Turkish citizens of Syrian origin
There are two industrial countries in our region: Israel and Turkey. Israel has been transforming through external migration. Turkey has been transforming through internal migration. Both of those transformations have far-reaching economic and political dimensions.
Now Turkey is at a crossroads. It needs to think about external migration. Are we ready? It is too early to say.
Since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, around 3 million Syrians have been registered to cross the border into Turkey. They have hitherto been referred to as “guests” by Turkish politicians, even though it became increasingly clear that many Syrians would never return to their homes. None had brought up the “C word,” until now. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while holding an iftar dinner with Syrian refugees, told a crowd of hungry onlookers with the aid of an Arabic translator that Turkey would offer Syrians a pathway to citizenship. It was a historic moment. For the first time, a Turkish president is talking about a real migration policy. It’s terribly exciting.
Turkey is one of the few countries with geographical restrictions on the 1951 U.N. Convention on the Status of Refugees. We only giving refugee status to those fleeing “events occurring in Europe,” which means that in the unlikely event that there is another holocaust in Europe, Turkey can take in “refugees,” but people fleeing wars in any other part of the world, including the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, are not so lucky. Turkey’s migration policy is similarly obdurate. It has been very hard to get a work permit as a foreigner. In the past five years, only about 10,000 out of the more than 3 million Syrians who have been in Turkey at some point were able to get a work permit. That is a huge loss for Turkey, since it is still an island of stability in a region with tectonic shifts and could use the educated workforce that is streaming in. Thanks to the influx of Syrian refugees, we can now start thinking about a migration policy that Turkey’s economy has sorely been lacking for quite some time.
In this new age, economic transformation requires a well-educated workforce. We owe about two-thirds of Turkey’s economic growth in the last three decades to structural transformation. When I was born in the early 1960s, 30 percent of the Turkish population was living in cities. Now, Turkey’s urbanization rate has converged to that of Germany at 75 percent, mind you. That is what I mean by structural transformation; rural workers moving to the cities and earning exponentially more money in industry and services jobs. That’s how Turkey grew.
Now Turkey needs to focus on increasing productivity in all of its sectors. This requires a technological overhaul. That’s why we need a better-educated workforce – more scientists and engineers, creative managers, big thinkers. So education reform is key. Yet Turkey had six education ministers under succeeding Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments over the last 14 years. That is around two years per minister. That left no time for education reform.
So for the tech jump, Turkey could use a labor force educated elsewhere. That’s where a migration policy could come in handy. Think about this: Before the EU-Turkey refugee deal was made Syrians transiting through Turkey and the western Balkans to core EU countries were the most educated group. One survey showed that about 40 percent of Syrians en route had university degrees – a staggering figure that is even higher than Germany’s national average. But with the refugee deal, Turkey effectively stopped being a transit country. Just look at the numbers: In October 2015, daily arrivals to Greek islands from Turkey occasionally surpassed 10,000 asylum-seekers. This means that on such days, thousands of university-graduated Syrians were fleeing Turkey. The EU-Turkey deal put a stop to this brain drain. According to the UNHCR, the number of arrivals at Greek islands yesterday was zero.
Now that Turkey has stopped being a transit country and evolved fully into a destination country for Syrians, it’s high time we start thinking about how to integrate the best of the bunch into the Turkish economy. Once a functional model is on the ground, the rest will follow. That, I think, is the context of President Erdoğan’s remarks about the “C-word.” Better late than never.