BACKGROUND: About six million Syrians have been forced to flee since the uprising in Syria started in the spring of 2011, one third of whom have taken shelter in Turkey. The costs for Turkey to deal with the refugee crisis amount to about US$ 4.5 billion. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) officials have been boasting about what they refer to as the government’s “open-door policy” towards Syrians, wowing that, unlike in the West, the plights of destitute refugees would never fall on deaf ears in Turkey, regardless of the costs.
Indeed, the quality of the services and resources in Turkish refugee camps is widely praised by international organizations and media. However, only less than 250,000 live in those twenty-two refugee camps built near the Turkey-Syria border, while more than 1.5 million are scattered around the country and are facing increasingly more difficult circumstances due to diminished funds, lack of public support, employment and education, as well as increasing tension with local communities that sometimes result in fatal clashes. Although Turkish officials admit that Syrians are ‘here to stay’, there seems to be no overall policy or roadmap regarding the integration of such massive numbers of people in sight.
There are two myths regarding the situation of Syrian refugees in Turkey, and they need to be dispelled. First, there is a widespread conviction among international observers that – despite occasional heights of tension here and there – the Turkish population in general has maintained an admirable level of understanding and hospitality towards their Syrian “brothers and sisters in religion” who have escaped from the horrors of civil war. Though this was possibly true at the beginning, the overall public attitude definitely seems to have changed dramatically lately.
A recent survey conducted on the Social Acceptance and Integration of Syrian refugees indicates that almost seventy percent of the population of Turkey neither morally nor materially supports the Syrians. Considering refugees mainly as an economic burden, this significant majority is opposed to providing aid for them when there are poor Turkish citizens who need assistance. Almost two-thirds of the population also believes that the Syrians refugees are responsible for disruptions of peace and order, and that they are a threat to public morals by being involved in crimes. The majority of the host population thinks that ‘strong reactions’ that have occurred in some places against Syrians were justified. In their recent survey Nationalism in Turkey and World, Ali Çarkoğlu and Ersin Kalaycıoğlu reach the strikingly similar conclusion that ‘rather than being considered as our brothers and sisters with whom we are bound through kinship, Syrians are seen as a group intensifying our own social and economic problems.’
Thus it is hardly surprising that the Transatlantic Trends Survey found that two-thirds of Turkish citizens favor a more restrictive refugee policy. Contrary to general belief, there is a widespread and dangerously increasing social tension present in Turkey between the local population and Syrian refugees that requires an urgent and systematic political attention.
IMPLICATIONS: Turkey’s much-praised “open-door policy” is in fact far from being what it sounds like. Due to the ongoing armed conflict in Syria, just a few of the nineteen official Turkish border crossings remain open at any given moment; and not all Syrians who reach there are granted access to Turkish territory. Only those with valid Syrian passports, a minority, are let through. Therefore, the overwhelming majority of the refugees are forced to use irregular entry points, risking their lives passing through minefields and being exposed to the occasional fire of Turkish border guards as well. This has also resulted in the fact that about half of the Syrian refugees in Turkey still remain unregistered and, thus, unaccounted for.
Although Turkey seeks to propagate the image of the “gracious Turkish government” the facts point in another direction: Turkey has ended up with about two million Syrian refugees and is having serious problems in coping with the situation.
Yet it is difficult to argue that the Turkish authorities are doing their utmost to provide even the fundamental legal framework regulating the status of those Syrians who are registered refugees. Due to the geographical limitation clause Turkey still maintains to the 1951 UN Convention and its 1967 Protocol, those who come from outside Europe to seek refuge in Turkey are considered as “guests” and not granted the refugee status that would entitle them to a series of rights and benefits defined under the Convention, including the right to work, housing, education, freedom of movement within the territory, public relief and assistance.
The Temporary Protection Directive, adopted on October 22, 2014, provides a comparatively more solid legal status for ‘temporarily protected’ Syrians; however, it still falls short of granting the refugees their rights in legal terms, mainly guaranteeing “opportunities” that may or may not be realized, depending on the discretion of the authorities.
Lacking any clause acknowledging the international laws on refugees, the directive does not allow them to apply for proper refugee status as long as they remain under the temporary protection status, which can be brought to an end by the authorities at any moment on the basis of extremely ambiguous reasons such as constituting a danger for ‘national security, public order and public security.’
The Turkish government’s insistent refusal to grant Syrians who have taken shelter in Turkey the refugee status -- in the international legal sense of the term -- fits into a larger pattern. It is suggestive of the charity-based —rather than right-based— understanding of social support mechanisms that have come to define the social policies of the AKP regime.
There have been multiple accounts of how widespread networks of patronage have helped secure the AKP’s electoral successes; these networks also fulfill an indispensable function within the larger politico-economic framework of neoliberal restructuring of Turkey. Provided in exchange of political loyalty and financed mainly by the funds gathered through crony capitalistic networks, social benefits and welfare services are provided to the poorest segments of the society exclusively through local party branches and religious charities who, in turn, present them as the “charitable” hand of the government rather than as vested rights of the citizens.
These mechanisms are very much in function with respect to the Syrian refugee issue as well. Converting services and measures that are essentially universally recognized rights of the refugees into its own ”graciously extended hand” that could be withdrawn at any time, the AKP government appears to be treating them as “bargaining chips” in a political game, to be played when most needed.
CONCLUSIONS: Rather than legally ensuring that they are maintained as inalienable rights” of the refugees, the charity perspective is designed to tame those in the receiving end of the deal. It ensures that the Syrian refugees in Turkey are kept in a state of permanent fear of losing what are implicitly presented as ”privileges”, if they ever displease the provider of those privileges in any imaginable way.
The new Turkish refugee legislation effectively accords unlimited freedom to the government agencies to decide over the lives and future of two million Syrian refugees. It leaves the initiation, continuity and cessation of temporarily protected status entirely to the discretion of the authorities; and these are accorded an immense authority to make these decisions on the basis of exceptionally vague principles. This effectively means that the refugees will have to dance to the government’s tune if they wish to remain at a relatively safe distance from the horrors of civil war.
Halil Gürhanlı, a Kone Foundation scholar, is a PhD Candidate of Political Science and part-time lecturer teaching on democratic theory at the Department of Political and Economic Studies, University of Helsinki, Finland.
(Image Attribution: Michael Swan, via Flickr)