Post-presidential Election and the Status of Syrian Refugees

The Aug. 10 presidential election will take place at a time when Turkey is grappling with an ever-increasing number of Syrian refugees. In April 2011, Turkey welcomed the first set of Syrian refugees with open arms. However, today, as their numbers surpass 1 million and as all indications are that the refugees are likely to stay for a long period of time, Turkish people are struggling to remain hospitable. For example, in the course of just July, throughout cities in southern Turkey, there were protests – often violent – against the presence of Syrian refugees. Local residents held a sit-down protest in Gaziantep; a group of masked men attacked shops owned by Syrians in Adana; another group of 1,000 marched under the slogan, “No to Syrian refugees in Turkey” in Kahramanmaraş. These protests are a stark reminder that once the presidential election is over the Turkish government will have to develop a long-term solution for its new migrants.

As of August 2014, there are approximately 3 million Syrian refugees living in neighboring countries. In Lebanon, there are over 1.1 million refugees, making every fourth person in the country a refugee. In Jordan, there are more than 600,000 refugees. There are another 350,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt and Iraq. The number of registered refugees in Turkey is just over 800,000 with the estimated total number put well over the 1 million mark. Around 218,000 of these refugees are housed in what the New York Times called the “best refugee camps ever built.” However, it is the urban refugees living along the Syrian border (Adana, Adıyaman, Gaziantep, Hatay, Kahramanmaraş, Kilis, Mardin, Osmaniye, Şanlıurfa), as well as in some of the major western cities of Turkey (Ankara, Istanbul, İzmir, etc.) that constitute a challenge for the government. With poor access to shelter, health, and education facilities, Syrian refugees in urban communities live under difficult conditions. From the locals’ perspectives, Syrian refugees take away jobs, businesses and housing, and flout Turkish cultural norms through child marriage, prostitution, child labor, petty crime and begging. This is further exacerbated by the absence of a clear perspective on what will happen to the refugees in the long run. What can be done to alleviate the suffering of the refugees while addressing the public’s concerns and complaints?

The Turkish government has long assumed that the Syrian civil war was transient. The government maintained an open door policy and extended “temporary protection” on the expectation of a quick return. Policy-makers were also slow in seeking international assistance, developing closer cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and becoming a part of the Syrian Regional Response Plans. However, the process of registration and assistance has come a long way with the newly established General Directorate for Migration Management (GDMM). The GDMM in coordination with the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD) is developing a regulation to define the terms of “temporary protection” and clarifying the rights of refugees in urban communities.

Nevertheless, once the presidential election is over and the government settles back into routine, it will be important to address the long-term status of Syrian refugees in Turkey.

This will not be an easy task. The UNHCR is mandated to oversee the protection of refugees around the world and identifies the voluntary return of refugees to their country of origin as the ideal option. However, without any political settlement in Syria, the possibility of Syrians returning to their hometowns and villages seems remote. Following voluntary return, the second and third options involve resettlement into third countries or integration in the host country or a combination of both. In 2014, the UNHCR launched appeals to member states to volunteer to take at least 30,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014 and then another 100,000 for 2015 and 2016. Thus far, the international community has not been very forthcoming in meeting these targets and recently the UNHCR has been especially critical of the EU for having accepted only 124,000 refugees, less than 4 percent of all Syrian refugees. Yet, there also has to be recognition that resettlement in itself is not going to make a major contribution to the resolution of the Syrian refugee situation. In 2012, only 88,600 of the world’s 15.4 million refugees were resettled, a rate of less than 0.6 percent. Hence, it is unlikely that there will be any major resettlements from Turkey beyond symbolic numbers.

This means that the third option, integration into the host country, will inevitably have to be considered. The current Turkish practice allows only for refugees who are considered to be of “Turkish descent and culture” to settle in Turkey. Hence, from the early days of the Republic, until the early 1990s, more than 1.6 million such refugees and migrants belonging to ethnic groups that could easily meld into a Turkish identity such as Albanians, Bosnians, Circassians, Pomaks and Tatars from the Balkans settled into Turkey. In 1989, for example, more than 300,000 Bulgarian-Turks entered Turkey in a mass influx, and 240,000 were naturalized. In the case of Syrians, with an overwhelmingly Arab population, the Turkish government would have to adopt special legislation in order to extend mass naturalization. This would be a very controversial and divisive issue and a politically treacherous decision, especially considering that less than a year after the presidential election, Turkey will have a parliamentary election in June 2015.

As much as the path to formal integration in the form of mass acquisition of Turkish citizenship may at the moment be a difficult and thorny subject, there is the sheer reality that by the end of this year, there will be more than 1 million Syrian refugees in urban settings. There is already an informal process of integration occurring as Syrians try to adjust to their new surroundings. The government, as well as many municipalities and civil society groups, are extending and expanding a range of services to the refugees. However, these efforts are often done in a haphazard and piecemeal manner and fall well short of meeting the refugees’ needs. A much more comprehensive and holistic approach would benefit the refugees and help to alleviate the public’s concerns and fears. Such a comprehensive approach would need to address four issues: first, recognize that refugees are here in Turkey to stay for the foreseeable future, second, legislate access to basic public services, including the labor market for refugees; third, cooperate more closely with the international community to ensure effective and realistic burden-sharing methods and fourth, and possibly the toughest one, mobilize the public to show support for the integration of refugees while respecting their anxieties and concerns.

This article was originally published in Hurriyet Daily News.