Since 2011, more than 3.2m Syrians are known to have taken refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and a number of other countries. The real scale of the crisis is likely to be much greater, as not all refugees are registered with UNHCR.
In Lebanon, for example, the official figure is 1.1m, but according to the Lebanese government, the number is more than 1.6m. That influx is far too much for a country of roughly 6m people, and Syrians will now face new restrictions to entering the country.
According to the Turkish government’s estimates, 1.6m Syrians are believed to be in Turkey. More than 200,000 of them are accommodated in refugee camps, while the rest of them live in different parts of the country, but particularly in the provinces of the southeast region, such as Gaziantep, Kilis and Hatay.
Turkey has won international praise for running an almost open-door policy for Syrians and providing a high quality response in its refugee camps. On the other hand, a vast majority of Syrians in Turkey live outside those camps, so many that in Kilis, there are now more Syrian refugees than there are Turkish residents.
In short, Turkey is now facing one of the most challenging urban refugee crises in the world – and it may yet get worse.
I spent much of December 2014 in Gaziantep with a team of researchers from the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations. We were investigating Syrian refugees’ prospects for local integration, and examining how refugees and their neighbours manage to establish trust and live side-by-side.
We saw some examples of co-existence at its best – but there were also some alarming social undercurrents ready to overflow at any time.
In Gaziantep, a relatively rich city of 1.8m people, there are hundreds of thousands of officially registered refugees, more than 30,000 of whom are accommodated in camps outside the city. A municipal official we interviewed estimated the overall number to be a staggering 400,000 refugees in Gaziantep state alone.
The majority of them are from the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, which has always had strong ties to Gaziantep, so despite the linguistic differences, host communities and Syrian refugees have a lot in common, and they often refer to each other as “relatives”.
But this communitarian rhetoric is superficial. Just as the official numbers mask the scale of the crisis, the two groups’ differences set the tone of relations much more than their similarities.
One of the main areas of contentions between them is accommodation. Today, many Syrians complain that they are refused leases simply because of who they are. For the poor refugees, what is actually available to rent is often of a very low quality even if they can secure it. In some cases, a number of Syrian families have to share the same apartment or house, sometimes causing significant damage to properties.
This started happening just as most parts of the city had also become unaffordable for many Turkish families, and many well-qualified Turkish teachers and other public workers have now left the city as they can no longer afford to live in it.
Equally, before the refugee influx, Gaziantep was facing a serious shortage of workers for unskilled jobs in its construction and agricultural sectors. Therefore, at least for the private sector, the current refugee influx has been very beneficial, as the supply of cheap informal workers it has dramatically lowered the cost of labour. But that has also badly undercut the wages local workers can expect to earn.
And that problem is set to get worse. The refugee law in Turkey means Syrians cannot register themselves as “refugees”; they are instead accepted to the country as “guests”. Recent changes to the legislation mean they will soon be able to get legal rights to work in the country, which will put even more pressure on local labour markets.
How the other half lives
There are also serious challenges on the social front. Various cultural differences between local people and Syrian refugees, no matter how insignificant they might seem, are causing real tension.
For example, as often cited by our interviewees, Syrians seem to be spending a lot of their time in public parks, especially late at night, and this seems to be a major source of dissatisfaction amongst the local population. Syrians also got a lot of stick for apparently not respecting traffic rules too. Overall, it was quite striking to hear how many of local interviewees referred to Syrians as not being “civilized enough”.
There is also palpable resentment at any display of Syrian affluence. Local residents often raised the question of how, if Syrians are refugees in dire need of help, many can live in nice neighbourhoods and drive expensive cars.
A number of interviewees also mentioned that the way local men (often elderly ones) marry young Syrian women as their second or third wives through religious marriage arrangements creates a huge level of resentment among local women.
The long haul
Most of the refugees we interviewed said they wanted go back to Syria as soon as the war comes to an end. But many have now been living in Turkey for nearly three years, and since the Syrian conflict does not show any signs of coming to an end any time soon, a very substantial percentage of them will probably decide to settle in Turkey permanently.
Loopholes in Turkish legislation might even entitle them to Turkish citizenship after residing in the country for five years, despite living under “guest” status.
Considering that the rich Western countries have so far done so little to open up third-country resettlement options, local integration issues will remain the front line of Turkey’s urban refugee crisis.
From the language barrier to the education of children (which is mostly within the Syrian curriculum at the moment) to employment rights and social relations in general, Turkey urgently needs to figure out effective ways of making local integration work.
The consequences of failure don’t bear thinking about. Do not forget the violent protests that followed the killing of a Turkish landlord by a Syrian refugee in Gaziantep in August 2014, or the further outbreaks of violence against refugees that briefly surged through much of the country.
Unless the challenges of integrating the Syrians are tackled head on, and soon, the problems bubbling away in Gaziantep and beyond will soon boil over.