Getting used to seeing a Syrian origin minister in Turkish Cabinet
“Sweden had a female minister of Turkish origin. Can you imagine Turkey having a Russian blonde Orthodox woman in the Turkish Cabinet in 20 years’ time? I really can’t imagine Turkey changing toward this mentality. But perhaps realities on the ground are going to force a change in the mindset,” Professor Ahmet İçduygu fron Istanbul’s Koç University told me. “I said Russian, but I could have said Syrian as well,” added İçduygu, who is also the director of the Migration Research Center at Koç.
I can imagine Germans looking at us with a sarcastic smile, saying, “See, integration is not such a simple issue.” They would have the same sarcastic smile when we start discussing duel citizenship for Syrians, or Arabic schools or universities. However, I must say that perhaps we might prove smarter than the Germans, as I have heard that establishing a university with an Arabic curriculum has already been discussed in some circles at the state level.
Currently, the estimated number of Syrians in Turkey is approaching two million. “I am pretty sure that 10 years from now we will still be talking about two million Syrians living in Turkey,” Murat Erdoğan, the director of the Migration and Politics Research Center at Ankara’s Hacettepe University, told me.
There is a universal rule: If refugees have not gone back after a certain time period, it is indicative that they are there for a much longer stay.
There are more than 300,000 Syrians in Istanbul at the moment, according to Erdoğan. “Let suppose that 5,000 of them are beggars. Where are the rest? Probably they have somehow been absorbed by the system.”
This is also an issue underlined by İçduygu: Syrians turn into labor migrants, which becomes functional for the Turkish economy.
So Turkey is at a crossroads, facing a dilemma. If it endorses a policy of integrating Syrians into Turkish society, this could discourage them from returning to Syria when things start improving there, no matter how distant that prospect appears to be. On the other hand, if the state continues to consider this situation to be a temporary one, we might be facing a downward spiral with negative consequences. “If you think this is temporary, then no one makes any investment for the future. Even the refugee mother refrains from sending her daughters to school, thinking that the situation is only temporary,” said İçduygu.
Young people and children make up more than half of the Syrian refugees in Turkey. I don’t want to imagine what they will become in 10 years’ time if they don’t receive a proper education or some kind of technical skill training that will enable them to work.
It is imperative that Turkey starts a scheme based on bilingual education. In a decade we will perhaps see bilingual Syrians working in the Turkish Foreign Ministry and National Intelligence Agency (MİT), which would perhaps help us to understand the Middle East much better.
We still don’t know whether there are doctors, teachers, and engineers among the Syrians. Why let them stay in the camps doing nothing, rather than work in a textile shop to make a living?
According to the experts, the Turkish government is facing the reality and is preparing to take steps in line with the demands of the situation. For many years, Turkey’s immigration policies have favored those of “Turkish descent and culture,” and formal immigration remains restricted to those groups, İçduygu said. This approach will probably change, but to what degree is Turkish society also ready for this change?
It is one thing to employ cheap Syrian labor; it is quite another thing to let them buy properties, become your neighbor and even work as the doctor in the local neighborhood health center.
“The level of ‘otherization’ of Syrians is very high. When I look at the Syrians and the locals in the southeast, I don’t see much difference. But a majority of the Turkish population say they don’t share a common culture with the Syrians,” said Erdoğan, who recently conducted a survey on Turkish perspectives of Syrians.
Those in the West who love criticizing Turkey should take a step back and admit that Turkey is giving a huge humanitarian lesson to the world.
“Had Turkey been a member of the European Union, the EU would have told us to build a wall to keep Syrians out,” said Erdoğan.
We Turks should be proud. But we also need to ponder more the social, economic and political consequences of the Syrians’ “settlement” in Turkey. Will it make our country more liberal, or more conservative, for instance?