Syrians in Turkey unlikely to return amid shaky prospect of peace
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“There are many Syrians that have come from the rural parts of their own country, so their lives are better here,” Prof. Murat Erdoğan, the director of the Turkish German University’s Migration and Integration Research Center, recently told the Hürriyet Daily News.
Tell us about the latest situation on Syrian refugees.
There are nearly 3.3 million registered Syrians in Turkey. Each day 1,500 is added to this number. Those unregistered until now are being registered and there are 306 babies born on average every day. The daily increase will decline in the coming years so I expect the number to stabilize at around 3.5 million. We don’t exactly know where they are, whether they are still in the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa or if they moved to another city.
Turkey hosts the highest number of refugees in the world. But we don’t call them refugees. At some point international organizations put pressure on Turkey to change this stance but after seeing how Turkey has been shouldering the burden, they gave up.
In terms of administration, six and a half years have passed [since the first arrival of Syrians] and Turkey still has not developed a refugee strategy. The government took it as an issue of emergency management and gave the task of coordination to the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority [AFAD], an institution which is supposed to respond to emergency situations. Turkey needs institutional structures to carry out integration policies. But this is not happening.
From day one we saw this as a burden that we had to take on, not something we had to manage. This process has continued so far without major problems because despite existing worries, there is a high level of societal acceptance. At least there is no rejection. Another reason is, of course, the extraordinary efforts of civil officials. Politicians have been avoiding the issue, but they will have to tackle the issue sooner or later. Syrians are going to be one of the five major issues in the 2019 elections.
Actually it is rather absurd that it has not been on the political agenda. When you look at countries that have 20,000-30,000 refugees, it is still one of the top three subjects on their agenda. The absence of the refugees on the agenda while they are in such a huge number is abnormal. But we are set to see normalization in this sense. The head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party [CHP], Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has asked where the $30 billion which was claimed to have been earmarked to the refugees by the government was spent. The president, the prime minister and some other officials rushed to answer immediately, which is because tension within the society over refugees has become visible. The referendum was a test in this sense and there are a lot of Justice and Development Party [AKP] members who believe the reason why the AKP did not get the amount of votes it wanted was because of the refugees.
The head of AFAD said 30,000 refugees had gone back to Syria after the Euphrates Shield operation.
I don’t expect a return. In mass migrations the probability of return is very low, especially after migrants spend a few years in the host country, leave border towns and are spread out across the country. Nearly 60 percent of Syrians in Turkey are no longer living in border towns. They are in different corners of Turkey and have established new lives.
In addition, we do not know whether there will be permanent peace in Syria. And even if the civil war were to stop, there is a country in ruins. Starting a new life there could be more difficult than starting a new life in Turkey. Turkey is more attractive. There are many Syrians that have come from the rural parts of their own country, so their lives here are better. They feel their lives are not that bad. Our research shows that despite all the difficulties, 50 percent of Syrians say they are happy. And this figure is quite high. So, at least 50 percent have no motivation at all to go back. The youth have no motivation at all to go back either. Some of the elders in the family might want to go back, but the younger ones will resist. One of the signs that show how their lives have normalized is the number of children that were born here. By the end of 2017 the number of Syrians born in Turkey will rise to 305,000. They might live in poor conditions but they will at least feel safer here.
You claim politicians are avoiding the integration issue, but there is a will to give citizenship to Syrians.
The government ignores it because there is a political cost to it. People will start asking questions about why Syrians are here and what the mistakes done in Syria were. The answer to the question on what the future of the Syrians will be has been postponed. The citizenship issue seemed like it was being done to get votes from the refugees. But then there were too many reactions and the government had to put it on hold. Governors were asked to identify Syrians who can be granted citizenship, those who will be beneficial to Turkey. Only 12,000 were identified, and with their families the number was at 50,000. There are plans for another round but that will also remain limited to 50,000. But the issue draws a lot of reactions.
The stance of the Turkish society is clear. They say, “I can help those who are in difficulty, but I don’t want to share my future with them, I don’t want to live together.” We observed that around 70 percent of Turks are convinced that Syrians are here to stay. But when we asked where they should live, the answers were: “In camps or in separate towns.” Around 80 percent of Turks say there are no cultural similarities with Syrians. I think politicians are now starting to see the problem. We are facing the consequence of having postponed the problem and I feel there will be a political cost for the AKP
But new steps were taken for integration, like in the field of education.
In the first three years no steps were taken. Then temporary education centers were opened based on the Syrian curriculum in Arabic.
At one stage their numbers reached 450. But then there were problems like the risk of radicalization as some civil society organizations tried to advance their causes through these centers.
Last year, of the 500,000 children, only 160,000 were going to state schools, while the rest were going to these centers. This year these ratios have changed. These centers are not allowed to take in beginners. Students at higher grades continue at these centers because the Turkish education system does not have the capacity to take in 1 million extra students.
How is the situation in terms of employment?
As of January 2016, Syrians are able to officially work. But very few employers want to hire Syrians. Some 9,000-10,000 Syrians work officially and most are employed by international organizations. My estimation is that around 800,000 Syrians are in informal labor. This number could be as high as 1.2 million. They have to work, because those living outside camps have no chance of receiving assistance from the state. But this leads to the exploitation of labor, and will have consequences in the future. In mass migrations the big fear among locals is that refugees will take their jobs. In Turkey this does not happen because Syrians work at jobs Turks don’t want and for wages Turks won’t accept. Informal economy is a known fact in Turkey and having Syrians in it is inevitable, but there needs to be a limit to this exploitation. This is not sustainable.
Integration polices encourage refugees to settle, but you can’t avoid addressing this issue, because the price to be paid would be more heavy when the numbers of lost generations start rising.
What are the levels of risk of Syrians radicalizing?
As Turks we expect them to thank us because we gave them shelter. When looked at from our perspective we say, “What else do you want?” Whatever assistance you provide there still is an increase in their hatred. They feel they are treated badly, humiliated, insulted and exploited.
Currently for instance the crime rate among Syrians is very low. I compare this to the first generations of Turks that went to Germany, when in their initial years the crime rates were low. But look at the difference currently. All migrants in Europe harbor some kind of anger justified or unjustified to the communities in which they live; Turks against Germany and Moroccans against France. Those coming from Syria are more traumatized. And actually we hear only a small part of the tension that exists among Turks and Syrians. These kids will eventually have emotional breakdowns. They are most prone to radicalization. Of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees, suppose you have 3.49 million in good condition; it is enough to have a problematic 10,000 among them. All it takes is one bomb. They don’t have to become terrorists; they can become members of criminal gangs.
Who is Murat Erdoğan?
Professor Murat Erdoğan has recently become a faculty member of the Turkish German University and the director of its Migration and Integration Research Center.
Prior to that, he was a faculty member at Hacettepe University’s Department of Political Science and Public Administration. He is also the founder and former director of Hacettepe University Migration and Politics Research Center (HUGO). Erdoğan is a political scientist and migration specialist. He received his PhD degree from Ankara University and Bonn University.
His fields of interest are Turkish migrants in Europe, EU-Turkey relationship, Turkish domestic and foreign policy, migration and Islamophobia. He has conducted several field studies on Syrian refugees in Turkey. He has worked as a coordinator or consultant for several international projects and authored several articles and books on his area of interests.