The Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey is as old as the Syrian civil war. The first group of 252 Syrian refugees arrived in Turkey in April 2011, just weeks after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s response to anti-regime demonstrations throughout Syria turned violent. At that time, Syrians could enter Turkey without a visa,8 and Ankara soon announced it would pursue an open-door policy for the refugees.9 In effect, any Syrian who made it to Turkey, through any means, would be welcome. Finally, in October 2011, the Turkish government announced that the refugees would be given “temporary protection” status.
Turkish leaders initially thought the refugee flow would be limited and temporary. By the end of 2011, Turkey was hosting just 8,000 registered Syrian refugees, and several thousand had returned home after the situation in Syria briefly appeared to stabilize.10 In mid-2012, however, a collapse of ceasefire efforts and surge in fighting triggered a torrent of refugee arrivals that would continue for nearly four years.11 In August 2012, Turkey said it could take no more than a total of 100,000 Syrians. Yet by October, the number of refugees had surpassed that once-unthinkable mark.12 The number of newly registered Syrian refugees in Turkey—which includes arrivals plus births in each respective year—was roughly 140,000 in 2012, 412,000 in 2013, 1,062,000 in 2014, and 881,000 in 2015.13 By then, it was abundantly clear that the flow was neither limited nor temporary.
Turkey made occasional efforts to bring its border—and the refugee flow—under closer control. Sporadic border closings occurred as early as 2012, for example. However, it was not until a series of deadly terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016, which claimed hundreds of Turkish and tourist lives,14 that the government began serious efforts to limit the refugee flow. Prior to 2016, the Turkish government had occasionally closed its border but generally allowed would-be refugees to enter at all points along the border; that changed starting in 2016. Turkey began consistently to tighten and frequently close its border, leaving countless Syrians on the other side in makeshift camps, clamoring for entry. As one element of this tightening, it began to require that Syrians entering Turkey by land do so only through official border posts, to enable border guards to screen more effectively for security threats. Those who failed to comply with this requirement would be at risk of entering the country illegally under Turkey’s new policies—and thus liable for return to Syria.15
Turkey took other steps as well in 2016 in order to limit the number of refugees and gain control over the composition of the refugee flow. It ended its visa-free policy for Syrians arriving by air and sea, and it began building a security barrier along its Syrian border.16 It also amended its 2013 Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LFIP) to allow deportation of those deemed to be associated with terrorism or otherwise constituting a threat to public order.17
In 2016, there were also more frequent reports of Turkey closing its Syrian border entirely and of Turkish border guards shooting at would-be refugees to prevent them from crossing; such reports continue to this day.18 According to Human Rights Watch, as of January 2018, nearly 1.7 million Syrian displaced people were residing in makeshift camps on the Syrian side of the Syrian-Turkish border.19
At least in part because of the restrictive new measures, registered Syrian refugee arrivals appear to have ebbed in recent years.20 The annual increase in the registered Syrian refugee population—arrivals plus births, minus deaths and departures—declined to 352,000 in 2016. While that number spiked to 569,000 in 2017, it dipped to 198,000 in 2018—the smallest increase since 2012. In 2018, the majority of newly registered Syrian refugees were clearly newborns, not arrivals from across the increasingly impermeable border.21
According to the United Nation’s refugee agency, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of February 7, 2019, there were a total of 3,644,342 registered Syrian refugees in Turkey.22 In addition, there are likely hundreds of thousands of unregistered Syrian refugees in Turkey, probably amounting to more than 4 million in total.23 These refugees have since spread well beyond the border regions and now reside in all of Turkey’s 81 provinces.24
Indeed, of the 6.4 million Syrians who have fled their country since April 2011, nearly two-thirds, or 64 percent, are residing in Turkey. Remarkably, some 15 percent of Syria’s pre-Syrian civil war residents now live in Turkey.25
In this report, the term “refugee” will be used generically to refer to Syrians who crossed the border from Syria seeking safety in Turkey. It should be noted, however, that Turkey does not consider any of them “refugees” in the legal sense, as defined in the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.26
The Geneva Convention, which sets out refugees’ rights and obligations, initially applied only to pre-1951 refugees, not to future refugees. Moreover, signatories were given the option of applying it to all refugees or only to European refugees; Turkey opted for the latter, thus establishing a “geographic limitation.” The 1967 additional Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees removed these temporal and geographic restrictions, but it “grandfathered” the right of 1951 signatories, such as Turkey, that had chosen the Europe-only option to continue to adhere to that geographic limitation.27
At first, Turkish officials were careful to refer to the refugees from Syria strictly as “guests,” lest they inadvertently suggest that the Syrians were “refugees” with Geneva Convention rights. In October 2011, however, the Turkish government announced that it would consider them as people under temporary protection, and the use of the term “guests” came to be used less in both formal and informal discourse.28 With Turkey having begun to establish its own structure for managing the Syrians, Turkish officials began to use the terms “refugees” and “guests” interchangeably—apparently now less concerned that their use of “refugee” would be confused with Geneva protections.29 Turkish media also generally refers to the Syrians as “refugees.”
