Turkey’s refugee problem is not going away

The presence of 4 million Syrian refugees poses a massive challenge to Turkey and is creating increasing tensions among the host population.

Faced with a resurgent opposition, there are signs President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is considering naturalising refugees to shore up support for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections in 2023. As citizenship would mean conscription into the armed forces for Syrian men, there are concerns about how Syrian troops might be deployed in their homeland, where Turkish forces control some territory. 

Eight years ago, Erdoğan said Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government would collapse in three months and that he soon would pray in Damascus’ Umayyad Mosque. The Turkish government started building container camps for refugees even before the war began.

Three years into the war, Turkey was hosting 1.5 million Syrian refugees, and 2.5 million a year later. The latest Interior Ministry figures put the number of Syrians currently living in Turkey at 3.6 million. Yet these figures only include Syrians who have been granted temporary identity cards. The Disaster and Emergency Management Authority estimates that some 400,000 Syrians are living in Turkey illegally, bringing the total to 4 million. 

The camps built in the hope that Assad would be swiftly toppled quickly proved inadequate. Just 2-3 percent of Turkey’s Syrian refugees (109,000) now live in those camps, while the rest are scattered across the country. Istanbul is home to nearly half a million, followed by provinces along the Syrian border: Gaziantep (437,000); Hatay (427,500); Şanlıurfa (435,000); and Mersin (201,000). The Aegean province of Izmir, a launch pad for Europe, hosts 143,000 Syrians. Syrians now make up 4.41 percent of Turkey’s population. 

Some 520,149 of the Syrians in Turkey are between aged four or under, while the number of those age 5-9 is 494,646. Almost half a million Syrians have been born in Turkey since the start of the war, and more than a million Syrians in Turkey are aged 9 or under. More than 800,000 Syrians in Turkey are age 15 to 24. 

Yet just under 650,000 out of 1.1 million school-age Syrian children are in school, according to Turkey’s Education Ministry. The rest remain outside  the education system and could cause social problems in the future.

Syrians in Turkey do not have official refugee status, they are under temporary protection. Meanwhile, Turkey is a transit country for refugees coming from elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The Interior Ministry says there are a further 1 million refugees from 37 countries in the country, bringing the total refugee population to some 5 million.

The number of people detained trying to enter Turkey illegally has also increased substantially from 44,415 in 2011, to 268,000 in 2018. Some 129,836 were detained in the first five months of this year. Thousands are waiting deportation in removal centres in 24 provinces, along with an additional seven centres financed by the European Union.

But Syrians are the backbone of Turkey’s refugee problem. Between 2016 and 2017, the number of crimes committed in Turkey increased by 6.4 percent, while the number of crimes involving Syrians increased by 19.6 percent during the same period. The number of crimes involving Syrians has increased six-fold in five years. 

In Turkish cities, some people say Syrians have established ghettos and say the number of fights has increased significantly. Many in Turkey fear the refugee problem could become a major security and public order issue.

As Turkey’s economic problems deepen, refugees are facing rising levels of intolerance. As of May 2019, some 31,185 Syrians, 1.3 percent of the total Syrian population in Turkey, had been granted work permits. Most Syrians work unregistered for lower wages and accept poorer working conditions, leading to resentment among unemployed Turks.

Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said in March that 79,894 Syrians had been granted citizenship. Though this number may be small, the 53,000 Syrians who were eligible to vote in March 31 local elections was high enough in some provinces to affect the outcome. 

Most observers believe Syrians are more likely to vote for Erdoğan’s AKP than the secular opposition, so the government could tilt the electorate in its favour by granting more of them citizenship. In some provinces, the number of Syrians has reached 15 to 20 percent of the population. In the southeastern town of Kilis, the number is 80 percent. 

Apart from those who can prove they have been conscripted in their homeland before, men granted citizenship will also be obliged to carry out their military service, according to the new Conscription Law adopted last week. 

In addition to the fewer than 10 percent of Syrians who have returned home after Turkey seized parts of northern Syria in military operations, Erdoğan said last week that some 1 million more would be sent back after Turkey established a safe zone in northwestern Syria. But it is unlikely that all Syrians would return home even if Turkey does establish a safe zone in Syria, and even if the civil war ends.

According to Erdoğan, Turkey had spent some $35 billion on refugees by January 2019. The main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has said those figures are neither transparent nor accurate, as it would mean Turkey spends $2,500 per Syrian a year and $12,500 per five-member Syrian family.

Kılıçdaroğlu has asked Erdoğan account for the money, saying the government has made mistakes in its Syria policy and that the funds could be used instead for millions of Turks living in poverty and to enhance opportunities for unemployment and investment. 

International organisations also complain about a lack of transparency. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. government’s main agency for humanitarian assistance, in 2016 suspended its assistance to Syrians in Turkey over corruption claims. 

The EU’s Court of Accounts said in 2018 that it could not determine how 1.1 billion euros of financial assistance provided to Turkey for Syrians had been spent, adding that public tenders had not been transparent. As a result, the bloc decided to distribute financial assistance directly on a project basis, rather than through Turkish state institutions. 

Though Turkey has faced social problems and an economic burden due to the refugees, Syrians also contribute to the economy. According to the Trade Ministry, more than 15,000 new businesses in Turkey, which employ nearly 100,000 people, have either been established by Syrians or include a Syrian partner. At the same time, Syrians also run many unregistered small businesses, upsetting Turks who complain that Syrians pay no taxes, which leads to unfair competition. 

Opposition parties say Turkey is paying the price of the war because of Erdoğan’s poor and shortsighted Syrian policy, which has affected his country’s politics, military, diplomacy, economy and security, and has created a grave humanitarian problem. After eight years, it seems like Turkey will continue to pay a heavy price in the future.


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

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