The Turkish coup and the refugees

The night of July 15, 2016, must have been a horrible nightmare for the over 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. As difficult as their lives have often been, Turkey represented a safe haven with little fear of deportation—though the open door policy for new refugees from Syria has ended for now. There was also recent good news as the government enacted new rules on work permits while also calling for granting citizenship to some refugees. And although there are still over 400,000 working informally, often in tough conditions, health care has become available for free to those registered with the authorities. Schooling for Syrian children remains problematic with only half of the 900,000 children expected in schools by end 2016, but plans to cover them all by end 2017 have been underway.

However, none of these developments has been without controversy in Turkey’s highly polarized politics. For the refugees, fear of backtracking is a constant worry.

That night, as the sound of fighting could be heard in Ankara, Istanbul, and elsewhere with low-flying jets, helicopters, and gunfire reminding Syrians of the horrors of the war they had escaped, many feared the worst. They were among the first to quickly start stockpiling basic necessities. Also familiar must have been the images of people going out on streets as they heeded the elected president’s call to resist the coup. Indeed, the Syrian revolution had started with civilians confronting security forces and many remembered how they were cut down and the revolution descended into one of the most brutal civil wars of our era. On many minds was also the backlash against Syrians in Egypt after the elected Morsi government was deposed in July 2013.

As the night unfolded and the lack of support for the coup became clear, the crowds eventually started winning the streets back. By then Syrian refugees had started participating in the demonstrations, despite other Syrians urging their compatriots via social media and other venues to stay out of Turkey’s internal politics. Many Syrians now also participate in the nightly “democracy vigils” called by the government throughout the country.

So what impact will all this have on the Syrian refugees in Turkey and on the recent European Union deal with Turkey to stem the flow of refugees going to Europe?   

The fact that all political parties in parliament—from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party to the secular Republican People’s Party and the Nationalist Movement Party—stood at the outset with  President Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) against the coup signaled, at least for now, a less divisive political discourse in the country. However long that lasts, it remains unlikely to impact political parties on key policy issues, including their differences on Syrian refugees.

The decision to provide work permits with fairly tight restrictions for Syrians is likely to remain unchanged. At any rate, few have taken advantage of it since work permits come with minimum wages and social security payments, which makes the workers more expensive and less desirable to employers. As for the proposal to grant citizenship to up to 300,000 Syrians over a number of years based on skills and other criteria, that too could potentially also endure, but it has engendered much opposition. A lot will depend on how much political capital the government wants to spend on this as opposed to the many other pressing issues in the post-coup period.  

As for the EU deal with Turkey on migrants, whereby Turkey would be granted $7 billion for stemming the flow of migrants to Europe while Turkish citizens would be granted visa-free travel to the EU for up to three months, it was already under strain as human rights groups and others attacked the deal as a betrayal of the right to asylum. Furthermore, Turkey’s government refused to amend its anti-terrorism laws—a precondition for the visa waiver program. The deal would have helped Turkey fund programs to address issues like schooling for Syrian children, but such programs now will likely be delayed. In the meantime, while the EU strongly opposed the coup, it also warned against overreacting and engaging in witch hunts with little judicial restraint. But that is what appears to be happening with thousands removed from their posts and many others detained. To further strain ties, the AKP now threatens to bring back the death penalty even though Turkey has signed the European Convention on Human Rights, which bans capital punishment. The EU was quick to respond: “Let me be very clear,” the union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said “No country can become an EU member state if it introduces the death penalty.” The death penalty decision, if it comes, promises to be very divisive internally.   

As to the Syrian refugees, they are undoubtedly relieved at the failure of the coup. Their worries now center on how soon Turkey stabilizes. If the economy falters in significant fashion and further political turmoil erupts, their situation in Turkey will only become less certain and more difficult. Also, the fact that some have stepped into the political arena poses further risks especially if the AKP uses the coup to strengthen its majoritarian approach to politics while further curbing legitimate dissent.