A major change in Turkey’s Syrian refugee policy
“Operation Olive Branch” in Syria’s Afrin district has revealed yet another major change in Turkey’s long-standing refugee policy towards the 3.5 million Syrians who have taken shelter on Turkish soil since our southern neighbor collapsed.
A high-level security summit, convened in the Turkish capital on Jan. 23, came to an important conclusion: “Our operations will continue until the separatist terror organization is fully cleared from the region and around 3.5 million Syrians who are now sheltered in Turkey are able to safely return to their homeland.”
This line was later repeated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who vowed to create the necessary humanitarian conditions, complete with infrastructure and superstructure facilities, in “areas cleared of terrorists,” so that all Syrians could return to their homes.
The fact that around 100,000 Syrians have been able to return to Jarablus from Turkey as a result of Operation Euphrates Shield is highlighted by the Turkish government as an important precedent to this end.
This change on Syrian refugees marks an important U-turn for the Turkish government.
Turkey has long been providing the best conditions for the millions of displaced Syrians with a generosity to the tune of $30 billion, as repeatedly stressed by the government. Around 300,000 Syrians are sheltered in camps while the rest are staying in cities and surviving thanks to monthly allowances.
Many government agencies have already begun comprehensive work to integrate Syrian refugees into the Turkish state, on the grounds that many of them will choose to stay in Turkey or wait to be resettled in a third country.
Thus Turkey has become the country that hosts the most refugees in the world and has gained an important reputation for hospitality.
A recent study showed that 52 percent of Syrian refugees want to stay in Turkey, with 74 percent seeking Turkish citizenship so they can start formally working and building a life here. According to a recent parliamentary panel study, only 60,000 Syrians have been granted citizenship in the last six years.
In early 2015, the government announced efforts to ease the criteria for Syrians to gain Turkish citizenship. The move sparked tense in-house discussions at political, social and economic levels at the time.
The government defended the move by arguing that young Syrians contribute to the labor force and therefore to the Turkish economy.
The opposition highlighted the difficulties of socially integrating more than 3 million new citizens into the Republic of Turkey.
Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said the government should work on positively contributing to a political solution to the Syrian turmoil in order to facilitate the return of Syrians to their homelands. He was subject to fierce criticism at the time, as he recently recalled in his parliamentary speech on Jan. 30.
Having recalled the historical perspective of this major change, one should also question the reasons behind Erdoğan’s claims for Afrin. One likely reason is that public discomfort in Turkey vis-a-vis the Syrians is on the rise.
According to the parliamentary panel’s finding, Istanbul ranks first in the list of cities hosting refugees, with 517,000 Syrians currently living there. The issues may or may not be linked, but Istanbul ended up voting against the government-led referendum shifting Turkey to an executive presidential system in April 2017.
Of the top 10 cities in the same list Adana, Mersin, Hatay and İzmir also voted against the referendum. This data could be used to support the argument that Turks do not want Syrians any longer. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has many successful mechanisms to check the pulse of Turkish society through relentless polling, and the latest change in refugee policy could be a result of such polling.
The second reason is the increasing economic burden of Syrian refugees. The government has repeatedly said that it has spent around $30 billion on Syrians. For an economy that is not exactly going through its best days at the moment, this is a serious figure and a significant black hole in the state budget. Moreover, the $30 billion rhetoric of the government probably disturbs low income groups in Turkey, which are seriously suffering from the high cost of living and persistently high inflation.
These aspects of the issue aside, the government should also explain whether it plans a forced return of Syrian refugees or a voluntary one in line with the U.N. convention on refugees. Having earned a commendable image thanks to its generosity and hospitality towards Syrian (as well as Iraqi) refugees, Turkey should be explicit about how it intends to treat the migrants currently on its soil, both now and in the future.