Turkey is under growing pressure from nearly three million Syrian refugees. To mitigate domestic tensions and spillover from regional conflicts, Ankara needs to develop, and find support for, new policies that open refugees’ routes to jobs, education and permanent legal status.
Turkey’s response to the influx of Syrians is a source of national pride. The massive numbers pose significant absorptive and financial challenges and compound problems stemming from complex demographics, deep political polarisation and rising security threats. The uncertainties with regard to the Syria war delayed long-term planning by both authorities and Syrians in Turkey. Ankara now needs to assume the permanence of the refugees in order to craft an integration strategy to mitigate the long-term risk for the nation’s stability. Replacing top down, erratic policymaking with a national plan alongside efforts to build consensus among constituencies is necessary both for Syrians to have clarity about their future in Turkey and to ensure that their hosts do not see them as an economic burden, security threat or instrument for redesigning national identity.
The scale is staggering. 2.75 million Syrians are registered in Turkey, around 3.5 per cent of the population. When the influx began in 2011, Ankara assumed a smaller number and shorter timeframe, but with the war showing no signs of abating and Europe’s migration policies in disarray, it is a reality that looks set to stay or expand.
Emergency responses have meant fitful policies and convoluted rhetoric. For the refugees, challenges include learning the language, finding meaningful jobs, housing and education, vulnerability to exploitation and navigating an unfamiliar, complicated bureaucracy. Acknowledgement of likely permanence has begun in 2016 to show up in policies for integration in education and employment. Implementation of the new progressive integration policies, however, needs tighter coordination between public institutions, which should be aligned around a holistic, coherent strategy.
Moreover, the year’s dramatic political upheavals, peaking with the July coup attempt and its aftermath, have deepened the general sense of an unpredictable and precarious future that dominates the refugee experience.
Host communities complain about the impact of dense refugee concentrations on the labour force, social benefits refugees receive and potential for increased crime and terror. Violence against refugees is isolated and downplayed, though the occasional flare-ups on social media and alarming coverage after the president said citizenship would be granted suggest the potential for friction. Squaring state capacities with refugee expectations and host grievances is complicated. Integration policies need to consider host community concerns of a zero sum equation between their and Syrians’ interests and be coupled with communication strategies alongside other efforts to foster dialogue between refugees and hosts.
The refugees are overwhelmingly Sunni Arabs, adding an ethnic-sectarian dimension to the issue. The common European assumption that Turkey is a natural environment for Syrians tends to neglect the complexities of its society. Much as in Europe, absorption involves not merely administrative and financial matters, but also cultural and political values. Sensitivities of minority communities are based on collective memories of persecution, recent political marginalisation and mistrust of the president and government. Alevis, Kurdish nationalists, liberals, secularists and some Turkish nationalists worry that political leaders are using refugees to transform national identity, consolidate power and reframe Turkey’s role in the Middle East as more Arab, Sunni and hegemonic. The perception that refugees are a demographic threat and pawns used by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) dampens prospects for a dispassionate, constructive debate about their presence and future.
Suspicion of AKP’s refugee agenda is also fuelled by lack of clarity about, for example, locations for new refugee housing and camps and possible citizenship prospects.
An inclusive national dialogue is needed to distinguish unfounded speculation from legitimate concerns, but the polarised environment hinders an integration debate.
Opposition parties complain the president decides on refugees without consulting and wants to use them to achieve absolute power. Because society’s cultural, ethnic and sectarian fault lines correspond to party constituencies, they manifest themselves in political confrontation at the centre.
Ideally, Ankara would, in line with international precedents and human rights standards, lift the geographical limitation it applies to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and give Syrians formal refugee status, but this is currently unlikely. A long-term citizenship prospect would provide Syrians with an incentive to integrate but poses risks if offered without building consensus and setting clearly defined, fair conditions.
Regardless of citizenship, targeted integration policies with clearly-defined legal steps incentivising transition from temporary to permanent legal status are needed.
This requires decision-making and engagement by political leaders that is inclusive, not imposed. More comprehensive debate on a new constitution and amendment of Article 66 on the definition of citizenship could provide a positive framework if government and opposition engage constructively.
While Europe is most concerned about preventing more Syrians from seeking refuge in its countries, a more nuanced focus needs to be on how the refugees integrate in Turkey over the long term. However, the low numbers the European Union (EU) is willing to accept make Turkish authorities unwilling to engage on refugee rights and give Ankara a sense of occupying the moral high ground in face of EU requests on issues such as the rule of law agenda. It is a dynamic from which all stand to lose.
Ankara/Brussels, 30 November 2016