Invest in Syrian women for better integration into Turkey

Invest in Syrian women for better integration into Turkey

In February, for the first time ever the majority of Syrians trying to cross to Greece was made up of women and children, according to Sabine Freizer, an advisor for the Istanbul-based regional office of U.N. Women.

That was due to the fact that Europe is making family reunification much more difficult, Freizer said. For example, in Denmark family reunification had been possible six months after the refugee’s arrival - now it has been extended to three years.

The fact that the Balkan route is about to be closed has probably also played a role in women’s rush to take the dangerous journey. Fleeing is actually the last resort for many women, as the journey they take is full of danger and they are much more vulnerable than male refugees on the move. In Syria the war has taken such cruel proportions that it is currently believed that the majority of Syrians living in Turkey are women and children. 

Let alone talking about the problems of Syrian women refugees, until recently we could not even properly debate the issue of Syrian refugees in general, because anything other than praising Turkey’s open door policy has irritated the government. Thanks to EU–Turkey cooperation on the refugee crisis, we have now started to debate the subject.

Okan University in Istanbul recently decided to use the occasion of International Women’s Day to organize a panel on women Syrian refugees. It was an eye-opening event in the sense that shortcomings pertaining to women refugees are not limited to Turkey - actually it is a global phenomenon. 

First of all, as was explained by Asylum and Migration Research Center (İGAM) head Metin Çorabatır, the 1951 Geneva Convention is written with a male perspective. You don’t see women in the Convention’s definition of who is a refugee or who is entitled to seek asylum. But many refugee women are persecuted just because they are women, forced into early marriage or genital mutilation, or victim of honor killings.
What’s more, the Convention largely focuses on individual persecution, whereas today we are faced with mass migration flows. That’s why there are now many calls to reform the U.N. text.

But that’s a measure for the medium term. Coming back to Turkey, a lot needs to be done in the short term. First of all, Turkey needs to get its act together. There is clearly a lack of coordination. Who is in charge? Is it Deputy Prime Minister Yalçın Akdoğan, under which Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) operates? Is it the prime minister’s newly appointed advisor, Murteza Yetiş? Is it the Interior Ministry, under which the Directorate for Migration Management operates?

It was believed that the Syrian crisis would be short lived and the Syrians would return soon, so Turkey’s Directorate for Migration Management, which was established in the second half of the 2000s, was caught unprepared and AFAD had to take charge. The Turkish government should probably rethink the division of labor among relevant institutions and decide on the authority that will do the coordination.

In addition, it will have to endorse a new strategy. This is happening, according to the president of AFAD, who told me that the new strategy will be finalized within a month or two. Now that the government is facing the fact that Syrians are here to stay, will the new strategy be based on integration?

“We don’t have a culture of integration. It is a taboo word. The government talks instead about ‘harmonization,’” said İGAM head Çorabatır.

Whichever word is used, one hopes that the eventual strategy will prioritize education, as well as women’s empowerment. The latter is of critical importance, as women are believed to make up a majority of the Syrians living in Turkey. 

But do they? That’s another problem. Turkey lacks efficient data about Syrians. How many women are there? What is their age group? What is their educational level? What are their skills? If indeed women are the majority, they will have to play a critical role in earning their livelihood instead of being dependent on humanitarian assistance. The government encourages Turkish women to have as many children as possible, and it is feared that some of the measures introduced by Ankara to encourage motherhood will remove women from the labor force. I hope the same will not be valid for Syrian women here. 

If peace ever comes to Syria, so many Syrian men have lost their lives that it will perhaps be Syrian women who end up reconstructing their country. In the absence of men, women have already started playing an important role in Syria, according to Mouna Ghamen from the Women’s Initiative for Peace in Syria. Addressing the Okan University panel from Denmark via Skype, Ghamen underlined the importance of secularism to protect the rights of women in Syria.

Whether we like it or not, we are going to end up with a Syrian diaspora in Turkey. Some will stay; some will go back; some will commute between the two countries. The strategies designed today will have consequences long into the future.