Istanbul mayor’s refugee shift could protect Europe from Erdoğan's threats

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) penned an article this month asserting that, although Turkey has accepted more refugees than any country in the world, the lack of an effective and coherent national immigration policy has furthered the cycle of poverty and impeded Syrians’ integration.

Writing in Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ), İmamoğlu says Turkey’s 3.5 million Syrians refugees face significant financial constraints and are mostly unable to secure decent-paying jobs, which means they tend to live in shoddy and crowded apartments. He goes on to argue that due to the state’s failure to integrate these new arrivals, local governments, like that of Istanbul, have been forced to play a key role in protecting and integrating refugees even as municipalities struggle with minimal oversight and funding and a lack of standardised services.

Though Turkey has no election scheduled for more than three years, İmamoğlu is widely seen as the top challenger to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has led Turkey for more than 17 years. Last week, a leading pollster said he would expect the Istanbul mayor to beat the president if an election were held today.

Thus, it seems likely that at least part of the motivation behind İmamoğlu’s refugee article was political: an attempt to underscore the shortcomings and perhaps the callousness of the Erdoğan government and highlight his own achievements and moral compass. Yet the piece only appeared in English, so was most likely directed at the West. As such, it did a fine job reminding us of the Damocles’ Sword Erdoğan dangles over Europe.

For years, the Turkish government has been rightly and widely lauded for welcoming some 4 million refugees fleeing the war in neighbouring Syria. Yet it has also been regularly urged, by several prominent analysts, to do more to help those refugees integrate into Turkish society, mainly via greater rights and job opportunities.

Five years ago I wrote an article making a similar argument - that Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party had a golden opportunity to integrate Syrians, as well as Afghans, Iranians and other new arrivals, and become an immigrant-friendly nation, a beacon in a region of instability. 

Whether by accident or intent, the Turkish government has failed on this count. Today the vast majority of the 3.5 million Syrians in Turkey remain dissatisfied with their lives, even as much as six or eight years after arrival. And it’s precisely because of this reality that Erdoğan has the power to send great hordes of Syrians and other migrants toward the border with Greece and the European Union.

If the Turkish state had granted Syrians full refugee status rather than temporary protections, helped them with job training and finding employment and stable homes, then Erdoğan’s oft-repeated warning that he would “open the gates” to refugees and flood Europe would be nothing but an empty threat.

But of course we learned in February that this threat is legitimate, and it remains so because the conditions that drove Turkey to go that route earlier this year - a deeply troubled economy, a citizenry tired of Syrians’ presence, and the looming threat of 1-2 million more Syrians spilling into Turkey from Syria’s Idlib province - haven’t changed.

Migration expert Vit Novotny of the Wilfried Martiens Centre for European Studies imagined Idlib’s displaced being forced into Turkey and joining an Erdoğan-produced wave of millions of refugees entering Europe. He foresaw instability in the Balkans first, as the wave passed through, then a spike in crime, both by and against the migrants, and finally EU states embroiled in a fierce political debate about how to respond.

“Our populations are not ready for this. Our political class is not ready for this. Nobody is ready for this,” Novotny told Ahval in a podcast. “I hope that scenario never materialises.”

As long as that threat exists, Erdoğan has the EU over a barrel. This is why İmamoğlu’s mission to integrate Istanbul’s million or so migrants from Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, and support other municipalities’ efforts to do the same, is so crucial. It could save Europe from a Hobbesian fate.

The vast majority of Turkey’s refugees live in its major cities, many of which İmamoğlu’s CHP gained control of in last year’s local elections, including Ankara, Adana, Izmir and Antalya, in addition to Istanbul. If these CHP mayors succeed in their efforts to help Syrians and other refugees integrate and build stable lives, it would take a large share of the steam out of Erdoğan’s threat to open the gates.

This will be no easy task. Turks have been known to harbour some prejudice against Arabs, which has in the last few years helped inflame economy-related animosity toward Syrians. This played a role in the election results, as many rejected the AKP’s pro-refugee position.

İmamoğlu’s pro-integration position detailed in the TPQ article marks a clear shift from the CHP’s stance last year, when it courted the anti-refugee vote despite running on a platform of unity and love. Shortly after his big victory in the June rerun vote, İmamoğlu said refugees had been a “severe trauma” for Istanbullus and vowed: “They cannot change Istanbul’s colour recklessly.” Days later residents of the city’s Küçükçekmece district attacked Syrians and smashed Syrian-run businesses in response to a false rumour.

At the time I wrote that İmamoğlu had betrayed Istanbul, turning away from his campaign promises of diversity and social unity. Now, at least internationally, he supports integration. Still, Turkish citizens’ resentment toward refugees remains and could undermine refugees’ efforts to settle down for good.

In addition, just as Erdoğan curbed cities’ attempts to fund their own coronavirus response measures, he would likely embrace a similar approach if CHP-run cities were to go all-in on integrating refugees.

Yet if these cities and mayors were to succeed, few refugees would heed Ankara’s call to attempt to cross into Europe. That’s far from the reality today.

“We must not allow Turkey to blackmail us, as it has repeatedly tried,” Austria’s conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said in an interview with Greek daily Kathimerini on Sunday.

Many observers believe Turkey only halted its push to leverage the threat of another refugee wave into more EU dollars because of the pandemic. If this is true, Erdoğan might well plan to resume his efforts at refugee blackmail when the public health threat has subsided, which could be weeks away.

This makes the integration efforts of İmamoğlu and others of the utmost urgency and importance.