Solving the growing problem of Syrian refugees in Turkey

Fueled by politicians looking to exploit communal tensions and a deep economic downturn, Turkish citizens have tired of the presence of Syrian refugees, and leaders need to act soon to address the rising animosity. 

“For the most generous of Syria’s neighbours in terms of hosting refugees, patience is wearing thin,” former Guardian columnist Kareem Shaheen wrote in The National on Wednesday. “Anti-Syrian xenophobia is growing.”

Only about 100,000 of the 3.6-4 million Syrians in Turkey live in camps, the rest must make their own way. Some 600,000 live in Istanbul, where their presence is increasingly troubling in the city’s less wealthy districts. The Syrians do not have a refugee status in Turkey and live under temporary protection. 

“The issue of refugees is a severe trauma,” Istanbul’s new mayor Ekreme İmamoğlu said in late June. “We have to protect our people’s interests. They cannot change Istanbul’s colour recklessly.”

A few days later, residents of Istanbul's Küçükçekmece district attacked Syrians and smashed Syrian-run businesses in response to a rumour, later proved false, that a Syrian refugee had assaulted a local girl. 

“Many Turks believe that the refugee question played an important role in helping Mr. İmamoğlu win the Istanbul election,” Afsin Yurdakul wrote in an analysis for The New York Times on Thursday. 

İmamoğlu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) has repeatedly called for Syrians to be returned home and criticised the policies of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Turkey’s government says it has so far spent $37 billion on Syrian refugees. 

A recent Kadir Has University survey found that 67.7 percent of participants were “not content with the presence of Syrian refugees”. Many Syrians in Turkey support the AKP for its policies, but Erdoğan may be starting to shift position in favour of voters.  

Last week, he said refugees would soon be expected to pay for some of their healthcare and that those committing crimes will be deported, while his government closed further registrations for Syrian refugees in Istanbul.

One additional issue for leaders to consider is that some 430,000 Syrian children born in Turkey were officially stateless. “A significant portion of those people will stay here and make their living,” said AKP official Mustafa Yeneroğlu. 

Yurdakul advised Turkey’s government to shift some of the refugee management responsibility to municipal authorities, and that Istanbul could set an example for others to follow. 

“While lending an ear to native grievances, the mayor of Istanbul should invite refugees to share their perspectives to manage the challenges of migration,” said Yurdakul, also urging him to reach out to business leaders for new ideas. 

Murat Erdoğan, migration scholar at the Turkish-German University in Istanbul, told Yurdakul that municipal authorities should receive funds based on their number of registered Syrian refugees, not just citizens, to help alleviate the financial burden.

Shaheen worried about moves like these. “Steps that would integrate Syrians better into Turkey’s economy are political suicide,” he said, offering two other solutions. 

The first is for Western and Arab states that do not border Syria to shoulder greater responsibility for refugee resettlement. He pointed out that the UK has taken in fewer than 14,000 Syrian refugees. Second, he advised Turkey to push for an inclusive peace settlement in Syria that builds safe conditions for return. 

Either way, observers agree that the refugee issue in Turkey needs to be addressed, and the sooner the better. “Failure to act now runs the risk of marginalising the refugee community and deepening the host society’s grievances,” said Yurdakul.