The New Turks: How the influx of Syrians is changing Turkey

The New Turks: How the influx of Syrians is changing Turkey

Selim Koru and Omar Kadkoy*
Throughout the history of the Republic, Turkey has been the epitome of a nation state, strong in its self-perception as a homogeneous entity. This is gradually changing. For the first time since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, there is again a vibrant cultural, economic, and political Turkish-Arab space. But unlike at the time of the Ottoman Empire, it is not Turks traveling to Arab centers, but Arabs who are resettling into Turkey. All this means that the border between the Arab world and Turkey, and by extension, Europe, is becoming more blurry. 

Currently, Syrians already make up about 3.6 percent of Turkey’s population. Taking into account Syrian demographic trends, by 2040, almost five percent of Turkey’s population will be made up of people of Syrian origin. We can reflect upon this in two ways. The first is that given the fact that Syrians and Turks come from the same “civilization,” Syrians are able find their place in Turkey without much social conflict. Considering the scale of the influx, there are relatively few news reports pointing to social conflict along Turkish-Syrian lines. European countries on the other hand, have taken in far fewer refugees, but have already gone through several cycles of scandals.

Germany for example, having taken in more than a million refugees in 2015, is by far the most generous European country. But accusations of sexual assault committed by men of “Arab or North African background” on New Year’s Eve in 2016 was the latest such case that fueled outrage in Germany, and continues to be a part of the public discussion there. 

The public mood is different in Turkey. Though there are reported crimes involving Syrians on a weekly basis, the Turkish public is not nearly as sensitive to the origins of the alleged perpetrators as that in European countries. The Turkish public sphere’s resistance to scandalizing refugees seems to support the claim that Turkey has an easier time absorbing Muslim refugees due to a shared history. 

A second view is the perception of the influx of Syrians as a traditional migration experience, taking into focus the cultural clash that ensues. And much of Syrian settlement in Turkey already resembles the European experience – there is clearly a “ghettoization,” a separate economy of Syrian-only shops and restaurants, as well as very real social differences in terms of language and culture. The most salient difference here could be political. In Europe, the loyalty of the immigrant population is often in question, while in Turkey, Syrians have fled war and feel an allegiance towards the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and President Erdoğan in particular. 

Europe could choose to be part of this new space. There are 720,000 Syrian refugees across Europe, mostly in Germany. Decades from now, these people are going to be part of a wider network of the Syrian diaspora. European countries are often more concerned about integrating new arrivals than in maintaining their connections to their home countries. But there could be benefits to being a hub for the Syrian diaspora in the decades to come. At the same time, mainstream political parties in Europe face the threat of a far-right resurgence fueled by anti-refugee sentiments. 

This is why, in order to control the flow of migrants through its borders, European states need to do more to make Turkey a better destination country for migrants. The Turkish experience shows us that there are many mechanisms in place to help less developed countries such as Lebanon or Jordan to cope with refugees, but relatively little to a help middle-income country such as Turkey. 

European programs would do well to focus on working with Turkish institutions to strengthen their integration capabilities. This includes issues such as access to finance, labor market integration, social programs, and pathways to citizenship. The more refined the Turkish state’s mechanisms are in accommodating Syrian refugees, the better for Europe. 

* Selim Koru is a Policy Analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) where his work focuses on Turkish politics and economics. Omar Kadkoy is a Research Associate at TEPAV’s Area Studies Program, where his work focuses on the economic and social integration of Syrian refugees, especially in areas of employment, entrepreneurship, education, and housing. This is an abridged version of the original article published in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Spring 2017 issue.