Turkey’s Syrian refugees - the badly treated 'guests'

(Correction in the second paragraph, the number of official refugees) 

Syrians who began arriving in Turkey nine years ago, after a civil war erupted in their country, were designated as "guests’’ by the Turkish government. There is no designation in international law or that of any country for such a status. And even though the status of the country’s 3.6 million Syrians changed later on, their perception as guests has been etched into the minds of the people of Turkey.

Turkey is a signatory of the 1951 Geneva Convention and subsequent 1967 Protocol, but maintains a geographical limitation on refugees that was later lifted by other signatory countries. Only four countries retain this limitation, which stipulates that anyone coming from outside of Europe is not given refugee status. Turkey is not even home to an official 50 refugees, so the formal designation barely exits in the country.

Turkey gives conditional refugee status to those coming to the country from outside of Europe. Those arriving from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and African nations have such a designation. What this status means is that these migrants are registered by the Interior Ministry and United Nations to wait in Turkey until they are accepted as formal refugees in another country. This waiting period can last years.

During this time in limbo, migrants are placed in what are called “satellite cities” and are not free to settle wherever they please. They are required to prove they are located wherever they have been placed by the government by signing in with the local governor’s offices two are three times a month. And even if they are to apply for workers’ permits, it is very difficult for them to attain one. That being said, they have access to healthcare.

A third category for Turkey’s migrants is a system referred to as  “secondary protection” (ikincil koruma). Just what this is and who it is granted to is not entirely clear. Categorically it is designated to those who don’t fit into either of the other two categories and whose lives would be threatened should they return home.

However, Syrians were not grouped into any of these three categories when they arrived and a new category was created for the group living in the shadow of guesthood: temporary protection status. This status requires that the host country  "open their borders, not send back and meet the basic needs" of the group. In 2014, after this status was formed, Turkey formed the Directorate General of Migration Management as the only state institution that deals with this demographic.

Despite the passing of several years, the status of Syrians as guests, in essence, has not changed. Reports in Turkish media that Syrian refugees have been granted citizenship - much like a great deal of reports on the group - does not reflect the truth. According to official government figures from May 2020, the number of Syrians in Turkey is 3,579,332 and the this number is decreasing. Only 63,346 of the Syrian refugees live in camps.

A total of 110,000 Syrians have been granted Turkish citizenship, according to data from Interior Ministry while 402,011 Syrians have returned home. 

Turkey, unlike European countries, does not grant automatic citizenship to individuals who have lived in the country for five years.

One can examine the details of this data on the website of Turkey’s Istanbul-based Refugees Association (Mülteciler Derneği).

The organisation also clarifies common misconceptions about Syrian refugees. Let me share a few as listed on the site.

“Syrian small business owners don’t pay taxes.’’ Wrong. Every commercial institution in Turkey is required to pay taxes. Syrians have no exemption or receive no special treatment on this matter.

“Syrians can get a work permit and work wherever they please.’’ Wrong. A work permit is acquired by the employer. A foreign national does not have the automatic authority to receive a work permit. Moreover, if a Turkish employer wishes to employ a foreign national, they must have employed at least five Turkish nationals.

“Syrians receive a salary from the government.’’ Wrong. The Turkish sate has neither in the past nor today given Syrians a monthly salary from its own resources.

“Syrians can enter university without an entrance examination.’’ Wrong. There is no difference in requirements for Syrians entering either private or state universities. The mandatory university entrance exam is also a requisite for the group to enter university.

This type of false information on Syrians is circulated in Turkey, particularly by nationalist and racist segments of society. And unfortunately, there is a demographic that believes such disinformation, wanting Syrians’ period as guests in the country to come to an end.  One frequently hears phrases addressing Turkey’s Syrian population from almost every segment of society, such as “If they are guests, they should act as such”, or  “these are guests that never leave.”

June 20 was World Refugee Day. Turkey likely took the opportunity to explain what a gracious host it is on international platforms, while hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Afghanis and Iranians are working in the country in unsafe conditions and facing shameful discrimination and Syrian women and children continue to be exploited.

But in fact, the owner of this home has long violated its guests, having them work for low wages, spiking their rent and taking on their women as second wives or simply selling them like commodities.

It is high time to abandon this talk of guests and host, and instead focus on the basic needs of these migrants who escaped war, death and hunger to arrive on Turkish soil.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.