Facing Turkey’s migrant problem
It seems the authorities have started to comprehend the realities about immigration as the government stops relocating Syrians in Istanbul. Soon, it will be realized that no such measures will solve the problem.
Turkey has welcomed many immigrants during its republican history, yet we did not face serious flows of people after the turbulent years of the late Ottoman empire and since the traumatic events of World War I have passed. Now, for the first time, we face the difficulties of massive immigration from Syria with no memory of or experience with tackling immigration problems. Nevertheless, until very recently, the governing party underestimated the possible shortcomings of accommodating millions of Syrians. In the beginning, it had been thought to be a matter of charity and then it turned to be a matter of political polemics. The opposition party’s warnings have been dismissed as sheer nuisance and the public discontent has been disregarded.
It was utterly unrealistic to think more than three millions of immigrants would not be a serious problem. Until very recently, the governing party took it only in terms of economic cost and accused the EU for not being helpful. It might be first and foremost an economic problem but the issue of immigration is more serious than the problem of finance. It is doomed to be a social, political and demographic problem. Despite that it is a political taboo to talk about the demographic/political outcomes of the immigration, many Alevis think it will change the demographic balance in favor of Sunnis and many Kurds consider it as balancing Kurds with Arabs. Moreover, secularists think all Syrian immigrants are pro-government and they will vote for the ruling party after they are registered as Turkey’s citizens, sooner or later. Even though such concerns might not reflect reality, it is perception that matters in politics.
Finally, it seems even the supporters of the ruling party have started to think Syrians do not deserve so much financial aid and accommodation. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent declaration that the government will try to settle Syrians in their own country when it is safe must be a reflection of the general discontent. He has even presented “Operation Olive Branch” in Afrin as part of this project.
Nevertheless, the issue of immigration has its own dynamics other than the decisions of politicians. It is not just that any solution in Syria easy and soon, it is also the fact that many immigrants might not consider returning to their country for various reasons. Under these circumstances, Turkey will need to accommodate them not only in economic but also in social and cultural terms. In the beginning, people flee their countries for safety but then demand not only financial aid, but also education, health and the promise of a bright future for their children. Moreover, immigration is a problematic issue of new generations, in general. It is only the first generation that settled in a new country feels grateful to their host country. Then it becomes an issue of confused identity, cultural integration and social competition.
Turkey’s politicians who dismiss the difficulties of hosting immigrants with reference to the historical hospitality of Ottoman ancestors, are oblivious to the fact that late Ottomans suffered immense difficulties to accommodate the Balkan and Caucasian immigrants. It was another difficult period of debacle after World War I. The Republican regime was established on the ruins of a war torn country and had its own troubles concerning the integration and accommodation of different people. Times have changed a lot since then but challenges should not be dismissed.