As part of the October 2011 temporary protection regime, Ankara pledged that it would welcome all people crossing the Syrian border to seek safety in Turkey, that it would provide for their humanitarian needs, and that it would not force any such people to return against their will30—this last point a bow to the well-known Geneva principle of nonrefoulement. Turkey largely honored these pledges until it became overwhelmed by the large number of Syrians and by a breakdown in security in the middle of the decade.
Ankara formalized its temporary protection regime with Article 91 of its LFIP, passed in April 2013, and its Temporary Protection Regulation (TPR), issued in October 2014.31 The TPR includes a right to health and education for those under protection, just as Geneva does for refugees. There are some differences, however: Under the TPR, Syrians need Turkish government-granted permits in order to work legally in the country, as discussed elsewhere in this paper.32 As applied, this system drives most Syrian workers into the underground economy and leaves them open to exploitation. In contrast, Article 24 of the 1951 Geneva Convention guarantees refugees a right to work that is essentially equivalent to that of the host country’s citizens.33
Another potentially important difference is that under Article 11 of the TPR, Turkey reserves the right to terminate the temporary protection regime collectively or, under Article 12, individually. Thus, theoretically, it seems, Turkey could send the Syrians back to Syria at any time, notwithstanding its pledge of nonrefoulement—and, in many individual cases, it has done just that.
In 2016, Turkey amended the LFIP to facilitate deportations of temporary protection individuals associated with terrorism.34 In principle, this seems to accord with Article 32 of the Geneva Convention, which allows for expulsion of refugees for reasons of “national security or public order,” following “due process.”35 It appears Turkey did, in some cases, accord due process, but certainly not in all.36
In sum, by its national law, Turkey is obliged to admit non-Europeans who fit the Geneva definition of a refugee, but it accords them fewer rights than those inherent in full-fledged refugee status, since it does not apply the 1951 Geneva Convention to them. In any case, a commitment based on national law rather than international obligation, is inherently easier to change and therefore less binding.
When President Erdoğan raised the prospect of granting Syrian refugees Turkish citizenship in July 2016,53 public pushback was strong.54 Opposition parties objected, convinced that Erdoğan saw the refugees as a potential source of future political support, but even many of the president’s own supporters opposed the idea. Overwhelmingly, Turks just wanted the refugees to return home.
Erdoğan got the electorate’s message and now frequently insists that all the refugees eventually will return home. However, he did not drop the citizenship idea entirely. Instead, his government has focused on providing citizenship, in limited numbers, for Syrians with educational, business, or professional qualifications of value to Turkish society. In late 2016, there were even reports that Turkey was refusing to grant exit visas to highly educated Syrians who had received resettlement visas from the United States or Germany.55 According to Turkish Interior Minister Soylu, 76,443 Syrians—some 36,000 adults and their children—had received Turkish citizenship by early January 2019, and the process of naturalization of skilled Syrians continues, if slowly.56
Erdoğan’s stance on citizenship
President Erdoğan has been inconsistent on the issue of citizenship for Syrian and other refugees.57 Erdoğan’s July 2016 call for citizenship seemed to apply to all the Syrian refugees. But in January 2017, he specified that he wanted citizenship, following careful vetting by the Ministry of Interior, for those Syrian refugees with skills that would benefit Turkey—“highly qualified people … engineers, lawyers, doctors. Let’s make use of that talent,” he said. “Instead of letting them work illegally here and there, let’s give them a chance to work as citizens like the children of this nation.”58 This approach more or less describes current policy.
On February 3, 2018, Erdoğan spoke of building permanent housing for Syrian refugees on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border.59 Five days later, in his monthly meeting with local officials, he asserted the refugees—implying all—would return home, using that goal as a justification for the war in Afrin.60 In May 2018, just seven weeks before presidential and parliamentary elections, he surprisingly seemed to suggest once more that citizenship would be a good idea for all refugees in Turkey, so that they would no longer work in the underground economy. In late June 2018, virtually on election eve, he made a thunderous speech in Gaziantep, again pledging that all the refugees would return.61
The decision to grant citizenship in limited numbers, however, does not begin to resolve the fundamental questions about the future disposition of Syrian refugees in Turkey. First, Turkey must determine whether to acknowledge that the vast majority of Syrians will likely remain in Turkey and, if so, it must consider how to integrate them into wider Turkish society. Given the size of the Syrian refugee community, its lack of obvious alternatives to Turkey, and the potential consequences for Turkey of ignoring the problem, efforts at integration appear to be Turkey’s only logical solution. Failure to integrate the Syrians could create new divisions in Turkish society as well as deepen pre-existing economic, religious, and ethnic divisions. Granting citizenship in its current, limited scope and pace would likely have little impact on the problem, but there can be meaningful steps toward integration that do not involve mass conferral of citizenship.
