Home to more than 3.5 million Syrians forced to flee, Turkey hosts the largest share of the world’s refugees. More than 90 percent of this population lives outside of camps in urban areas. Given the increasing trend internationally for refugees to live in cities, lessons from Turkey’s efforts to expand access to jobs and social services could prove instructive. In particular, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials in the process of developing a new Global Compact on Refugees should examine its experience. During a visit to Turkish municipalities earlier this month with my Brookings colleague Kemal Kirişci and Türk-Alman University’s Murat Erdogan, I learned three lessons.
First, UNHCR officials developing a new Global Compact on Refugees haven’t adequately drawn from the perspectives of municipalities in Turkey—which is a striking omission given its relevant experience. The disengagement of local Turkish authorities in UNHCR’s compact process was palpable. None of those we met reported following the process in any depth, nor contributing to it. Some were unaware of its existence. That is unfortunate, given the enormous operational knowledge these leaders have gained over the course of the Syria crisis. Where cities like New York have well-staffed offices of international and immigrant affairs, small municipal districts generally do not. That, among other factors, can leave them ill-equipped to engage in multilateral global processes, particularly when not proactively encouraged to do so by their national government and agencies such as UNHCR.
Six of the 13 contexts in which UNHCR is piloting the new global framework—Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Panama—host fewer than 30,000 refugees combined. Contrast that with Bağcılar, a district of Istanbul, which, according to officials we spoke with, hosts more than 51,000 Syrian refugees alone. In Istanbul as a whole, that number is more than 550,000. The new framework—which aspired to take a whole-of-society, multi-stakeholder approach, and to be relevant to “each situation involving large numbers of refugees”—is not being piloted anywhere in the region. With more than 3 million refugees in Turkish municipalities, engaging local leadership there seems prudent. Although consultations on the compact are reaching their conclusion, it is not too late to do so. UNHCR could ensure that these leaders are welcomed at the first Global Refugee Forum, slated to take place next year. It should also consult with them on the process of developing key monitoring and evaluation indicators, which they have pledged to complete before the forum.
Second, UNHCR field staff operating on the ground in Turkey appreciates the imperative of working with local authorities. In 2015, UNHCR Field Office Istanbul organized a workshop with the Marmara Union of Municipalities that addressed topics of mutual concern, including social assistance, livelihoods, international protection, and social cohesion. Last year, they hosted a similar workshop with the World Academy for Local Government and Democracy (WALD), with the goal of developing concrete ideas for collaboration and coordination. The workshops have enabled UNHCR to identify specific avenues to support municipalities. Separately, UNHCR’s Istanbul team has worked to ensure that municipal social workers engage in the process of identifying refugees and referring them to existing social service centers. Doing so resulted in a dramatic spike in the number of beneficiaries between 2016 and 2017. City leadership and UNHCR field staff face the same imperative: developing and implementing practical solutions for immediate challenges. Perhaps that is why staff on the ground in Turkey are working with local leaders, even if decisionmakers at higher levels have not systematically included them.
Third, Turkish municipalities—like other cities facing pressures associated with hosting large numbers of refugees—are eager to exchange good practices and innovations with one another. As my former Brookings colleague Bruce Katz has observed: “Cities watch each other closely. When one innovates, others replicate the innovation or adapt and tailor it to their own circumstances.” That is certainly the case for the Marmara Union of Municipalities, which set up a Migration Policy Center with the goal of enabling local administrations to share information and experience, and to benefit from exchange on global good practices. The current draft of the Global Compact on Refugees suggests that UNHCR and other stakeholders will support exchanges among cities on these topics, including through twinning approaches. That is a welcome development.
Turkish municipalities are on the front lines of the Syrian refugee crisis. Their perspectives could offer valuable lessons for urban refugee situations elsewhere. As the international community prepares to roll out its new Refugee Compact later this year, those lessons deserve a hearing.
On February 24, Vanda Felbab-Brown joins the National Committee on US-China Relations for a discussion on “The faces of fentanyl: China, the United States, and those in-between.”