World Refugee Day and ‘Our Choir’ in Turkey

World Refugee Day and ‘Our Choir’ in Turkey

Metin Çorabatır*
Four months ago, 30 young Syrian and Iraqi refugees living in Ankara came together with 30 young Turkish people to form “Our Choir,” in order to give a concert for World Refugee Day (WRD) on June 20, 2017.

The U.S. Embassy in Ankara welcomed this idea and allocated precious grant for the realization of it. The Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Philip Kosnett, said in his opening remarks of the WRD concert that the U.S. government applauded the generosity of all refugee hosting countries, saying the embassy’s support for the “Our Choir” project is just a small addition to the refugee hosting states. 

The majority of the refugee members of the choir do not speak Turkish, but 60 young boys and girls exerted tremendous efforts for a common purpose. İnci Ayağ, the manager of the Polyphonic Youth Choir of the Ministry of Culture, and Semra Ögüt, a singer of the State Opera and Ballet, spent time, empathy and patience on Saturdays and Sundays in the weeks leading up to the concert to harmonize and prepare the choir. 

The large audience at the Contemporary Art Centre in Ankara was impressed by the determination of the young refugees to learn new skills, produce something valuable, and enjoy working together with their Turkish friends. Our choir and its WRD performance presented unchallengeable proof that the integration of 3.5 million refugees in to Turkish society is not mission impossible. The project also gave the message that Syrian and Iraqi refugees are very similar to us and are an inseparable part of universal culture.      
These two messages have of global importance on WRD 2017. When the U.N. first declared June 20 as WRD back in 2000, the world’s refugee population was 22.3 million people. On June 20, 2017, the UNHCR announced that this figure has now risen to 65 million. Unfortunately, this upward trend appears set to continue for decades. This means that all countries must work harder than ever to fulfil their basic obligations of protecting refugees and finding durable solutions for them.

Today, integration seems to be the only durable solution to the refugee question. This is also the true for Turkey, which currently hosts the largest refugee population in the world. As Turkey maintains a geographical limitation to the 1951 Refugee Convention, its protection system is still only of a temporary nature. Turkey does not recognize the rights of refugees from non-European countries, for whom the only durable solution is resettlement to other countries. However, today resettlement is almost impossible. Turkey therefore has to face the reality that it must adopt a comprehensive strategy to integrate its refugees.

The country is at a turning point in its handling of the current humanitarian crisis. It needs a comprehensive policy guaranteeing protection and social cohesion. According to the recent IGAM and Migration Policy  Group report, the major integration areas relevant to Turkey are: 1) General conditions and mainstreaming; 2) Residency and citizenship; 3) Family reunification; 4) Housing; 5) Employment; 6) Vocational training; 7) Education; 8) Language learning and social orientation; 9) Bridging the gaps.

Social cohesion is built through the active participation in public life of both newcomers and the receiving society. Frequent occasions for integration, such as voluntary initiatives, mentorship programs, and participation in decision-making processes contribute to mutual understanding and a shared sense of belonging. Turkey’s emerging concept of integration has not yet brought about the necessary paradigm shift to promote socio-cultural integration. Overall, socio-cultural integration is not a state-sponsored process and it remains largely spontaneous, dependent on ad hoc possibilities for interaction. This is why the establishment of “Our Choir” presented a small-scale but excellent model of social-cultural integration, beyond its public awareness function. 

“Our Choir” is not the only small or medium-scale integration and awareness model implemented in Turkey. Many public institutions, NGOs and INGOs implement similar programs funded by the EU or other foreign embassies, particularly the U.S. Embassy. However, these efforts need the coordination of the DGMM to provide a platform. The recent removal of the top manager level of the Directorate General of Migration Management in Turkey’s Interior Ministry (DGMM) would harm all these efforts.
* Metin Çorabatır is the President of the Ankara-based Research Center on Asylum and Migration.