Given the unpopularity of the refugees and the opposition’s demands that the Syrians return home, the very word “integration” is toxic in public discourse. The Turkish government generally uses the euphemism “harmonization”62 when alluding to steps promoting integration. Few Turkish officials want to acknowledge that a large-scale return of refugees to Syria is unlikely or that the realistic alternatives are either integration or the development of a permanently disaffected underclass. Fewer still want to consider, much less promote, the notion that integration may ultimately entail wide-scale citizenship. As noted, Erdoğan has publicly broached the subject but not in a sustained manner. (see text box “Erdoğan’s stance on citizenship”)
Without fanfare, however, the Turkish government has indeed taken steps toward integration. It has begun phasing out so-called temporary education centers (TECs), in which the language of instruction is Arabic, and instead is moving Syrian students into the Turkish public school system. The refugee camps are also being drawn down, with less than 4 percent of Syrian refugees now living in camps.63 The vast majority of Syrians today are doing their best to get by in Turkish towns and cities, sometimes with assistance from Turkish and international organizations; some 1.5 million Syrian refugees receive monthly allowances funded by the European Union and passed through the Turkish government.64
Meanwhile, a little-publicized 2018 study by Turkey’s ombudsman signaled Turkish semiofficial awareness that the Syrian presence is likely permanent. The study projected that the Syrian population in Turkey would likely surpass 4 million to 5 million within 10 years and asserted that “it is necessary to produce policies based on [the expectation of] permanence.”65 The ombudsman is not a government spokesman; formally, he is autonomous. Yet he was elected by President Erdoğan’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Parliament and is himself a member of the ruling party. Moreover, the report carries introductions by Erdoğan and other senior elected officials. While those introductions do not explicitly endorse the contents of the report, their presence implies something close to an official endorsement while allowing the government plausible deniability. As such, the report probably represents the closest the government has come to acknowledging institutionally that much of the Syrian population is in Turkey to stay.66
Evolution of negative attitudes
Turkey’s initial, dutiful welcome of the Syrian refugees fed a perception abroad that the Turkish public initially supported its government’s open-door policy, with the public’s attitude souring only in more recent times. One author describes the evolution of Turkish attitudes as “initial compassion which developed into xenophobia,”67 likening the more recent Turkish attitude to that of a host toward “a guest overstaying his/her visit.”68 Indeed, there was a small group, mainly within the AKP—labeled “compassionate Islamists” in one Center for American Progress (CAP) study69—that strongly supported the open-door policy and remain favorable toward the refugees to this day. In reality, however, a clear majority of Turks were unhappy with the arrival of Syrian refugees almost from the beginning. While President Erdoğan welcomed the Syrians as “guests” and “siblings,” most Turks chafed at their presence.70
A September 2012 Metropoll survey found that 52 percent of Turks initially disagreed with the decision to allow the Syrians into the country, and 66 percent said additional refugees should be turned away.71 At that point, there were only about 80,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, mostly in camps far from major Turkish cities. By contrast, there are now 50 times more, spread across all 81 provinces.72 Perhaps unsurprisingly, these negative attitudes have only intensified.
Terrorism associated with the Syrian civil war reinforced and deepened public unhappiness regarding the refugees. The May 2013 bombing of Reyhanlı on Turkey’s southern border, which left 53 dead and dozens wounded, may have been an early turning point. Reyhanlı, just 3 miles from Syria, had a significant refugee presence.73 The source of the bombing was not clear; the Turkish government arrested several Turks with alleged ties to Syrian intelligence.74 But, for most Turks, the important fact was that the attack was clearly linked to the Syrian war, illustrating that Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition and welcoming of refugees could have deadly consequences inside Turkey.
Around the time of the Reyhanlı bombing, large numbers of Syrians were also beginning to move from the camps near the border into urban centers across the country. This brought large numbers of refugees face to face with Turks for the first time, and these encounters seemed only to increase Turkish resentment. In 2014, significant anti-refugee protests broke out in the Turkish cities of Gaziantep, Hatay, Urfa, and Kahramanmaraş—all of which hosted significant numbers of Syrians.75 According to scholars Bezen Balamir Coşkun and Selin Yıldız Nielsen, tensions were fed by the view that Syrians contributed to “low wages and dire working conditions, drastic increases in rent prices, and an increase in petty crime in urban areas where the asylum seekers had settled intensively.”76 Most of these complaints—especially those related to economic conditions—have persisted over the years.
