How to make Syrians more invisible in Turkey
There are around 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, and nearly half of them are children. That number plateaued this past year, but we in Turkey’s big cities didn’t really feel them. In the last few months, it’s as if the visibility of Syrians has increased. This shows up in public opinion surveys, too, where people list Syrian refugees as one of the country’s top five issues. Why? I see three reasons.
The major reason, of course, is the severe recession that hit Turkey. When the economy hits number one of the top five issues list, Syrians become more visible. Turkey’s severe recession is impacting the labor market, and millions of job seekers are looking at the world with anxious eyes.
Just check the number of applications to get unemployment benefits, for example. The number has increased 57.6 percent in January-May 2019 when compared with the same period in 2018. If you are comparing May to May from 2018 to 2019, then the rate of increase is around 52 percent. A year ago, between May 2017 to May 2018, it was -1.6 percent.
As in many other countries around the world, Turkey’s jobless hear an old story making its way through the coffee shops, bars and social media channels: immigrants are taking your jobs. So visibility is bad for Syrians. If Turkey is to be a more governable and be a destination country – as it promised its European partners – it cannot afford Syrians to be more visible.
Secondly, it is about the attitude of local authorities towards Syrians. If the local authorities are loath to interact with Syrians as long as they stay in their districts. Turning a blind eye to Syrians makes them more visible.
If the local authorities do not provide any social services to Syrians in finding a residence, establishing a business, providing welfare assistance, then Syrians do what people everywhere do: they stay with their own. That is how the Syrian ghettoes in Turkey’s major cities have formed.
A recent TEPAV study shows us just how serious this issue is in Istanbul and Ankara. What I have found interesting in the study is this: Whenever the local authority does not turn a blind eye to Syrian migrants, the hate language against Syrians declines in that district. In the Sultanbeyli district of Istanbul, unlike Sultangazi and Fatih districts, 65 percent of survey participants are happy to be
living with the Syrians and are talking about Syrian migrants in more affectionate terms. How did this happen? The Sultanbeyli municipality prevented a ghetto from emerging in its district by dispersing its population of 30,000 Syrians to 15 different neighborhoods. (I should note that positive responses in Sultanbeyli were 85 percent back in 2015, so there is still a downward trend.)
Thirdly, let me focus on a pleasant surprise I have had regarding invisible Syrians in Turkey. There are currently around 10,000 Syrian-partnered companies in Turkey, meaning Turkish companies owned and operated by Syrians. As it is compulsory for all Turkish companies to belong to the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB), Syrian firms are also members of the national chamber system. The system is similar to its French and German equivalents, mind you. Local chambers are organized around professional committees representing different professions. Elected chairmen of these committees form the general assembly of the local chamber, electing the board of directors and delegates to the chamber federation general assembly among its members.
In Mersin, last week, I was surprised to see an elected professional committee chairman who is Syrian. He was owner of a Syrian partnered company in plastics. Just as Turks can become active in the German chamber network, so Syrians can and do get involved in the Turkish chamber network. Perhaps this is an example of how open markets can ease the way of integration. This kind of visibility is sure to be good for Syrians.
Against all odds, Syrians are still integrating into Turkish society. The TEPAV study asserts that around 80 percent of Syrians are happy to be in Turkey and think that they have successful business here. Yet the success of the experiment depends on having less visible and more invisible Syrians. For that, local authorities have to step in, develop migrant-friendly policies and prevent the issue from getting out of control in the future.