with an economic and as well as political benefits. Highly educated and skilled Syrians may help to combat the “brain drain” produced by Turks fleeing the government’s authoritarian crackdowns, visible in the Gezi Park protests of 2013 and most recently in the firings and arrests carried out following the July 15 coup attempt. Rather than ending the purge that has targeted over 100,000 academics, journalists, and other educated Turks accused of being involved in terrorist activities, Erdoğan sees their replacements in the Syrians to whom citizenship will be granted. The system being drafted is similar to the “points-based” systems for migrants in Australia and Canada; through this system only those with the skills to contribute to Turkey’s economy will be granted permanent status in Turkey. This plan is intended to mediate Turkey’s “acute shortage” of skilled workers, evidenced by 57 percent of Turkish employers reporting that they experience difficulty in finding workers to fill open positions. Contrary to many Turks’ fears that Syrian refugees are mainly composed of unskilled workers that will strain the economy, the Syrians currently in Turkey have set up 4,000 businesses.
To avoid losing educated new business owners to better economic prospects in Europe, the Turkish government is creating incentives for Syrians to stay and contribute to Turkey’s struggling economy. Turkey has also gone a step further by refusing exit permits to Syrians with university qualifications. As a Guardian report notes, families such as that of Loreen and Shero waited years for their US resettlement application to be approved, only to find the Turkish government had blocked their exit because Loreen had a degree in banking. A Politico report tellingly titled “Turkey Hoards Well-Educated Syrians” recounts that Sameer and his family suffering the fate because his wife has a university degree. A spokesperson for Germany’s Interior Ministry told a reporter in June that more than 50 cases of Turkey refusing exit permits to Syrians already given visas for Germany had been reported in just a few weeks, while 292 refugees had been allowed to enter Germany. Although publicly denying the application of any selective criteria to Syrians’ exit permit requests, one Turkish official speaking on the condition of anonymity stated that the government believed “the most vulnerable need to be helped before others” in justifying why educated refugees were not being allowed to leave. Whatever the actual intention behind this policy of retaining skilled Syrians, the detrimental effects on Syrian families who have been wading through the bureaucratic process of resettlement for years — many of whom do not even have work permits in Turkey and thus are under-employed if employed at all — are starkly clear.
All of the steps the Turkish government has taken to host Syrians fleeing violence in their homeland notwithstanding, these effects highlight the everyday challenges and daily setbacks facing Turkey’s population. Families that ended their leases, sold their furniture, and purchased plane tickets are being told they are not allowed to leave. Others reading the news may see that the Turkish president who welcomed them with open arms now threatens to send them on to Europe by the busload. Still others may be experiencing the societal backlash against Erdoğan’s political gambit in announcing a citizenship process for Syrians; the hashtag #ÜlkemdeSuriyelilerİstemiyorum — “I don’t want Syrians in my country” — was trending on Twitter, and Syrian-operated shops were attacked. Such mixed and hurtful messages only compound the physical, emotional, financial, and other stresses that come along with displacement in conflict.
The presence of Syrian refugees within its borders can be a boon for Turkey, but must be handled in a way in which both parties benefit. Educated Syrians can make a significant contribution to the economy, but must not be forced to stay in Turkey. Sunni refugees can add to Turkey’s rich cultural heritage, but should not be used to socially engineer the country’s demographics to the government’s liking. Most importantly, the government should approach the welfare of refugees with the seriousness and sustained commitment their plight deserves, not as a pawn to be played when politically convenient.
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