Syrian refugees in Turkey: The swing from guests to citizens

Syrian refugees in Turkey: The swing from guests to citizens

Over the course of a few days, Syrians living in Turkey who have been refused refugee status for the past five years have been promoted from guest status to potential citizen status.

It is something that would make you say, “Only in Turkey.” Just as only in Turkey can you see 3 million refugees settling over five years and facing relatively little hostility. 

I am not suggesting that Turks are filled with joy about hosting Syrians. There are many who do not want them here and wish they would go back immediately. I am sure there are also many who are exploiting the situation by imposing high rental prices on Syrians or paying them low salaries, effectively making them modern day slaves. Child labor among Syrians in Turkey is at alarming levels, and many thousands of Syrians live in poverty.

“Unlike you, we can’t tolerate Syrians sleeping in parks in Sweden,” a diplomat from that country recently told me. Indeed, the ideal scenario is to provide refugees with the proper human standards.

But was the Swedish diplomat right to say they are bound to provide the best living conditions possible to Syrians? “We are overwhelmed and we can’t provide them [with] the best standards, so we are shutting our doors,” is the current Swedish approach. 

But is that a right approach? Is leaving them to die in their country the right approach just because you cannot provide five-star accommodation? You may have an uneasy conscience seeing Syrians sleeping in parks, but does turning a blind eye to the execution of a Syrian family by radicals in their home country, just because their daughter’s wrists were visible, not create any problem in your conscience?

“Instead of facing death in your country, come to Turkey, we’ll see what we can do,” has been Turkey’s approach. Is opening the doors of your country to people facing the risk of death the right approach? It is the right approach. But is saying, “I saved your lives, I can’t properly take care of all of you at the same time. So the unlucky ones have to find a way to survive,” also a right approach? No, it is not. 

We need to find a middle ground that both avoids both shutting the doors completely and keeping the doors wide open without a proper strategy. 

From day one, human rights activists and experts have warned that Syrians should not be seen as guests but rather should be given refugee status. Then came the warnings that the Syrians would not soon be going back and the government should take necessary measures with the understanding that Syrians are here to stay for some time. Based on its mistaken assumption that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would soon be toppled, the government refused to listen to this advice, dismissing those who gave it as critics from the opposition.

Instead of learning Turkish, the lucky Syrians were taught in Arabic. But if the government had earlier accepted the truth that the Syrians were not here temporarily, and instead had a proper strategy, it would have been a relatively easy endeavor to enroll thousands of Syrian students into the Turkish schooling system, thus creating less resentment among parents. It is one thing to have a gradual change in the classroom with the numbers of Syrian refugees increasing each year, it is another thing to come one day and see half of the classroom filled with Syrians. It is exactly these types of sudden changes that disrupt the sociological fabric of society.

“I have for a long time been calling [for] a debate on providing citizenship to Syrians, as I came to realize early on that they will be here to stay,” Murat Erdoğan, a scholar from Hacettepe University who has conducted several field studies on Syrian refugees, told me. “But you can’t provide citizenship in a matter of days. We need to have some kind of integration courses. This whole issue came to the agenda all of a sudden, without proper debates,” he said. 

He is worried about the politicization of the refugee issue, as it becomes a matter of contention between the government and the opposition, which also harms the refugees themselves. 

“The argument that we need to benefit from ‘qualified’ Syrians is not credible either. First, those with certain qualifications have already left Turkey. Secondly, you cannot make such discrimination,” the scholar Erdoğan said.

“Another point we need to discuss is family reunification. The family members of those given citizenship will start coming to Turkey, leading to another flow of refugees,” he added. 

But the most important problem is the fact that providing citizenship to Syrians in such a rush will create further tension in society. While the Syrians would suffer most from that, all the credit that Turkey has gained from its exemplary hospitality could be lost within a matter of days.