Nick Ashdown
Jun 22 2018

Turkey’s Syrian refugees stuck between a rock and a hard place as they head to polls

According to a recent statement from Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, 30,000 Syrian refugees who’ve become Turkish citizens will be voting in Sunday’s elections, but some say they’re too scared.

Ahval spoke to three Syrians in Istanbul who’ve recently become naturalized Turkish citizens, and none of them are planning to vote, for fear of harassment or violence.

“I’m afraid of [people’s] reactions. My Turkish isn’t that good, so they’ll easily spot me. It’ll be sensitive that day,” said 29-year-old Hussam, who works at an NGO helping refugees.

“There’s bad propaganda about Syrian refugees in Turkey,” said 29-year-old Khaleel, a civil engineer by training who works at a call centre. He’s afraid people at the polling station would get angry and say Syrians have no right to vote.

Their fears come from the high level of discrimination and resentment against Syrians in Turkey. In a study last year, 76 per cent of the Turkish respondents said no Syrians should be given Turkish citizenship. It also showed that 75 per cent of those polled don’t agree with the statement “We can live in peace with Syrians,” and over 50 per cent find words such as ‘lazy,’ ‘rude,’ ‘filthy,’ ‘dangerous,’ ‘untrustworthy,’ and ‘bad,’ accurate in describing Syrian refugees.

The Syrians themselves have become a major sticking point in the election, with opposition parties decrying the government’s decision to host as many as 4 million (3.4 million registered as of last December, with perhaps another 300,000 – 400,000 unregistered, according to the Crisis Group) Syrians, and pledging to send them back to Syria.

“It’s more rhetoric than any well thought out policy. It’s totally irrelevant in view of prevailing conditions,” said Cengiz Aktar, a political science professor at the University of Athens.

“Everything is about Syrians. I don’t know why,” said Khaleel, who’s been following the rhetoric with dismay.

“They’re talking about [kicking] Syrians out of Turkey. I don’t know why they’re saying this to people. They’re making our lives very bad without any benefit to anyone.”

President Erdoğan has also recently pledged to send Syrian refugees to the north of Syria where Turkish military operations have pushed out militants from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of the terrorist-designated Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

But Metin Çorabatır, head of the Research Center on Asylum and Migration in Ankara, says it’s only realistic to expect a small number of refugees originally from that region of Syria to return, and in any case without a proper peace agreement return isn’t feasible.

“The conditions aren’t right for any international return,” he told Ahval.

Hussam says most Syrians in Turkey support Erdoğan, but he doubts the Turkish president’s sincerity.

“He always says he’s going to help Syrians, [saying] ‘They are our brothers’ and so on, but he’s not. Syrians are still living in the worst conditions,” he said.

Though Turkey has been praised for hosting many more Syrians than any other country, as well as for providing them with free basic health services, allowing them to work, and building high quality refugee camps, the border has been effectively closed since at least August 2015. According to Human Rights Watch, Syrians attempting to cross into Turkey with smugglers risk being shot or beaten by Turkish border guards, and hundreds have died trying.

Social tensions are rising between Syrians and Turks, and Crisis Group says violence between them rose threefold in late 2017 compared to late 2016, with at least 35 deaths, including 24 Syrians.

On June 17, three were killed and five injured during a confrontation between a Turk and a Syrian that resulted in a shooting in the southern province of Gaziantep.

“Our problem isn’t with the government, it’s with the people. [Even with citizenship], they still know you’re originally Syrian and there’s racism against us,” Hussam said.

He says there are widespread misconceptions amongst Turkish people about how much the government helps Syrians.

“Turks say we eat for free, rent flats for free and go to universities for free and we also get money from the government for doing nothing. But they don’t see reality. If what they say is true, then why do Syrians work 12-14 hours a day for minimum wage,” Hussam asks.

Khaleel says it’s difficult making friends with locals, and nearly impossible finding an apartment for a fair price.

“Some people treat us well, [but] some treat us badly, so badly. Maybe somebody hears me speaking Arabic, so they have a negative reaction. They ask, ‘Are you Syrian?’ If I say yes, it’s a big problem,” he told Ahval.

Muhannad, a 28-year-old accountant who also works in a call centre, recalls an incident of discrimination in a bank. The teller refused to give him a payment he came to pick up, so he complained.

“She started mocking me. She said, ‘You’re Syrian and you want to report me? Who do you think you are?’ I reported her and nothing happened,” he explained.

Most Syrians, even those with good educations, work in difficult conditions in Turkey, and only about 20,000 have work permits. An estimated million and a half work off the books, and are thus susceptible to exploitation.

“It’s the worst conditions you can [imagine],” Khaleed said. Despite being university-educated, he works 50 hours a week for minimum wage, which is only about 340 USD a month with the newly devalued lira.

The government implemented changes in 2016 enabling Syrians to get work permits, but Çorabatır says it’s a long, difficult process that many employers don’t want to go through. Many would rather skip the process and fees, and employ Syrians off the books, paying them as little as possible.

Khaleed said becoming a citizen hasn’t helped his situation at all.

“What it depends on is where you’re from, not whether you’re a citizen.”

Çorabatır says Turkey has always considered resettlement to a third country as the solution to the refugee problem, but that’s not currently an option for the vast majority or Syrians, and neither is returning to Syria.

“Integration is a must,” he said.

But politicians can’t admit that most Syrians are in Turkey to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, with no end in sight to the Syrian conflict.

“There are scattered integration programs mostly financed by the European Union, but overall it’s difficult to talk about an orderly policy of integration,” Aktar said. “The worst lacuna is the schooling of kids in Arabic, [which] will create problems in the future.”

According to official figures, there are 976,200 school-aged Syrians in Turkey, but the enrolment rate is only 63 per cent, and only 64 per cent of those are enrolled in Turkish schools, with the remainder learning a modified version of the Syrian curriculum in Arabic.

Çorabatır says the first issue to solve is housing.

“These people are sharing a small room with two or three families, so how can you expect schoolchildren to study properly.”

Whoever wins the upcoming elections will be faced with the monumental task of integrating the millions of Syrians who are likely to stay in Turkey for many years, if not forever.

“The protection of Syrians in Turkey is the Turkish state’s obligation under international law,” Çorabatır said.

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