Following the Reyhanlı bombing and a spate of other terror attacks in 2015 and 2016, Turks increasingly began to associate refugees with violence—not necessarily because refugees themselves were perpetrators but because the refugee flow seemingly demonstrated that Turkey had lost control of its southern border, allowing the ill-intentioned to enter with the genuinely needy. After the Reyhanlı bombing, protestors had denounced jihadists, who seemingly could go back and forth across the border at will.77 In January 2016, an Islamic State-affiliated Syrian refugee, legally registered in Turkey, staged a suicide bombing in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque tourist district, killing 10 tourists and wounding more than a dozen others.78 Not long thereafter, Turkey began to take stern measures to tighten border control, as discussed earlier.
By opening its borders to refugees, Turkey acted both morally and in accordance with its national and international undertakings. The Turkish public begrudgingly accepted this policy, but without embracing it. Confident in the correctness of its approach, the government never undertook a serious effort to build public support for its policy. The issue was never discussed in Parliament; the government did not try to convince opposition political parties to endorse its refugee response; and no meaningful informational campaign was undertaken to combat public misperceptions about the refugees. This failure of the government to engage, through formal or informal means, likely contributed to negative public attitudes that continue to mount to this day.79 Only in January 2019 did the ruling AKP—likely motivated by concern over the March 2019 local elections—belatedly announce that it plans to distribute brochures explaining misconceptions about state policies toward the refugees.80
As it stands, the largest obstacle to an overt program of integration is the Turkish public’s perception of the refugees. In a September 2018 poll, 83 percent of Turks said they view Syrian refugees negatively, while only 17 percent said they viewed them positively. Voters for all five major parties subscribed to negative views, to only slightly varying degrees. Those backing Erdoğan’s AKP and the Kurdish rights-focused Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) were only slightly less negative than supporters of the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the ethnic Turkish nationalists of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the similarly nationalist İyi (Good) Party.81
This same poll echoed a November 2017 CAP-commissioned survey in which 79 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of the Syrian refugees, making them among the least popular groups in Turkey.82 Meanwhile, a 2017 public opinion survey gauging Turks’ views toward Syrian refugees found “lazy,” “rude,” “dowdy/filthy,” and “untrustable/dangerous” among the adjectives topping the list, several percentage points ahead of positive attributes.83
In the September 2018 survey, when asked what most upsets them about the refugees, Turkish respondents’ No. 1 complaint, at 28 percent, was rising unemployment among Turks, which they blamed on the Syrians. Begging came in second at 18 percent, followed by nonpayment of taxes at 16 percent, rising terrorism and security problems at 13 percent, and lower wages at 8 percent. Only 7 percent said, “nothing [about the refugees] upsets me.”84
Those categories do not begin to reflect the raw emotions many Turks express about the refugees. In CAP-sponsored focus groups in late 2017, supporters of all parties voiced complaints such as, “I feel like a stranger in my own country”; “I never hear Turkish on the street anymore”; “they [the Syrians] receive more [state funding] than we do just for coming here”; “he [Erdoğan] takes from his own people and gives to the Syrians”; “first we let them in, and now they wage war [that is to say, commit crimes] against us.”85
Focus group participants repeatedly complained that young Syrian men were relaxing in Turkey rather than fighting for justice in their homeland. As one respondent said, “Young Syrians go to the beach, while their relatives fight a war in Syria. … If there were a war in my country, I would join and not think twice about it.” As is often the case in refugee situations, negative host country perceptions may have little to no relationship to facts but, nevertheless, are deeply held.86
According to a May 2018 CAP-commissioned poll, nearly 80 percent of Turks want the Syrians to return to Syria.87 Broken into categories, one-third said the Turkish government should send back the refugees “no matter what,” while 45 percent said the government should return the refugees only to safe zones set up by Turkey on the Syrian side of the border. Meanwhile, a paltry 9 percent thought the Syrians should “become citizens of Turkey and pay taxes,” and only 13 percent backed the status quo, advocating for the refugees to “continue to be treated as guests but not allowed citizenship.”
Asked in another recent poll about their government’s overall policy on Syrian refugees, 72 percent of Turks disapproved, including 56 percent of AKP voters. Just a year earlier, another poll reported a somewhat lower level of disapproval: 62 percent of Turks overall and 45 percent of AKP voters.88 The trend is clear.
With the public’s increasingly negative perception of refugee policy and of the Syrian refugees themselves, the Turkish government probably deserves credit for having advanced integration—or harmonization, in the government’s preferred term—to the extent that it has.
Integration by stealth?
