Syrian Refugees in Türkiye Face Uncertain Future
Anti-immigrant sentiment has soared amid recent elections and economic turmoil
Türkiye is home to the world’s largest refugee population, estimated to be at least 4 million today. This includes some 3.6 million Syrians who have escaped the civil war in their country that began in 2011. Making matters even more difficult for everyone, earthquakes hit eleven provinces in Türkiye’s south in early February 2023, killing more than 50,000 people, including many Syrian refugees.
Besides the recent earthquakes, other hardships have impacted daily life in Türkiye, such as a serious economic crisis. The latter has caused the official inflation rate to currently hover at around 40%, although last year it was double that. The Turkish Lira also continues its downward slide compared to most major currencies. As an off-shoot, anti-immigrant sentiment has soared in Türkiye.
In 2021, 97.6% of Syrians living outside refugee camps were geographically concentrated in Türkiye’s border provinces and some major cities such as Ankara and Istanbul. However, they are not classified as refugees by the Turkish government, but instead recognised under what is called the ‘temporary protection’ regulation, leaving them vulnerable to forcibly being returned to Syria at any time.
When the Syrian civil war began, no one expected a large-scale flow of refugees would be the result. In the early days, the Turkish government maintained an open-door policy that received international recognition and praise. However, those days are long gone. Indeed, they have been replaced by consistent vows from the government to send Syrian refugees back home, downplaying any suggestions of permanency for them. In addition, anti-refugee protests and violence towards Syrian refugees have increasingly made headlines in recent years.
Calls to repatriate Syrians became more implicit after the 2019 municipal elections when the government lost control of Istanbul and other big cities to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). In the election aftermath, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) blamed the loss on public opposition to its previous open-door policy towards refugees.
Perhaps in response, both President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the CHP, hardened their positions regarding refugees during Türkiye’s presidential elections held in May 2023, which Erdoğan ultimately won. It would not be surprising if the government and opposition alike will also capitalise on anti-refugee sentiments prior to municipal elections set for early 2024.
Affected severely from the ongoing economic downturn, many Turks have also blamed refugees for pushing down wages and taking their jobs away. While Syrians under temporary protection status did gain the right to officially work in 2016, hundreds of thousands work informally for low pay in poor conditions. They have essentially become cheap and exploitable labour that employers prefer over paying higher wages to domestic workers. For a lucky number though, and according to the latest data published by the Turkish Ministry of Interior in June 2023, 237,000 Syrian nationals have been granted Turkish citizenship. For the rest, the future remains uncertain.
Shortly after his re-election in May, President Erdoğan vowed that Syrians in Turkiye would be repatriated “voluntarily, safely and in a dignified” manner. But Türkiye’s Syria policy, including the repatriation of Syrian refugees to not just the border regions inside Syria controlled by Türkiye but across the rest of Syria, largely depends on dialogue and diplomacy with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. However, the 20th round of the Astana talks, held in Kazakhstan, that brought together Turkish, Syrian, Iranian, and Russian representatives on the 20th and 21st of June 2023, yielded no results on the issue of repatriation.
Ayman Susan, Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister, insisted that ties with Türkiye could not be mended until Ankara fully withdrew its forces from significant swathes of northeast Syria that it currently occupies. Indeed, Ankara administers these areas with Turkish troops and Syrian proxies of the Sunni Syrian National Army, an umbrella group of Turkish-backed rebel groups as well as the jihadi group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls Idlib.
However, Türkiye, which has a 911-kilometre border with Syria, is unlikely to withdraw its forces from Syria until the de facto autonomous administration in the north of Syria, led by Kurdish groups that Ankara sees as terrorists, comes to an end. In fact, while the Astana talks were underway, Türkiye intensified its attacks in northeast Syria against the US-supported Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Syria’s Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). As far as Ankara is concerned, both are wings of Türkiye’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which it has been fighting since 1984.
Paradoxically, while dropping bombs on some parts of Syria, Türkiye has continued building housing to settle Syrian refugees in areas it controls. For example, and with Qatari funding, Türkiye has major construction projects underway in Jarablus, El Bab and Tel Abyad that will house at least one million Syrian refugees over the next three years.
However, conditions inside Syria are often not safe for the return of refugees. Nevertheless, Turkish authorities have illegally returned many to Syria, and strongly encouraged others to move to areas controlled by Türkiye in northern Syria and Idlib. In April, Human Rights Watch (HRW) also accused Turkish military forces of indiscriminately shooting at, and torturing, Syrian migrants and asylum seekers at the border, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries.
As Türkiye struggles to meet the basic needs of Syrian refugees, international support has been forthcoming. The European Union (EU) has allocated at least 8 billion Euros in assistance that began flowing in 2016. In response, Ankara halted migration via the Aegean Sea by returning to Türkiye all migrants arriving illegally on European shores, in addition to improving the living conditions of Syrian refugees in Türkiye.
Between 2015 and 2022, countries such as Canada also stepped-up, resulting in almost 100,000 Syrian’s arriving in Canada during this period, many who had been living in Türkiye. By 2018, those in the first wave had already met the three-year residency requirement, which made them eligible to become Canadian citizens. However, for most Syrians in Türkiye today, Turkish citizenship is simply not a possibility.
One also wonders what the future might hold for those Syrians who have returned to Syria, and re-established their lives in Turkish controlled areas? If these areas are returned to Syrian government control, will the people there continue to be safe? Or will Türkiye have to contend with a new influx of recently resettled Syrians? The return of occupied territories could also spell the end of any serious Syrian opposition to Damascus.
Perhaps also, there is a growing realization in Turkish government circles, despite anti-refugee sentiments, that most Syrians will not go home in the end. As Yasin Aktay, Chief Advisor to the AKP Chairman recently noted, “as long as the Assad regime is alive and is ruling the country, I don’t think the people will trust him and go back,” especially when the “conditions that forced the people to leave the country did not change.”
For those who do stay, the AKP could be considering their Turkification. As Aktay also noted, “Türkiye’s capacity to absorb and integrate [Syrian refugees] is very, very strong,” and they “are playing a positive role in the Turkish economy.”
While Aktay’s words are encouraging, there is no escaping the fact that the regional political, military, and economic situation is very complicated. For example, in addition to the 3.6 million Syrians living in Türkiye, another 6 million Syrians also live in Turkish occupied Syrian territory. That means almost 10 million Syrians receive aid and support from Ankara, which places a significant strain on an already weak Turkish economy.
While there are no easy solutions to reduce the uncertainty that many Syrian refugees in Türkiye face, and address the anti-refugee sentiment that currently exists, an international effort to support Ankara implement a sustainable integration policy is certainly required. Especially given the likelihood that most Syrian refugees will not return to home.
The EU can certainly help in this regard, with additional financial assistance. Canada can also play a part by continuing to provide similar assistance to the UN and other agencies, destined for Syrian refugees throughout the Middle East. In addition, Canada should continue to embrace Syrian refugees from the region, offering them new opportunities and a brighter future.