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The Syrian civil war has motivated the largest influx of refugees and perhaps the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. The huge influx of refugees has not only changed the nature of politics in the Middle East, but also in Europe and the U.S. The rise of right-wing political parties across Europe, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, changes in EU-Turkey relations, and the introduction of an immigration ban in the U.S. can all be regarded as direct or indirect consequences of the ongoing war in Syria.

Among many outside actors, Turkey has perhaps paid the greatest cost due to its geographical proximity to Syria. The country is now the top refugee-hosting country in the world. It hosts around four million refugees, who make up almost 5% of the country’s population. The vast majority of its refugee population, 3.5 million, are from Syria, and the rest are from a small number of countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Somalia.

Driven by the country’s rapid transformation from a country of emigration and transit to a country of immigration, this article assesses the policies implemented toward Syrian refugees from 2011 to 2018 by the Turkish state, in conjunction with concurrent political developments at the national and international levels.

Gradual Change in the Country’s Syrian Refugee Policies 

Turkey’s policies toward Syrian refugees have undergone a gradual transformation. Between 2011 and 2012, in compliance with a foreign policy aimed at crafting a Syria without Assad, the country opened its borders to Syrian refugees. It admitted them en masse and built refugee camps in the southern border cities to accommodate them. At this stage of the conflict, the Turkish state was quite confident that the war was going to come to an end in the near future and that the refugees would be returning home. The government, thus, adopted a legal ambiguity and called the Syrian refugees “guests,”[1] rather than granting them conventional refugee status. This did not constitute a violation of Turkey’s international legal obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, because the country had placed a geographical limitation to the treaty, by which it accords refugee status only to refugees coming from the European countries. This lack of legal status did not pose a serious threat to the management of the refugee population, due to the fact that the number of Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey amounted to only 14,000 by the end of 2012. However, in subsequent years, as the civil war spread rapidly with the involvement of many state and non-state actors, many more people were displaced.

At the end of 2014, the total number of Syrian refugees arrived in Turkey reached 1.5 million. At this stage, it was evident that Turkey’s initial calculation was untenable and that the refugees were not going anywhere anytime soon. Given the political realities on the ground, the country chose to end the legal ambiguity by introducing new legislation, the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LIFP). The LIFP granted Syrian refugees temporary protection status.

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Meanwhile, the European countries, challenged by a massive influx of refugees, either tightened their border controls or closed their borders entirely. The cost of closed borders was human lives. Many refugees trying to reach European shores lost their lives in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. These tragedies increased the humanitarian pressures on Europe to take action against the Syrian refugee crisis.

These pressures have temporarily altered the dynamics of Turkish-EU relations. Although Turkey’s EU membership negotiations were frozen, the refugee crisis drew the EU closer to Turkey and motivated the signing of a deal in March 2016, by which Europe agreed to return every illegal refugee who reached the Greek islands to Turkey and resettle the same number of vetted Syrian refugees in Europe. Additionally, Europe would provide six billion euros in humanitarian aid to Turkey, lift the visa requirements for Turkish citizens, and resume the EU-Turkey membership negotiations. Although the number of Syrian refugees going to European countries dropped enormously[2] after the signing of the deal, the deal has not aided Turkey in any meaningful way. The number of Syrian refugees who have left Turkey for Europe since 2016 is around 12,000, which composes only 0.35% of the entire Syrian refugee population residing in the country.

         The emergence of the YPG and ISIL as two major players on the ground, posed even greater security threats to the stability of Turkey. While Turkish Government recognizes YPG as a terrorist organization and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Washington has backed the YPG in the fight against Islamic State in Syria.

The country suffered immensely from ISIL attacks. Fifty-one people in Reyhanli, thirty-three people in Suruc, and hundred and seven people in Ankara lost their lives in attacks perpetrated by the members of ISIL, who also kidnapped 49 Turkish diplomats in Mosul after they captured the city. In spite of these disturbing events, Turkey chose not to engage in any large-scale military campaigns against the YPG and ISIL, other than organizing airstrikes between 2011 and 2015. Turkey’s military approach during those years was rather passive and restrained. However, the country’s domestic policies toward refugees and its military approach toward ISIL and the YPG soon began to change.