Many experts have urged Turkey to adopt a clear and comprehensive policy of integration, proposing, for example, a right for refugees to live and work anywhere in the country without the need for work permits; a strengthened mandate for municipalities, which are closer to the needs of their respective refugee communities; educational remediation opportunities and vocational training for the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who missed out on schooling entirely in the early years of the crisis; and a public education campaign directed toward Turkish citizens to combat misperceptions about refugees.89 These are all good ideas that take into account the political reality that many Syrian refugees are likely to remain in Turkey and must be integrated for the sake of Turkey’s social harmony, while recognizing that blanket naturalization is not in the cards for the foreseeable future.
Even as Turkish politicians pledge to voters that all the Syrians will return home, the Turkish government seems to be tentatively pursuing measures that foster coexistence between Turks and Syrians and begin to integrate the refugees into Turkish society. Indeed, the government’s actions suggest that Turkish leaders are preparing for significant numbers of Syrians to remain in Turkey indefinitely, as the ombudsman report suggests will happen.
As previously mentioned, the refugee camps are being phased out, and Syrian students are being integrated into Turkish public schools. Meanwhile, Syrians are being integrated increasingly into the Turkish economy.
These steps may be deliberate, signaling the government’s recognition that a sizable number of refugees and their descendants will remain in Turkey and that, therefore, integration is the best long-term policy. On the other hand, the government simply may view these measures as the best of bad alternatives available at the moment—less costly or more efficient than striving to keep the Turkish and Syrian communities fully separate. If the former is true, it could be considered integration by stealth—a low-key approach made necessary because integration runs counter to the thrust of most public statements coming from Turkish leaders. This would not reflect a full-blown policy of integration, since there is much more that can be done to integrate the Syrian community, as noted above, but it may be all the integration that the political traffic will bear for now. In any case, by closing refugee camps and encouraging refugees to live in Turkish society; by opening the economy to the refugees, however haltingly; and by educating the refugees as Turks, the government has inarguably taken important steps in the direction of integration.
Closing the camps
At first, Turkey attempted to accommodate all the refugees in camps, or temporary shelter centers (TSCs), as they are officially called. Until early 2013, virtually all of the then-less than 200,000 registered refugees lived in these centers. In 2013, however, the flow of refugees overwhelmed the TSCs, and by early 2014, only a slight majority of the refugees were housed in the camps. By the end of that year, little more than 20 percent were living in TSCs, with the remainder residing in urban and near-urban areas.90 Since that time, the percentage of refugees in camps has steadily dwindled. By February 2019, there were only 142,000 Syrian refugees—less than 4 percent of all registered Syrian refugees—in TSCs.91 Furthermore, between early 2016 and the end of 2018, the number of camps had decreased by half, from 26 to 13, based in eight provinces clustered near the Syrian border.92
The camps were established and run by Turkey, with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in a support role, and, in consultation with UNHCR, Turkey decides when to close them. The Turkish government’s objective in closing them, according to a UNHCR official, is “to facilitate integration (sic) of refugees residing in camps to the host communities with a view to self-reliance and social cohesion, and also to mitigate the consequences of long-term residence in camps to refugees.” The official said that the UNHCR supports this approach.93
When camps are closed, families are given the option to move to another camp or settle outside the camps in Turkish urban areas; most choose the latter. To those who settle outside the camps, the UNHCR provides a one-time payout depending on family size—generally around 10,000 Turkish lira, or about $1,85094—“to cover their short-term basic needs, including transportation, rent and household expenses.”95
Syrians cope economically—and a few thrive
The move to close the camps was heavily influenced by the experiences of the 96 percent of refugees living outside the camps all over Turkey. Economically, Syrians have managed surprisingly well outside the camps, if not without many difficulties, and, overall, have contributed to the Turkish economy.
