Syrian Refugees in Turkey: Bracing for the Long Haul

The number of Syrian refugees in Turkey is fast approaching one million. The government so far has managed to register more than 600,000 of them but recognizes that their actual numbers are already well beyond 700,000. Close to 210,000 of these refugees are housed in 21 refugee camps while the rest are in urban settings along the Syrian border. According to the 2014 Syrian Regional Response Plan Strategic Overview, the Turkish government foresees 1.5 million Syrians in the country by the end of 2014. A growing number of them are likely to swell the already growing numbers of Syrians in practically all the major cities of Turkey led of course by Istanbul. In a report published in September, Turkish human rights organization Mazlum-Der, estimated the number of Syrian refugees in Istanbul at approximately around 100,000; it is now thought that the number has doubled. Together with a small army of local and international NGOs and U.N. agencies, the Turkish government is trying to extend assistance and provide basic services. The government has opened the national health system to the refugees and is just beginning to address the issue of education of the children outside of the camps. In the meantime the question of the long-term status of the refugees is being increasingly raised. At a recent seminar organized in Ankara by the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), numerous governmental and civil society experts recognized that these refugees are in Turkey for the long haul. Some even expect that they could be in Turkey for up to 10 to 15 years. Similar observations were also made by members of the Turkish parliament that this author interviewed in late January 2014. What is to be done?

The first refugees from Syria began to arrive late in April 2011. At first their numbers increased slowly and by March 2012 there were close to 66,000 Syrians housed in 17 refugee camps. In the meantime, the Turkish government extended a generous reception and adopted an open door policy characterized by a commitment to accept all Syrians that sought refuge and to respect the “non-refoulement” principle of international refugee law. The high quality of the refugee camps and services provided earned considerable praise for the Turkish government and its Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (AFAD), the agency primarily responsible for the management of the refugee crisis. However, as the conflict in Syria escalated, the number of arrivals significantly increased and finding space for new camps and then constructing them, became increasingly more difficult. By early 2013, almost 180,000 were living in Turkey’s refugee camps while more and more refugees found themselves outside camps, in urban settings. Their sheer numbers started to alter significantly the demographics and social fabric of towns in the region. For example, by late 2013 the border city of Kilis had seen its population double. Clearly, the government had not foreseen such an influx. The expectation, in line with most of the international community, was that the regime of Bashar al-Assad would not last long, possibly a couple of months, and that the refugees would return to Syria once a new and reformed regime was established.

It is against such a background that the question of the long-term status of the refugees began to be raised. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated to oversee the protection of refugees around the world and identifies the voluntary return of refugees to Syria as the ideal and preferred option. However, it is very difficult to see how refugees would be able to return without a political settlement in Syria. That possibility continues to look terribly remote. Even were a settlement to be reached quickly, the political circumstances and the level of destruction in Syria may not make it possible for the refugees to return home for a long while to come.

Following voluntary return the second and third options involve either resettlement into third countries or integration in the host country or a combination of both. So far traditional countries of resettlement have not been very forthcoming. The United States in 2013 took less than 100 Syrian refugees while Germany and Sweden have admitted 18,000 and 14,000 respectively some of them from Jordan and Lebanon. Another 15,000 Syrian refugees have been granted or resettled by other EU member countries. In October 2013, Antonio Guterres, High Commissioner for Refugees, launched an appeal to member countries to volunteer to take at least 10,000 Syrian refugees to ease some of the burden on countries neighboring Syria. So far, no refugees appear to have been resettled from Turkey. It is unlikely that there will be any major resettlements from Turkey beyond some symbolic numbers.

This means that the third option, integration into the host country, will inevitably have to be considered. Turkey is already abuzz with rumors that the government is going to extend citizenship and the right to vote to the Syrian refugees. A number of officials as well as MPs during interviews with this author have categorically denied that the government had any such intentions and noted that there were no steps that had been taken in this direction. The current Turkish Law on Settlement allows only for refugees who are of “Turkish descent and culture” to settle in Turkey. The government would have to adopt special legislation to be able to extend mass naturalization for the Syrian refugees in Turkey. This would be a very controversial and divisive issue and a politically treacherous decision as Turkey enters a eighteen-month-long election cycle. While Turkey’s government has been generous, the public in Turkey is growing weary of the refugees and increasingly sees them as a burden. There is an unhappiness that is growing as prices rise – especially rent prices in towns along the Syrian border – and wages fall as more and more refugees enter the informal labor market. These attitudes are reflected in the results of a January 2014 poll taken by the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM). According to this poll 86 percent of the respondents want the intake to be stopped while close to 30 percent of these respondents advocated that the refugees should simply be sent back.

As much as the path of formal integration in the form of the granting of citizenship may at the moment be a difficult and thorny one there is the sheer reality that more than half a million Syrian refugees are present in urban settings. There is already an informal process of integration occurring as Syrians try to adjust to their new surroundings as they seek more permanent accommodation, employment and education for their children. The government as well as many municipalities and civil society groups are extending and expanding a range of services including language courses in Turkish. Refugees themselves realize that they are likely to be in Turkey for the long haul and demand these courses in Turkish. However, short of formal integration, the government is going to have to give priority to two policy areas critical to formal or informal integration: employment and education of refugee children.

There are growing reports in the Turkish media about the number of Syrians that seek employment in the informal sector and risk serious exploitation. This is pushing wages downwards and provoking resentment among locals. Current Turkish labor laws make it very difficult for Syrian refugees to obtain work permits and seek employment in the formal economy. The Turkish government should take measures to encourage and facilitate Syrians to enter the formal economy. This would help to alleviate the risk of the refugees being exploited by unscrupulous employers, help them earn a living and in turn alleviate the financial burden on the tax-payers. The latter would also go a long way in helping to address some of the negative stereotyping among the Turkish public. A second policy area critical to achieve a better integration of the Syrians is the education of the refugee children. The aforementioned RRP 2014 Strategic Overview notes that in Turkey “some 70 percent of Syrian children outside camps are not accessing any form of education.” Currently, the Turkish government provides for schooling for children in the refugee camps while only a small proportion of their counterparts in urban settings receive any education. Inevitably the issue of education is highly political and closely tied up with the issue of what is going to happen to the refugees in the long term. However, above all, it is the right of all children to receive basic education that should be the guiding policy principle.

Striking a balance between addressing the needs of employment and education of Syrian refugees and their long term status is going to be a politically challenging exercise. Turkey is going to need assistance from the international community. Turkey provides the basic protection needs of the refugees by ensuring “non-refoulement” with its open door policy. It is spending considerable sums of tax-payers money for the upkeep of the refugees in the camps as well as the provisions of health services for all Syrian refugees. However, Turkey now faces the growing reality that most of the refugees will be in Turkey for the foreseeable future. Refugees continue to face many risks and vulnerabilities in urban settings. The most visible are the risks associated with lack of access to the formal labor market and education. The protection and care of refugees is a responsibility of the international community and it is of critical importance that the international community demonstrates a will to share this burden. This could take the form of the resettlement of especially vulnerable cases from Turkey as modest as the numbers might be. This should be accompanied by a much more generous effort to make funds available to Turkish and international specialized governmental as well as non-governmental actors to strengthen their capacity to address the long term needs of the refugees including employment and education. In turn, the Turkish government should take measures to facilitate the ability of competent international actors to register and work as well as access Syrian refugees and cooperate with stakeholders in Turkey.