The Turkish government’s objectives from 2016 onwards were to facilitate the integration of the refugees into the larger Turkish society and secure its borders against the YPG and ISIL. As a part of its new integrationist approach, the government started to issue work permits for Syrians. President Erdogan declared that Turkey could grant full citizenship to highly skilled Syrian refugees. However, as only 10% of the Syrian refugees had a university degree, this idea posed the danger of differential treatment of different groups of Syrians, similar to the experience of the Palestinian refugees in Jordan. Erdogan’s citizenship proposal was more a reflection of his desire to create a new support base for the upcoming presidential elections scheduled to be held in November 2019. However, he could not garner a lot of public support for granting citizenship to Syrian refugees, even from his own political constituents, so he put the project on the back burner. Regarding the changing role of the military, the Turkish army carried out a cross border operation, known Operation Euphrates Shield, in 2016 and fought against the YPG and ISIL to secure the Turkish-Syrian border between Afrin and Manbij. At the end of the operation, the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army captured Manbij, and some 50,000 refugees returned there. The other large-scale military operation, Operation Olive Branch, was launched in January 2018, and YPG-controlled Afrin fell to the control of Turkish forces. President Erdogan has announced that some refugees will return to Afrin in the coming days. [3] In short, the focus of the country has shifted from eliminating Assad to securing its own borders and stopping a new influx of refugees.

Along with its refugee policies and level of military engagement, Turkey’s alliance preferences have transformed in response to political developments taking place in the region. Turkey initially aligned its position with the U.S. and Europe, asking Assad to step down. However, as the opposition forces were extremely divided and fighting against each other, the support of the U.S. and European countries for the Free Syrian Army dwindled very quickly. Some of these groups were even listed as terrorist organizations in the U.S. and Europe.

         In the end, Turkey realized it had to modify its policies toward Syria on the basis of new power dynamics in the region. Increasing Iranian and Russian support and the fall of Aleppo in 2016 tipped the balance even further in favor of the Assad regime. The only option left on the table was military and diplomatic rapprochement with Moscow and Tehran.

Consequently, Turkey agreed to have meetings in Astana and Sochi to negotiate a peace settlement with Russia and Iran. However, the only outcome of these negotiations was a common declaration and vow to eliminate ISIL and the elements of the Al-Nusra Front in Syria. The last of these diplomatic talks took place in Turkey in April and the parties reiterated their commitment to territorial integrity of Syria and achieving a lasting peace.

         Meanwhile, Turkey’s relations with the U.S. were strained even further due to the countries’ disagreement over the legitimacy of the YPG. On one hand, Turkey claims that the YPG is a splinter group from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, against which it has been fighting for almost four decades. On the other hand, the U.S. views the YPG as a legitimate and important ally for its military operations against ISIL in the region.

As President Trump has instructed the army generals to withdraw from Syria, American-Turkish coalition over Syria may be dissolved in the near future. This may put Turkey and the Free Syrian Army in a disadvantageous position in comparison to the Assad regime and Russia and Iran. Nevertheless, it may also embolden Turkey’s position vis a vis the YPG. Turkey’s request for the extradition of Gulen after the July 15 coup attempt and the U.S’ refusal of extradition is another reason why Turkish – American relations are headed for a huge turbulence.

In conclusion, the legal approach of Turkey toward Syrian refugees has metamorphosed from non-recognition (2011-2014) to recognition (2014-2016) and from recognition to integration (2016-?). Likewise, the level of its military engagement has increased with a growing perception of the threat of ISIL attacks and the YPG’s consolidation of power in northern Syria. Finally, Turkey’s alliances have shifted largely over time. At the outset of the conflict, it formed an informal alliance with the U.S. and European countries. However, as the U.S. and Europe reduced their support for anti-regime forces, the country chose to relax its pre-conditions for negotiation and employ diplomacy to resolve the conflict.

The Syrian Refugee Experience in Turkey

A total of 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey today are beneficiaries of temporary protection status. They are permitted to reside in the country until they are provided with permanent resettlement in a third country. Ninety percent of them are living outside the refugee camps, have access to healthcare and education, and can obtain work permits. The legal status-based difference between conventional refugees and the beneficiaries of temporary protection does not fundamentally affect the ways in which these two groups manage their lives in the country.

Although refugees have access to primary and secondary education, almost 350,000 Syrian children, making up 40% of the school-aged Syrian children, do not go to school in the country.[4] Furthermore, despite new legislation passed in 2016 that enables Syrian refugees to apply for a work permit, only a few thousand Syrians have obtained one up to now, and most of them work illegally for sub-standard wages.