Precise statistics are hard to come by. According to a study by the Economic Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV)—a think tank affiliated with Turkey’s national chamber of commerce, the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey—there are 2.2 million working-age Syrian refugees. Roughly 1 million of these are employed in the informal economy, thus lacking worker protections and avoiding Turkish taxes. A near-negligible 32,000, just 1.5 percent of the total Syrian refugee workforce, hold work permits and work in the formal economy, according to the Turkish interior minister.96 These figures suggest that a slight majority of the Syrians are either unemployed or not in the market, such as housewives and students.97
According to the same TEPAV report, there are some 10,000 wholly or partly Syrian refugee-owned businesses registered in Turkey, employing roughly 44,000 Syrians as well as thousands of Turks. Since the average Syrian refugee household comprises six people, Syrian wholly and partly owned enterprises likely sustain more than 250,000 Syrian refugees.98 There are also several thousand unregistered Syrian businesses.99 As of mid-2017, Syrian refugees had invested $334 million into the then-more than 6,000 Syrian-owned registered companies in Turkey.100
Most Syrian businesses are small, with average annual revenue of $463,000. Seventy-four percent of the Syrian-owned companies have less than 10 employees, 24 percent have 10 to 50 employees, and just 2 percent have 50 to 250 employees.101 Still, each year since 2013, Syrians have started more companies in Turkey than any other foreign group.102
The question of Syrian employment is among the most sensitive in Turkey today. There is a widespread perception in Turkish society that Syrian refugees undermine employment prospects for Turkish workers; 71 percent of Turks believe this, according to a late 2017 poll.103 As discussed earlier in this report, Turks’ leading complaint about the Syrian refugees is that they have contributed to rising Turkish unemployment. Some Turkish leaders and experts dispute that conclusion, insisting that Syrians mainly perform jobs that Turks would not do anyway.104 Yet there is sufficient evidence to conclude that Turkish workers at the lower end of the scale—construction, textile, and seasonal agricultural workers—are indeed disadvantaged, as Syrian workers are generally more than willing to work in these sectors on an underground basis, meaning longer hours and less pay than Turkish workers would accept.105 As one study puts it, the already disadvantaged sectors of the Turkish labor market, such as women, youth, and the less-educated, are the ones most hurt by competition from Syrians.106
In 2016, the Turkish government announced a work permit system to tackle the Syrian employment problem, but the program is not popular, and, as noted, only about 32,000 Syrians have received work permits to date. Syrians face a number of obstacles and disincentives when applying for work permits. First, to acquire a work permit, they must work in the province in which they are registered as under temporary protection.107 Since registration is required within 10 days of arrival in Turkey, however, this province is usually the one where the refugee entered Turkey.108 Therefore, refugees are disproportionately registered in the provinces bordering Syria, while the jobs tend to be elsewhere—in big cities in western Turkey, such as Istanbul, Izmir, and Bursa. These destinations are naturally where many of the refugees go and work, regardless of registration, but they do so as part of the underground economy.
Furthermore, a Syrian refugee can receive a work permit only with the backing of a prospective employer and after having been registered as under temporary protection for at least six months.109 There are frequently delays in issuance of permits, and the cost of a work permit is not negligible for most Syrians: 250 Turkish lira, or about $47—recently reduced from 600 Turkish lira. Another consideration for permit applicants is that a job in the formal economy usually spells the end of direct assistance under the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) program, which the European Union funds and the Turkish Red Crescent administers.110 (see text box “Some key sources of funding for Syrian refugees”)
Prospective Turkish employers also face obstacles and disincentives to hiring Syrians. Syrian work permit holders are subject to the same minimum wage and maximum hours requirements as Turkish workers and thus are generally less attractive to Turkish employers. Many prospective Turkish employers are interested in Syrian workers precisely because they will work below minimum wage and for longer hours than legally allowed—in short, because they can be exploited. There are countless stories of defenseless Syrian workers suffering exploitation, without recourse, at the hands of ruthless Turkish employers.111
There are plenty of expenses and red tape for would-be employers of Syrian refugees with work permits. They must make social security payments and be able to prove that at least 90 percent of their company’s employees are Turkish. This quota requirement can be waived only if employers can demonstrate to the government that, over a four-week period prior to application for a work permit, they searched for but failed to find any available qualified Turks in the relevant province to fill the position.112
For the prospect of immediate employment, most Syrians are willing to eschew the protections and other benefits afforded by a work permit and the formal economy. In that regard, it should be noted that they have plenty of company in Turkey, where an estimated 35 percent of the Turkish economy occurs underground, beyond the reach of government regulations and tax assessment.113
Education leads way on integration
The Turkish educational system is essential to the integration of the Syrians into Turkish society. In its most remarkably pro-integration decision to date, the Turkish government seems to have made a decision to use this system to the fullest: Soon, all Syrian students will attend Turkish public schools.
