Pressing need to integrate Turkey's Syrian refugees

It has been 10 years since Syrian refugees first began arriving in Turkey, and the attitude toward the group has changed radically over the last decade.

From being welcomed with open arms, to being blamed for the country’s financial downturn, Turkey’s some 3.7 million refugees are faced with a bleak future in the country, where they have become a political tool and victims of the lack of an integration policy.

A March report prepared by Kenda Shaherhawasli and Elif Nur Güvençe, entitled “The Rapport between Syrian Refugees and Turkish society: Opportunities and Threats,’’ details the trajectory of the relationship between Turks and Syrians and the factors that played a key role in shaping ties.

Integration between the refugees and Turkish citizens was positive until 2018, but has turned sour over the last three years, the study found.

The government’s inconsistent policies regarding the group, racist discourse in Turkish media, the financial crisis and prejudices have all played a role in isolating the Syrian community in Turkey, according to the study.

A Syrian national and activist, co-author of the study, Shaherhawasli explains that the community in Turkey has been faced with new problems in recent years, during a time when it became evident to both Turks and Syrians that the latter were in the country to stay.

Shaherhawasli explains how this lack of foresight by the Turkish government snowballed into a larger problem and that Ankara failed both sides in the integration process.

“Integration is being given to refugees only,’’ she says. “Okay, I received integration training and learned the language, etc., but if the people of a country don’t accept me, then what good will that integration training do?’’ 

According to the “Syrian Barometer 2019” study, up to 85 percent of Turks want Syrian newcomers to live in isolation away from Turkish neighbourhoods. The study also found that almost 80 percent of Turkish respondents said they believe most Syrians will remain in the country permanently.

Turkey’s Syrian population is young and vibrant, Shaherhawasli explains, but Turkey has been unable to take advantage of this demographic.

“Europe benefited from the young Syrian refugees by assigning them to different vocational categories and services,’’ she notes, something Ankara has failed at.

In fact, the young Syrian population has been a source of resentment for Turkish nationals, who accuse them of collecting state support and refusing to work.  Due to their status as conditional refugees, an effective state of limbo, Syrians must apply for workers’ permits in Turkey, and it is very difficult for them to obtain them. They are often paid very low wages under the table, completely open to exploitation by their employers.

Shaherhawasli points to the role of media in altering the perception of Syrian refugees among Turkey’s population.

Turkish media regularly reports on what is provided for refugees, which creates resentment, the activist explains, but neglects to cite the source of the funding, which is generally Brussels.

 “X amount was spent on refugees,’’ the media says,  “and Turkish citizens receive incomplete information, causing them to question why ‘their money’ is being given to citizens.’’

The downturn of Turkey’s economy, soaring unemployment and inflation, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic over the last few years have made matters in the country worse for Syrian refugees.

 “People in Turkey started thinking, ‘We used to be better off, but this overload of refugees is preventing our financial development,’’ the activist explains.

Sixty percent of Turks ranked the country’s Syrian refugees as its “third biggest” problem, according to the Syrian Barometer 2019 survey.

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

Approximately 3 percent, around  110,000 Syrians have been granted Turkish citizenship, according to data from the interior ministry.

Syrians are effectively barred from the civil administration unless they become citizens, she explains, noting how even simple complaints to Turkish police over mistreatment are dismissed.

Without citizenship Syrian refugees cannot even travel to a different city, she adds, and thousands of  families have been forced to split up because of this policy.

The over 450,000 Syrians born in Turkey do not have a Syrian citizenship, nor are they granted a Turkish one.

All of this shows how the lack of a coherent integration policy is creating an isolated and resentful Syrian community in Turkey. Positive steps could change this, and make them a creative and productive part of our country.

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