There has been wide public support for the Syrian refugees, motivated by the sentiments of brotherhood and hospitality. Nevertheless, a growing number of people are becoming discontent with the presence of the refugees and with the performance of the government in managing the crisis.

The economic side effects of the massive refugee flows—Syrians’ replacing Turkish laborers in low-paying jobs, the increasing human and material costs of the Syrian civil war, and a widespread myth that Syrians receive preferential services and assistance from the state—have contributed to this disgruntlement. Intercommunal violence between Turkish citizens and Syrian refugees increased threefold in the second half of 2017, compared to the same period in 2016.[5] The language barrier, income inequality,[6] child labor problems, and growing xenophobia in the country further aggravate the inter-ethnic tensions and urban violence.

These problems can be tackled only through the institution of state policies that will facilitate the cultural and economic integration of the refugee communities into Turkish society. Creating economic opportunities, introducing customized cultural and language training programs, and providing education for Syrian children, who constitute 46% of the overall Syrian population, are key to the success of the integration of the refugees. Nevertheless, successful integration depends not only on state policies and the society’s level of inclusiveness, but also on the refugees’ willingness to integrate.

         Most of the refugees are living outside the refugee camps, either in the suburbs of the big cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir or of the Southern border cities such as Hatay, Gaziantep, Kilis, and Sanliurfa. They are, in this respect, more like a new ethnic and socio-economic minority. The failure of state policies to integrate them can provoke the politicization and marginalization of the group and lead to inter-ethnic and class-oriented grievances.

Although they are often underestimated, the Syrian refugees have made important contributions to the Turkish economy by creating jobs and transferring their trade networks in recent years. One in three newly established foreign firms in Turkey is owned by a Syrian[7].

         Turkey has indisputably transformed into a country of immigration and refugee over time. However, an ever-increasing number of Turkish citizens are fleeing the country because of political persecution and human rights violations. Especially, the government crackdown on the Gulen Movement, which intensified with the labeling of the movement as a terrorist organization after the July 15 coup attempt, caused to the displacement of tens of thousands of people.

As the government has not compiled or chosen to not to provide any statistics regarding the number of people who left the country due to the conflict between Erdogan and the Gulen Movement, we do not know the actual numbers. Yet, as reported by the media and immigration institutions of the host states, many followers of the movement have applied for asylum in the Western countries since the alleged coup attempt[8]. As a matter of fact, the Gulen Movement is not the first group of political refugees that the country has produced in its modern history. Many people faced political persecution after the military coups in 1970s and 80s applied for political asylum in different countries.

In conclusion, uprootedness is an exceptionally tragic and traumatic human experience. Turkey has been extremely resilient in the management of the Syrian refugee flows, and Syrian refugees are secure from the fear of persecution in Turkey now. However, they are still confronted with the difficulties of navigating in an environment culturally, linguistically, and economically different than their own. In this regard, the integrationist policies of the state, positive attitudes on the part of the public, and the willingness of refugees to integrate into the new society will be critical. The statistics presented below were taken from the website of the Directorate General of Migration of Turkey. They provide important information on the Syrian refugees residing in Turkey.

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[1] Guesthood and hospitality are important components of the culture or social fabric in countries such as Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon that host the most Syrian refugees. They provide an informal structure by which individual and state responsibilities toward refugees are discussed.

[2] https://qz.com/883045/efforts-to-keep-foreigners-out-of-europe-are-working-germany-saw-a-69-drop-in-migrants-last-year/

[3] https://www.gazeteduvar.com.tr/politika/2018/01/28/erdogan-oso-ile-mehmedim-birlikte-yuruyor/

[4] http://www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler-turkiye-38674127

[5] https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/western-europemediterranean/turkey/248-turkeys-syrian-refugees-defusing-metropolitan-tensions

[6] While the minimum wage in the country is $400, the average wage of a Syrian refugee is around $150.

[7] https://hbr.org/2017/04/turkey-badly-needs-a-long-term-plan-for-syrian-refugees

[8] https://www.ocregister.com/2016/08/22/irvines-new-arrivals-turkish-asylum-seekers-after-a-failed-coup-and-a-sadly-successful-purge/, http://irb-cisr.gc.ca/Eng/ResRec/RirRdi/Pages/index.aspx?doc=456718

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