From the beginning, Turkey welcomed the refugees into Turkish schools, but few attended initially. In September 2014, Turkey opened—or, in some cases, recognized already informally existing—temporary education centers (TEC), which taught a modified Syrian curriculum in Arabic. As of August 2017, there were 404 TECs.114 The TECs, however, were established on the premise that the refugees would soon return to Syria. Over time, presumably as the Turkish government came to accept that the Syrians would likely remain, the government made the momentous decision to transfer and integrate the Syrians into the Turkish state educational system. This decision seems explicable only as an attempt to facilitate Syrian integration into Turkish society. In 2017, using designated funding from the European Union, the Turkish government began providing cash assistance to encourage refugee families to send their children to government schools, through a program known as Conditional Cash Transfer for Education (CCTE).115 (see text box “Some key sources of funding for Syrian refugees”) Also in 2017, the government began phasing out the TECs, with a goal to close them completely within three years.116
Turkish efforts to educate refugees have had some meaningful success, particularly in the basic realm of increased school attendance. In the 2014-15 school year, the first year of organized schooling for refugees, 190,000 Syrians attended the TECs, while only 40,000 were in the Turkish school system. Together, these 230,000 students constituted only 30 percent of school-age Syrians, with the other 70 percent not attending school at all. However, by the 2017-18 school year, 63 percent of the 976,000 school-age Syrians were in school, including 100 percent of primary school-age, or grades one through four, Syrians.117 And, for the first time, a majority of those in school were attending Turkish public schools rather than TECs, with 351,000 in the former and 268,000 in the latter.118 Meanwhile, TEC students began taking 15 hours of Turkish per week in preparation for the move to Turkish schools.119
Despite this progress, it is an immense challenge to incorporate the Syrians into Turkish public schools in the planned three-year time frame, much less to do so in a manner that will provide a good education. According to scholar Murat Erdoğan, Turkey would need 1,200 new schools to accommodate all the Syrians, not to mention hundreds of additional teachers. Adding to the challenge is the fact that the Syrian school-age population is increasing every year—by some 140,000 in the past two years alone.120
Also, whereas Turkish students are legally required to complete 12 years of schooling, school attendance for Syrians is voluntary, further complicating the mission to integrate Syrians into Turkish society via the educational system. Reportedly, the Turkish government is considering a plan to withhold monthly ESSN support allowances—120 Turkish lira, or about $22, per family member—from Syrian families whose children do not attend school. This would be a separate measure, beyond the withholding of the CCTE monetary inducement specifically tied to school attendance.121
Some Turks support integrating Syrians into Turkish schools
It is surprising that the heavy infusion of Syrian refugees into Turkish public schools has not created a stronger, education-specific backlash from the Turkish public. Collectively, they seem to take a slightly softer line in this area of refugee life—perhaps because Turks want Syrians to overcome the Turkish-language barrier and rely less on Arabic, or perhaps because many Turks are resigned to the Syrians’ enduring presence and fear that, lacking Turkish education, they may become a permanent and threatening underclass in Turkish society. According to a 2017 poll, 33 percent of Turks say the Syrians’ education should only be in Turkish, matching the government’s declared policy. Conversely, 26 percent say they should be given no education at all, presumably reflecting fear that education equals permanence.122
Whatever the challenges, the decision to discontinue the TECs and absorb the Syrians into Turkish schools seems to be an acknowledgement that the Syrian presence in Turkey likely will be permanent. Moreover, by acculturating Syrian students, it will tend to reinforce that permanence. The implications of this decision for the long-term integration of Syrians into Turkish society are potentially immensely positive.
Considering the dramatic scale of the refugee issue, it is surprising that it has not proven more disruptive in the political arena. Crude analysis of the June 2018 parliamentary elections suggests that the refugee issue had, at most, minimal impact on the results. The AKP lost seats relative to its performance in the preceding November 2015 election, but these seats were lost proportionally nationwide. The party performed no worse in provinces where the refugee issue seemingly would have loomed largest—provinces with the highest refugee populations, those with the highest concentration of refugees,135 and those most reliant on the seasonal agricultural work that has been largely captured by underground Syrian workers136—than it did nationwide.137 If the refugee issue indeed was a factor in the AKP’s decline, it was a factor evenly distributed throughout the nation, lacking disproportionate wallop where it would be most expected.
The refugee issue may have played some role in the modest regional success of the İyi Party, Turkey’s most stridently anti-refugee party and the smallest of the five parties represented in Turkish Parliament. The İyi Party seems to have won a disproportionate number of its 43 seats—out of 600 in the entire Parliament—in provinces dependent on seasonal agricultural workers, such as Adana, Antalya, and Mersin. Still, it finished no higher than third place in any of those provinces.138
The insignificant electoral impact of the refugee issue in 2018 may reflect voters’ resignation to the Syrians’ presence, or it may reflect opposition parties’ failure to present a realistic program to address the issue. It may also suggest that the well-documented public anger about the refugee situation, while broad, is not very deep. In a public opinion survey taken shortly after the election, just 4 percent of Turks cited the Syrian refugee issue as Turkey’s most important problem.139 Four months before the election, in a February 2018 poll, just 9 percent of Turks cited the refugee issue as one of Turkey’s two biggest problems—far behind economic and security concerns and slightly behind education.140
Could the refugee issue yet explode and have an impact on the nationwide local elections scheduled for March 31, 2019? Two separate January 2019 polls yield conflicting evidence. To the question of Turkey’s biggest problem, one poll puts the refugee issue at a microscopic 2 percent,141 the other at a surprisingly large 13 percent—more than sixfold larger than the result in the rival poll and more than threefold the number from the summer 2018 survey cited above.142 Time—and perhaps the March 31 elections—will tell if public concern about the refugee issue has genuinely increased in a dramatic and enduring fashion, or if the latter survey is simply an outlier.
Although the central government makes refugee policy, municipalities are directly and visibly associated with the refugee issue in a way that the central government is not. Municipalities receive funding from Ankara based on the number of Turkish citizens who live there, and those funds normally constitute more than half the local budget. Many municipalities use those funds to conduct special programs for the Syrian refugees; thus, those expenditures do indeed deplete the local budgets for citizen services. Municipal programs for refugees also fan the popular Turkish belief that Syrians are living off Turkish tax funds, which—although correct to a certain extent—is heavily exaggerated. Even programs funded by external sources, such as the European Union or nongovernmental organizations, are often mistakenly believed to be funded from taxpayer sources.143
Some key sources of funding for Syrian refugees
Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world,144 and it has spent generously on their behalf. Ankara provides free health care and education to the refugees as well as full services for the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have come through, or still live in, refugee camps sprinkled around the Turkish south.
In December 2017, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Recep Akdağ claimed that the Turkish government and its agencies have spent nearly 85 billion Turkish lira—equating, he said, to more than $30 billion—on Syrian refugees from 2012 through 2017. Included in this figure, he reported, was more than 6 billion Turkish lira spent on “municipal services” and more than 110 million Turkish lira on “campaigns organized by municipalities,”145 all of which presumably came out of municipal budgets. There was perhaps some exaggeration in the dollar figure.146
Since 2016, Turkey and the refugees have benefited from sizable aid from the European Union, courtesy of a March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement that helps Turkey defray health, education, and other refugee-associated costs. By the terms of that agreement, Turkey agreed to take measures to prevent unauthorized refugee crossings to Greece—that is, to EU territory—and to take back any refugees who illegally made that crossing. In return, the European Union pledged, among other things, to provide 6 billion euros over the following three years in programmatic support for refugees in Turkey.147 To this point, the European Union has committed 4.2 billion euros to what is officially called “The EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey” and has actually disbursed a little more than 2.1 billion euros.148
As part of this aid program, the European Union funds two major direct assistance programs for Syrian refugees in Turkey: the Emergency Social Safety Net program, which provides support to needy Syrians and their families—more than 1.5 million people, as of January 2019—and the Conditional Cash Transfer for Education program, which provides funding to families who send their children to school and is paid out on a per-student basis, to parents of 410,000 students, as of January 2019. The latter program is intended to incentivize parents to send their children to Turkish state schools.149 Both programs are implemented by Turkish agencies, which may contribute to the many Turks’ misperception that Turkey is funding those programs as well.
ESSN beneficiaries receive 120 Turkish lira each month, plus an additional quarterly payment of 50 to 250 Turkish lira per household, depending on its size. CCTE payments are made every two months on the following basis: 35 Turkish lira for each boy and 40 Turkish lira for each girl in primary school, as well as 50 Turkish lira for each boy and 60 Turkish lira for each girl in high school.150
As of September 21, 2017, the United States had contributed $572 million to support Syrian refugees in Turkey since the beginning of the crisis. It had contributed far more for refugee support to Lebanon, $1.6 billion, and Jordan, a little more than $1 billion, both of which Washington deemed needier than Turkey.151
Therefore, local incumbents who direct significant government funds to programs for refugees could be liable to electoral jeopardy in March. This risk may be exacerbated by Turkey’s currently struggling economy; with unemployment and inflation soaring, many Turks blame Syrian refugees for their economic woes, as discussed above.152 Refugee-friendly Gaziantep, which the AKP won by a landslide in the last local election in 2014, could be an interesting test case for 2019.153
At the local level, the AKP is the dominant party in most of the provinces where the largest number of Syrian refugees reside. However limited the electoral impact of the refugee issue in 2018, local AKP candidates will likely take it seriously as a potential factor in the 2019 elections and emphasize their party’s determination that all Syrian refugees return home. Even though President Erdoğan’s real preference on this issue is not always clear, as the AKP’s campaigner in chief, he will likely take that position as well, as he did just before the June 2018 election. (see text box “Erdoğan’s stance on citizenship”)
In early January 2019, the AKP’s Istanbul mayoral candidate Binali Yıldırım pledged that the refugees’ presence would not be permanent and menacingly promised that there would be “zero tolerance” for Syrian lawbreakers, saying, “We’ll grab them and throw them out by the ear.”154 Istanbul hosts by far the most Syrian refugees of any city or province in Turkey, with more than 550,000 registered.155 The harsh attitude struck by the governing party’s candidate for the most important mayoralty in the nation—the job that launched Erdoğan to national leadership—almost certainly will set the tone for the AKP’s candidates in other localities.